How the 1619 Project took over 2020Historians in the News
tags: slavery, Pulitzer Prize, teaching history, 1619 Project, 1776 commission
One morning in mid-September, Nikole Hannah-Jones woke to a text message from a friend noting an unusual event on President Trump’s schedule: the first “White House Conference on American History.”
It might have sounded banal, but Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, sensed a subtext immediately: This was about her and the project she says is the most important work of her career.
Sure enough, that afternoon, Trump thundered from a lectern at the National Archives Museum that “the left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods, and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project.”
You’ve probably heard of it by now. The 1619 Project has emerged as a watchword for our era — a hashtag, a talking point, a journalism case study, a scholarly mission. It is the subject of dueling academic screeds, Fox News segments, publishers’ bidding wars and an upcoming series of Oprah-produced films. It is a Trump rally riff that reliably triggers an electric round of jeers.
And now, at the nation’s most significant moment of racial reckoning since the 1960s, it’s become one of the hottest culture-war battlefields, where the combatants include turf-guarding academics, political ideologues angling for an election-year advantage — and the fearlessly spiky journalism superstar who willed the entire thing into existence.
All of this can make it easy to forget what the 1619 Project was — basically, a collection of smart, provocative magazine articles about the ways slavery shaped our nation. And by the time Hannah-Jones found her work under near-daily attack from brand-name intellectuals, the president of the United States and, as of this week, even the Times’s own opinion section, it was already more than a year old.
Wilentz, who is White, had not succeeded in getting any Black historians to sign on to his letter. But some shared his concerns. Leslie Harris, a history professor at Northwestern who has written extensively about colonial slavery, was contacted in 2019 by a Times fact-checker asking if preserving slavery was a cause of the Revolutionary War. “Immediately, I was like, no, no, that doesn’t sound right,” Harris recalled. She thought the issue was settled — until she was a guest on a radio show with Hannah-Jones and heard the journalist assert that the colonists launched the revolution to preserve slavery. Taken aback, she was unready to argue but retreated to her car nearly in tears: A fan of the 1619 Project’s mission, she knew the claim could be consequential. “Given how high-profile this was, if this was really wrong, it was —” she paused, punctuating each word. “Really. Going. To. Be. Wrong.”
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