What is a 1619 project

Where does US history begin - 1619 or 1776?

July 4th, as every child in America knows, is the birthday of the United States. Because on the Fourth of July 1776 the then 13 colonies declared their independence and called themselves the United States of America. Since then, the day has marked the beginning of the country's history and has also shaped the American self-image of a state built on freedom and justice from the start.

The vision of America in the 1619 Project is quite different. In August 2019, the "New York Times Magazine" described the first documented sale of African slaves to American colonists in August 1619 as the true beginning of the country's history (true founding). To mark the 400th anniversary of this event off the coast of Virginia, the magazine published twelve essays on the central role of slavery in the development of the United States and its formative influence up to the present: on the economy and the judicial system, music, spatial planning, health care and other areas .

Mocked ideals

Overall, the series of articles depicts an American history marked by slavery and white dominance, which embodies the "self-evident truths" of the equality of all people and their "inalienable rights" not only at the time of their proclamation in the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, but also well over a hundred years later mocked.

In the introductory essay on the "Idea of ​​America", Nikole Hannah-Jones, initiator of the project and permanent staff member of the magazine, underlined the sheer achievement of the African slaves and their descendants who were abducted to America: Not only did they help the country through their field work - in "forced labor camps" , not plantations, as the text made clear - to material wealth and built symbols such as the Capitol and the White House for the much admired American democracy. Rather, according to Hannah-Jones' thesis, it was only the struggle of the slaves and their descendants for their equality that nearly made the ideals proclaimed by the founding fathers come true.

“Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its ideals. […] It is we who have completed this democracy. ”We, by which the author means the American population, who descended from African slaves, to which Hannah-Jones, who came from mixed marriage, counts herself. Furthermore, the preservation of slavery for the American colonists was "one of the main reasons" for splitting off from the English crown.

Resistance from the left outside

Resistance was the first to stir against this last thesis. In autumn 2019 the rather obscure “World Socialist Website” felt called to intervene with a series of in-depth interviews with prominent historians from renowned American universities. The organ of the “global Trotskyist movement and the International Committee of the Fourth International” came up against the idea of ​​a history based on racial conflict and not on class struggle. The interviewed professors were more concerned with the correctness of historical facts and their weighting. Despite express sympathy for the endeavors of the 1619 Project, at the end of 2019 five historians called in a letter to the New York Times to publish “prominent corrections of all errors and distortions” of the 1619 Project. The editors commented in detail, but refused to make corrections.

Among the academics, Sean Wilentz, a history professor at Princeton University, stood out as the lead author of the letter to The Times. Others, including James McPherson (also Princeton) and Gordon S. Wood (Brown), spoke in interviews of their surprise at never having been consulted about the 1619 project. Leslie Harris, a professor of history at Northwestern University, described her involvement in the project as “I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me ".

"Finally truthful"

In the spring of 2020, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the 1619 Project, albeit in the commentary, not history, category, as critics have liked to point out. In fact, her essay is neither classic journalism nor historiography. Hannah-Jones ’text is personal, largely in the first person, and she illustrates her theses through the story of her own family.

Although the project claims to “finally tell our story truthfully”, it does not provide any references or a bibliography. In addition, the “New York Times Magazine” developed a six-part podcast and a curriculum for school lessons. And almost all of the authors, photographers and artists involved in the project are blacks, explained Hannah-Jones and spoke of a "non-negotiable aspect" to emphasize the thesis of the project.

Only the late point in time was astonishing when Donald Trump sensed an opportunity in the autumn of 2020 to make political capital out of the increasingly heated debate. He threatened school districts that took over the 1619 curriculum to prohibit funding and appointed a "1776 commission". Without a single historian specializing in American history, the commission's aim was to defend the ideals postulated on July 4, 1776. "We will - we must - always keep these truths," the commission said in its report, which the Princeton historian Wilentz said was "about the same distance" from historical truth as the 1619 Project.

The arc of the moral universe

The hybrid form and the ambition of the entire project to rewrite American history were the main points of criticism of the virtually permanent debate about the 1619 Project in election year 2020, not least in the "New York Times" itself. Their columnist Bret Stephens declared the project to have failed journalistically and accused the authors of monocausal thinking. "Slavery - and the anti-black racism it presupposes - has created almost everything that really makes America exceptional," the New York Times Magazine had claimed in its introduction at the time. Almost everything? Stephens rightly asked and recalled historical achievements, from the American Constitution to the Marshall Plan to the moon landing.

In addition to historical facts, the tone of the project and its vision of America was also regularly criticized in the liberal media. Conor Reinsdorf of the "Atlantic" wrote, for example, that the year 1776 was the more appropriate beginning for America than 1619, because "to understand the ideals raised in the Declaration of Independence as our origin increases the pressure to do justice to them".

Such visions of the beginning of the United States, based largely on wishful thinking, are reminiscent of a picture familiar from American politics of the goal of its history: the "arc of the moral universe", as Martin Luther King said, is long, but ultimately inclines to justice. Barack Obama used the King quote regularly, had it woven into the carpet of his Oval Office and sometimes added: Progress is not achieved in a straight line, but in a zigzag. "But what makes America exceptional is that we will eventually get it right." (Eventually, America gets it right.)

Like the traditional narrative of a free and just state, questioned by the New York Times Magazine, the idea of ​​a just outcome is based on belief in a better future and the uniqueness of America. In essence, the broad appeal of the 1619 Project signals that many Americans are no longer unreservedly ready to give their country the necessary leap of faith.