1619 Project editor responds to criticism from the Atlantic (Update)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead author and editor of the NY Times’ 1619 Project, has responded to the Atlantic piece published yesterday. Given the way she and the NY Times have shrugged off criticism from professional historians in the past few weeks, it probably won’t surprise you that she is dismissing a fellow journalist’s critique out of hand.

https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1214540697216397315

Isn’t that sort of the nature of ideals? They present an idealized view of what a messy reality could or should be. Hannah-Jones doesn’t accuse author Conor Friedersdorf of racism but she insinuates that his “discomfort” shows he has unresolved issues which he needs to “contemplate.”

https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1214541902458032128

This sounds a lot like the white fragility argument which frames push back from whites as proof that further lessons are needed. It’s a convenient argument which renders all disagreement suspect from the outset (either proof of latent racism or false consciousness).

As I wrote yesterday, the argument Friedersdorf was making was that the 1619 Project portrays American history primarily as story about racial conflict between blacks and whites at the expense of focusing on the universal ideas and broader desire for freedom and self-determination that were proclaimed at the nation’s founding. To make this case, the Project portrayed the Revolutionary War as significantly motivated by a desire to avoid freeing slaves. That take on the Revolution is one of the major reasons Pulitzer Prize winning historian Gordon Wood has criticized the Project. From Wood’s response to the NY Times:

I have spent my career studying the American Revolution and cannot accept the view that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” I don’t know of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves. No colonist expressed alarm that the mother country was out to abolish slavery in 1776. If southerners were concerned about losing their slaves, why didn’t they make efforts to ally with the slaveholding planters in the British West Indies? Perhaps some southern slaveholders were alarmed by news of the Somerset decision, but we don’t have any evidence of that. Besides, that decision was not known in the colonies until the fall of 1772 and by that date the colonists were well along in their drive to independence. Remember, it all started in 1765 with the Stamp Act. The same is true of Dunmore’s proclamation of 1775. It may have tipped the scales for some hesitant Virginia planters, but by then the revolutionary movement was already well along in Virginia.

There is no evidence in 1776 of a rising movement to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, as the 1619 Project erroneously asserts, nor is there any evidence the British government was eager to do so. But even if either were the case, ending the Atlantic slave trade would have been welcomed by the Virginia planters, who already had more slaves than they needed. Indeed, the Virginians in the years following independence took the lead in moving to abolish the despicable international slave trade.

So when Hannah-Jones says the 1619 Project is about “assessing the legacy of racialized chattel slavery” I think she’s downplaying her own ambition a bit in order to sidestep Friedersdorf’s point. I haven’t seen Gordon Wood or anyone object to 1619 on the grounds that it reassesses the importance of slavery in American history. On the contrary it has been praised by most of the critics for doing so (including Friedersdorf). What Fridersdorf objected to was the idea that 1619 is an equal or better starting point for American history.

As Hannah-Jones wrote in her essay, “the year 1619 is as important to the American story as 1776.” She also wrote, “Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written.” Here’s her take on the ideals in the Declaration:

In June 1776, Thomas Jefferson sat at his portable writing desk in a rented room in Philadelphia and penned these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” For the last 243 years, this fierce assertion of the fundamental and natural rights of humankind to freedom and self-governance has defined our global reputation as a land of liberty. As Jefferson composed his inspiring words, however, a teenage boy who would enjoy none of those rights and liberties waited nearby to serve at his master’s beck and call. His name was Robert Hemings, and he was the half brother of Jefferson’s wife, born to Martha Jefferson’s father and a woman he owned. It was common for white enslavers to keep their half-black children in slavery. Jefferson had chosen Hemings, from among about 130 enslaved people that worked on the forced-labor camp he called Monticello, to accompany him to Philadelphia and ensure his every comfort as he drafted the text making the case for a new democratic republic based on the individual rights of men.

It has been pointed out elsewhere but it’s worth repeating that there’s a difference between saying the nation (Jefferson in particular) wasn’t living up to the ideals and saying the ideals themselves were false. The former is undeniably true and the latter is not a historical claim but something else.

That’s what I took Friedersdorf to be saying. The founding of America in 1776 was based on ideals that were worthy and important and true, even if America wasn’t true to them. And because of that, 1776 is both the actual and moral starting point of a nation that still had a long, long way to go to realize those ideals. Downplaying or supplanting that starting point is not a small thing. At a minimum, the significance of 1776 and the Declaration is something Americans ought to be able to discuss without being told, in essence, to shut up and quietly contemplate their discomfort.

Update: Hannah-Jones retweeted this claim which seems pretty clearly aimed at Friedersdorf and the Atlantic. Again, not quite calling her opponents racist but if history was an “aggressively racist enterprise” and critics are guilty of trying to “reasssert the traditional status quo”…you can connect the dots.

Also worth noting that many circling the wagons around 1619 seems to view the Atlantic piece as an attempted “takedown.” But the piece was a critique not an attempt to bash indiscriminately.

Update: The ongoing argument over this is interesting. The historian whose tweet I included above was involved in a discussion over her critique of the project (she was one of the historians who was interviewed by the World Socialist Website). This morning she’s being chided for allowing her criticism to fall into the hands of dreaded conservatives.

And here’s the problem: “you have allowed others to overplay your critique in order to serve to discredit the project as a whole”

The problem is “The Right writ large” which is seizing, absolutely seizing, on the criticisms.

And here’s Hannah-Jones tagging on to this argument:

https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1214601765192122368

https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1214605832555548678

If the problem is that you believe criticism is being overblown (and Hannah-Jones clearly believes that to be the case) make that argument. But this person whose argument she’s tagging on to seems to be arguing it would be better for critics to remain silent than hand the right a cudgel to use against the Project. I think it’s already clear that this is precisely why some historians who agree with the critics have remained silent or refused to add their voices to the letter.

In my colleague Adam Serwer’s recent article about five scholars who criticized the 1619 Project in a letter, he noted “a recurrent theme” among historians he spoke with who saw the letter but declined to sign it. “While they may have agreed with some of the factual objections in the letter or had other reservations of their own,” he wrote, “several told me they thought the letter was an unnecessary escalation.” Similarly, North told me the World Socialist Web Site’s editors contacted several historians who have factual critiques but fear the backlash from voicing them publicly. Insofar as such historians are refraining from public comment at all, they do a disservice to public discourse.

And yet, elsewhere Hannah-Jones is claiming vindication from the fact that so few signed the letter. The question isn’t how many but why? As this entire post shows, the critics are taking a pounding. It’s no surprise many don’t want to sign up for that.

Update: There was apparently another, not very nice response to Friedersdorf from Hannah-Jones which has since been deleted. If I come across a screenshot I’ll post it.

https://twitter.com/PhilWMagness/status/1214229001499230208