The New York Times ignited debate with the publication of the 1619 Project months before communities across the United States would rise against the police murder of George Floyd. Published on the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved African people in Virginia, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s series provides a necessary corrective to historical white-washing by situating slavery and the experience of Black Americans at the center of the story of the United States (New York Times). The school curriculum based on the project is free and supported by the Pulitzer Center; you can explore it here. According to Hannah-Jones, the project is being taught in at least one school in every state in the country and deemed mandatory in several, including Chicago Public Schools (74 Million).
Much of our perspective on U.S. history is influenced by the “Lost Cause” narrative, the persistent idea that the Confederacy seceded to maintain “the southern way of life” through a “campaign” that was the “embodiment of the Framers’ true vision for America,” not a war to maintain slavery (The Atlantic). This idea gained popularity during the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the first president to hail from the South since the Civil War.
• Read and/or review the 1619 Project and discuss one of the articles with a friend or colleague this week.
This kind of thinking informed the textbooks created to educate our country on its history. The American Pageant, an AP high school textbook used by at least five million students annually (CBS News), shows evidence of this to this day. In the text of its 15th edition, Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings, a teenager enslaved by him, is described as “intimacy” and an “affair” (NYTimes). The 17th (current) edition includes a map of “immigrants” to America in 1775. It has Africans at the top of the list alongside Dutch, German, and Scottish people, insinuating that African people came to the U.S. willingly, not in chains. The book doesn’t mention the N-word but does include a thorough list of slurs used against poor white people (CBS News).
The Southern Poverty Law Center reviewed dozens of history textbooks and graded them based on what they deemed a comprehensive education of slavery. The best textbook achieved a score of 70% against their rubric. The American Pageant received a 60% (Southern Poverty Law Center).
Unsurprisingly, The American Pageant does little to represent other communities of color. The book also says that disease was the cause of the genocide of Indigenous people and that “this depopulation was surely not intended by the Spanish” (Independent).
I don’t remember ever going into any depth about slavery other than that there was slavery. The textbooks were pretty whitewashed. We never talked about the conditions of slavery or why it persisted.”
Philip Jackson, an American history teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, for the Washington Post.
Because the vast majority (84% in 2016) of educators are white, many are unequipped or unwilling to address slavery and its impact (Southern Poverty Law Center). A substitute teacher in New Jersey let the white students sell the Black students as a mock slave auction (Washington Post). On a worksheet entitled “The Life of Slaves: A Balanced View,” a teacher in Texas asked her eighth-grade students in American history class to list some of the positives and negatives of slavery (AP News). And middle-schoolers in North Carolina were prompted to write down “four reasons why Africans made good slaves” (WBTV). As a result of such educational deficits, less than half of Americans knew that slavery existed in all 13 colonies. About half of Americans didn’t know slavery was the leading cause of the Civil War. And more Americans believe that the Emancipation Proclamation, not the 13th Amendment, outlawed slavery which is incorrect (Washington Post).
In trying to correct these failings and misinformation, the 1619 Project was met with a surge of white resentment that continues today. In July 2020, Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton proposed a bill seeking to ban schools from adopting the project as a part of their curriculum, calling slavery a “necessary evil” and that the notion that America is a “systemically racist country” is false (Washington Post). President Trump then said he’d sign an executive order “establishing a national commission to promote patriotic education” in response (NPR). The rage against an objective accounting of U.S. history now takes the form of “anti-critical race theory” campaigns. There are at least 27 statewide “anti-CRT” efforts to date (Chalkbeat). As we fight them, we can take direct action to create spaces for real anti-racist education in book clubs, community organizations, or informal reading circles, whether we’re students or not.
“No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them,” wrote Assata Shakur, political activist and former Black Liberation Army member. “Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that knowledge will help set you free” (libcom, 181).
• Right-wing outrage at the 1619 Project evolved into anti-CRT campaigns.
• Oppression and resistance, like that of enslaved Black people and their descendants, are written out of the sanitized version of U.S. history.
• Many U.S. residents have factually incorrect understandings of major historical events as a result.