The verdict is in: The idea that America’s real founding was in 1619 does not wash. And yet, it will be considered a mark of sophistication to pretend otherwise.
Since last August, The New York Times has asked us to consider that America’s real founding was not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to these shores. Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches that the Revolutionary War was fought mainly not to escape British tyranny, but out of fear that British tyranny was about to threaten the institution of slavery.
Stimulating proposition, but professional historians, as modern academics about as enlightened on issues of race and racism as any humans on the planet, have politely but firmly declared that the facts simply do not bear out this take on our nation’s founding. Gordon Wood and others wrote careful and authoritative pieces to this effect, and more recently Sean Wilentz has penned a careful response to the inevitable pushback. Unless fact is not fact, unless documentation is forgery, no unbiased observer could read Wilentz here as partisan or as even swayed by subconscious racism.
After the first round of criticisms, we were invited to recall the early 20th century Dunning School of academic history—named after one William Archibald Dunning, a man with no purchase at all upon modern consciousness—that decried Reconstruction as a desecration of a noble South. Okay, we shall recall it. I am dutifully recalling it now as I write. It sucked. But in the here and now, when the Dunning School adherents are long gone, Hannah-Jones’ analysis is wrong, tout court.
Crucially, however, we can be quite sure that no one connected to The 1619 Project will admit that. Already, the Times stated that it would not revise the basic claims after the first letter of critique. Meanwhile, while none of us have crystal balls, it is distinctly difficult to imagine Hannah-Jones or anyone else simply admitting that they got the history wrong—especially as podcasts and teaching materials based on the 1619 perspective are now being distributed for the delectation of the nation at large.
The 1619 idea is already set, then, as a meme. We can be sure from here on it will be treated as a mark of enlightenment to ever “consider” that America at least “could” be supposed to have begun in 1619, roughly, “because slavery.” This chardonnay wisdom will be considered as unquestionable in polite society as climate change—despite the fact that unlike climate change, the 1619 idea is not supported by empirical evidence.
The problem here is the general assumption that on race issues, empiricism is but one pathway to the truth, with a larger goal being to identify and revile racism in all of its facets, a goal so paramount that where necessary, we are to elide fact and consider instead what we might call—especially à propos the 1619 case—a narrative.
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Only this perspective can explain how serenely professional historians’ takedown of The 1619 Project will be ignored. Of late, social justice warrior ideology has been deemed a new religion by many writers, Vox writer Matthew Yglesias’ term “The Great Awokening” being especially apt. The 1619 idea is an almost uncanny embodiment of this new way of thinking.
For one, note the suspension of disbelief we are expected to maintain. Supposedly the Founding Fathers were trying to protect slavery, despite never actually making such a goal clear for the historical record, and at a time when there would have been no shame in doing so. What are the chances that this supposed revelation would have slept undiscovered until now, when for almost 50 years, humanities academics of all colors have been committed to their socks to unearthing racism in the American fabric? Can we really believe that a group of journalists writing for the Times has unboxed such a key historical revelation from reading around, that no one else of any color has chosen to trumpet in the mainstream media for decades?
Hogwash, clearly. And yet it will be considered the height of insolence to address the decisive historical observations of historians like Wilentz. Here and only here, serious academic chops don’t matter. We are to think of a broader goal—endlessly and liturgically attesting to the racism that black people have suffered from—as licensing a fantastical way of thinking. People like Wilentz will be classified as nattering nuisances who just don’t “get it,” callously prizing the literal over what is “deeper,” as if they were requiring that someone today walk on water before subscribing to Christianity. That is, people who insist on the truth will be classified as blasphemers.
Then, the parallel with Christianity seems almost deliberate in that the 1619 idea lends the American story an original sin. Already, the Great Awokening’s emphasis on white privilege has constituted such a concept on the level of the individual. As even children are now often inculcated in the concept, we have a substitute for the idea that we are born stained, and always will be. One can only endlessly “testify” to the stain throughout life, in hopes of being “saved” at some point in prosperity—Christianity calls it Judgment Day, anti-racism terms it “When America Gets Past Race.”
But now we have a true Genesis-style scenario under which, at the very outset, a ship brings Africans to this land in 1619 and everything that happens here afterward is rooted in the unjustifiable bondage of those human beings and what was connected to it. Now, not only does the American individual harbor the original sin of being born privileged, but America itself is a product of a grand original sin, permeating the entire physical, sociological, and psychological fabric of the nation, to an extent no one could ever hope to undo, and for which any apology would be insufficient to the point of irrelevance.
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The air of the epic, the mythical, here is not an accident. Among people without writing, history is preserved orally, in epics where the line between fact and legend is porous. This is because when there is no writing available to preserve insignificant details such as what Franklin Pierce’s wife’s name was, history is approached in a utilitarian fashion, to inspire and counsel living people about matters of urgency in their current lives. The 1619 idea, presented as enlightenment, is actually a rejection of history in favor of what we might call lore.
The attraction of something that seems so atavistic is that the 1619 myth will feel, like so many legends do worldwide, useful. Black Americans were treated like animals for centuries and then subjected to Jim Crow. It would be surprising if the race’s self-image was not damaged by this history. As such, the 1619 idea joins many others in bolstering the black American soul with the substitute pride of noble victimhood. If you are a member of a race whose subjugation is part of the very DNA of the nation, it renders anything one does well a kind of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat (if only at generations’ remove) and in general lends one a way of feeling significant, distinct, special.
Whites, in the meantime, seek absolution from the acrid charge of being racists. One way to do so is to concur with and support not only anti-racist policies and ideas, but ideology even when it slips the bounds of logic. One learns not to question, this often phrased as “I can’t know what they go through.” Hence, 1619 becomes truth.
Some might wonder what’s wrong with a little bit of mythology in our historical conceptions, or with even a little bit of mythology in how we process the present. “Let us tell our own story,” we will hear—with a sense that there is something small in asking any real questions. And indeed, there are times when we must allow basal responses their space.
For example, a major wellspring of today’s comfort with treating race issues as fables is the O.J. Simpson media circus. Here, not just the intelligentsia but a great many black people beyond it studiously refused to acknowledge the rather plain evidence that Simpson murdered two people. In the present tense this was irritating to many (including me). However, with more perspective—which I gradually came to understand—few could fail to sympathize at least somewhat with the fact that the acquittal of Simpson was processed as vigilante justice after how Los Angeles black people had suffered at the hands of the police for eons.
A line from film director John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance advised “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and in selected cases, maybe we should. But the 1619 business is not one of them.
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For example, amid the superficial satisfactions—and that is what they are—of casting America as a grand original sin, what is the actual purpose of teaching young people that a grievous injustice against black people is the very warp and woof of our polity? What is the endgame? In which way will an America in thrall to this conception be better?
Surely, non-black people will feel a little guiltier about “the black thing,” and internalize a reluctance to assign black people true culpability out of a sense that “they” have been through too much to be expected to perform at the level of other people. Few things more crisply demonstrate that the Civil Rights revolution has gone off the rails than that so many smart black people actually see this condescending poster child status as civic improvement.
Meanwhile, black people will internalize an even deeper sense that America is not great and doesn’t like them, in the only country they will ever know. We are now to instruct black kids just a few years past diapers in this way of thinking—in studied despair over events far in the past, and a sense that it is more enlightened to think of yourself as a victim than as an actor. At no other point in human history have any people, under any degree of oppression, conceived of this kind of self-image as healthy—and no one could effectively argue that they were missing something that we have just figured out.
Another problem: There was a time when you could print the legend and after a short time it was hard to unearth what the truth had been. The Tawana Brawley hoax in 1987 was one of those legends, and for some years afterward, to learn the truth beyond its announcement mostly in the New York area during a news cycle or two required trawling microfilm or spending time in a big library paging through old bound magazines.
These days, however, the truth on these matters will always be easily available. Anyone will always be able to read the truth about 1619 on their phones instantly—and legions of teenagers and beyond will do so. Just as people might come to question Sunday school catechism as they mature, the 1619 scripture will be something fed to young people who will easily find out later that it wasn’t real by just reading around a bit. Again, how will that be an improvement over now?
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The insistence on maintaining the 1619 idea is rooted in a pervasive modern notion that when evaluating race issues, it is a form of intelligence and morality to duck truth when it is inconvenient to a victimhood-focused construct. W.E.B. Du Bois tackled the Dunning School with facts; today people sensing themselves as his heirs insist we accept alternative facts. Yet, to point out that neither Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, nor Martin Luther King Jr. would see this as progress renders one a heretic. This is one more thing we must overcome.
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