The muddle at the middle of the 1619 Project
An unresolved contradiction still plagues the controversial history as it releases in book form
What does it mean to tell a country's story?
In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine proposed one answer to this question for the United States. A package of essays taking up an entire issue of the magazine aimed, in the words of an introductory statement, "to reframe the country's history" by treating the arrival of the first African slaves in 1619 "as our true founding, and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are."
The 1619 Project generated a lot of accolades and awards but also considerable criticism. Some of the critique focused on examples of interpretive overstatement and historical inaccuracies. But the broader objection concerned this sweeping language, which could be found throughout the package and which played an especially prominent part in one essay, by sociologist Matthew Desmond, focused on the supposedly decisive influence of slavery on the distinctive "brutality" of American capitalism.
In response, the project's creator and lead editor, Nikole Hannah-Jones, came to insist that talk of 1619 as the country's "true founding" had always been "metaphoric." Accordingly, the introductory statement to the project was amended online to remove such language, though it still insisted slavery and its legacy should be placed "the very center of our national narrative." Meanwhile, Magazine editor Jake Silverstein began to speak about the project in more cautious and nuanced terms, claiming it was merely "intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in the telling of our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life."
So which is it? Does the 1619 Project aim to place slavery and its legacy at the core of the nation's history? Or is its point merely to add complication to that history?
Quite a lot rides on the answer to these questions. The first goal turns the project into an expression of radical political activism that seeks to substitute a form of agitprop for properly nuanced scholarship. The second is broadly compatible with and even advances a form of the agonistic liberal pluralism on which productive national discourse in a free society depends.
To judge from a new essay by Silverstein in the latest issue of the Magazine, keyed to the publication this week of the book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, the project's creators remain enmeshed in this contradiction, unsure of how to resolve it.
The essay is about American historiography — the history of how American history has been written — and how the 1619 Project fits into that history. Silverstein begins this examination by once again describing the project's ambition, which was to make the "bold claim" that 1619 "could, in a sense, be considered the country's origin." This is a restatement of the project's original, since removed, assertion about how the arrival of African slaves in the colonies constituted the country's "true founding," albeit now with an added hedge ("in a sense"). Similar language appears a few lines later, where we read that "the 1619 Project made the provocative case that the start of the African presence in the English North American colonies could be considered the moment of inception of the United States of America."
Yet mixed in with these bold claims are other implied hedges. Enslavement, we are told, was "not marginal to the history of the United States," but that doesn't mean other practices haven't been important. Our traditions and institutions "were shaped by slavery," but that doesn't mean other influences haven't mattered. Our "persistent racial inequalities stem from" slavery's "enduring legacy," but not exclusively. Enslaved Africans "and their free descendants ... profoundly alter[ed] the direction and character of the country, having an impact on everything from politics to popular culture," but other historical actors presumably altered the direction and character of the country in other ways.
All of which is indisputably true. No professionally trained historian writing in good faith about the American past in 2021 would dispute that Black history is a crucially important aspect of the American story. Though many of those historians would strenuously object to the suggestion that the arrival of slaves in the United States marked "the moment of inception" for the country and that slavery's legacy stands at the very center of what the country is and stands for.
That's the contradiction — and it weaves its way through the remainder of Silverstein's essay, producing moments of unintended tension in his account of American historiography.
That account begins in the 19th century with histories of the country in which slavery is barely present at all and entirely peripheral when it does appear. It continues on as mostly Black writers and historians press the case for the inclusion of the Black experience into the research and writing of the nation's history. This process, Silverstein claims, is "not simply an academic exercise." It is "inherently political." Yet it also supposedly brings us "toward transparency" and produces a "clearing away of spin."
But what's revealed when the spin stops and transparency has been achieved? In addition to recounting how scholars incorporated slavery and its legacy into historical research, Silverstein notes that this shift marked the end of "a single master narrative" of American history. What has replaced it? In the title of his essay ("A Nation of Argument") and in select passages of it, Silverstein talks of uniformity being succeeded by multiplicity and contentiousness. But in other passages, he says something else, even quoting historian Nathan Irvin Huggins about the need for "new myths and a revised master narrative" that would "bring slavery and the persistent oppression of race from the margins to the center" (italics added).
There's the alternative again: Does progress toward historical transparency issue in a greater appreciation for the complexity of the past and the end of single master narratives? Or does it culminate in an alternative, upside-down master narrative in which the former heroes become the villains and the oppressed rise up to define the whole, taking their seats at the very center of the historical and national action?
Do we get centerlessness? Or a new, more politically progressive center?
Those behind the 1619 Project can't seem to decide. In their original formulations of the project, they seemed to incline toward the second option, adopting the sweeping, simplifying modes of argument that's common to left-wing activists and which is rewarded by online traffic and social-media buzz. The subtitle of the project in book form (A New Origin Story) tilts in this direction, too. But under criticism — and even more so when responding to the explicitly political "1776 Commission" spearheaded by the Trump administration — they have gone in the opposite direction, staking out a more nuanced position, defending scholarly complication against the civic myth-making of conservative critics.
It's important that Silverstein and his colleagues pick a lane and stick to it.
I, for one, hope they opt for the path of centerlessness and eschew the comforting moral simplifications of radical activists no less than the pious homilies favored by the right. That would place the 1619 Project firmly in the camp of an agonistic style of liberalism that is fully compatible with politics in a free society. It would exemplify, too, the complexity that is the destiny of thoughtful individuals who seek to learn honestly from the past.