In Defense of the “1619 Project”

In Defense of the "1619 Project"
Screenshot from “The 1619 Project.” (New York Times, “The 1619 Project”)

On Thursday, July 23, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the Saving American History Act of 2020. The bill would “prohibit [f]ederal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools.” 

The “1619 Project” is the brainchild of New York Times staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones. The project was born in August of 2019—exactly 400 years after the first ship of enslaved Africans docked in Virginia in August of 1619—with the goal:

“To reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

The project began in August 2019 with a special edition of New York Times Magazine containing a series of essays on aspects of contemporary American life that are rooted in slavery—from mass incarceration to the racial wealth gap. These essays were paired with 17 literary works and a partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as a podcast

“Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of Black Americans,” Hannah-Jones writes in the introductory essay, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.”

She breaks down the nuanced construction of American slavery—namely, how “it was not conditional but racial. It was heritable and permanent, not temporary, meaning generations of Black people were born into it and passed their enslaved status onto their children.”

Of course, neither slavery nor Black history began in 1619—but American slavery did, introducing to the world the concept that a people could be permanently enslaved because of the color of their skin, and that that enslavement could be passed onto the next generation.

This critical nuance is consistently omitted from the American conception of slavery and its role in the building of U.S. as a nation. And this, among the countless other misconceptions and untruths that make up much of American curriculums on slavery, is what The “1619 Project” aims to rectify.

In Defense of the "1619 Project"
“Auction & Negro sales” on Whitehall Street in Atlanta, September 1864. (J. Tewell / Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0)

U.S. Education Fails to Teach Slavery

If, like Senator Cotton, you believe that slavery is taught perfectly well in the United States, Nikita Stewart’s essay “Why Can’t We Teach Slavery Right in American Schools“—included in the project—should convince you otherwise. 

Stewart shows the pervasive “slavery illiteracy” in schools in plain facts: Over one-third of students in one study believed the Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery (it was actually the 13th amendment that did); and 92 percent of students did not know that slavery was the central cause of the Civil War. 

Part of the issue around teaching slavery in the U.S. undoubtedly stems from the fact that over 80 percent of public school teachers in this country are white, as are 85 percent of private school teachers.

Additionally, there are no nationally set standards around teaching history (unlike standards in place for math and reading). This allows for lessons around slavery to include whatever the teacher deems appropriate—which often leads to teachers censoring crucial information or downplaying the lasting impact of slavery. 

In response to the Stewart article, the Times published a series of responses from readers recounting their own flawed educations in slavery. The anecdotes, representing multiple generations and states (North and South), ranged from a teacher reporting that slaves were “sad” when slavery ended; to being taught slavery through the lens of the “Lost Cause” theory (that the Civil War came about due to the North infringing on the rights of Southern states); to 11-year-olds being taught about the Civil War by holding a debate on the merits of slavery.

In that particular classroom, the pro-slavery team won.

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It’s been proven that slavery is not taught effectively in U.S. schools. So as a part of the “1619 Project,” the Pulitzer Center posted a comprehensive collection of free lesson plans, readings and videos around slavery for different ages and grades. These materials not only center 1619 as the birth year of the U.S., but also draw together the lasting impact and reverberations of slavery, mentioning issues such as mass incarceration and police brutality.

Cotton Calls “1619 Project” “Anti-American Rot”

This is precisely what Sen. Cotton is so deeply concerned about: the movement of American education away from the dogma of American exceptionalism.

In Defense of the "1619 Project"
Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) introduced the Saving American History Act of 2020, to “prohibit [f]ederal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools.” (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cotton said: 

“The 1619 Project is left-wing propaganda, it’s revisionist history at its worst. …

“If local, left-wing school boards want to fill their children’s head[s] with anti-American rot, that’s their regrettable choice. But they ought not to benefit from federal tax dollars to teach America’s children to hate America … The entire premise of the New York Times factually and historically flawed 1619 Project— which, even liberal history professors, of all people, have criticized as inaccurate and poorly written— is that America is at root, a systemically racist country, to the core, and irredeemable. I reject that … America is a great and noble country, founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal. We have always struggled to live up to that promise, but no country has ever done more to achieve it.”

In these remarks, Sen. Cotton fails to recognize how, in fact, this country has done remarkably little in the past few decades to achieve the promise of equality—especially in comparison to other countries with similarly shameful histories in human or civil rights violations, like South Africa or Germany (though recently, Germany too has begun to struggle anew in taking responsibility).

Cotton also brings up the “liberal history professors” who have critiqued the “1619 Project”—such as Professor Sean Wilentz, who has challenged the accuracy of the project since its inception. One professor, who Wilentz attempted to recruit to his crusade against the “1619 Project,” told the Atlantic that, while it was not how she would write the history:

“I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of Black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way. So I support the ‘1619 Project’ as kind of a cultural event. For Sean and his colleagues, true history is how they would write it.

This is what the 1619 Project offers: comprehensive scholarship of Black life, history and influence in the U.S.—radically—by Black Americans.

It is no wonder white historians and senators alike feel threatened; Cotton’s feet are firmly planted in the faith of American exceptionalism, so to him and those who share his beliefs, a curriculum that reveals a not-so-exceptional U.S. is earth-shattering. 

The “1619 Project” is a critical call to action for the U.S. to take responsibility for slavery and its long-term consequences. And, perhaps even more importantly, it takes decisive action to repair the educational standard around slavery and all the ways its influence continues to permeate the United States.


Gavi Klein is a senior at Brandeis University majoring in American studies with minors in Italian studies and journalism. She is a contributor at Ms.