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On Jan. 28, 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine since 2015, came to one of our weekly ideas meetings with a very big idea. My notes from the meeting simply say, “NIKOLE: special issue on the 400th anniversary of African slaves coming to U.S.,” a milestone that was approaching that August. This wasn’t the first time Nikole had brought up 1619. As an investigative journalist who often focuses on racial inequalities in education, Nikole has frequently turned to history to explain the present. Sometimes, reading a draft of one of her articles, I’d ask if she might include even more history, to which she would remark that if I gave her more space, she would be happy to take it all the way back to 1619. This was a running joke, but it was also a reflection of how Nikole had been cultivating the idea for what became the 1619 Project for many years. Following that January meeting, she led an editorial process that over the next six months developed the idea into a special issue of the magazine, a special section of the newspaper and a multiepisode podcast series. Next week we are publishing a book that expands on the magazine issue and represents the fullest expression of her idea to date.
This book, which is called “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” arrives amid a prolonged debate over the version of the project we published two years ago. That project made a bold claim, which remains the central idea of the book: that the moment in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies that would become the United States could, in a sense, be considered the country’s origin.
The reasoning behind this is simple: Enslavement is not marginal to the history of the United States; it is inextricable. So many of our traditions and institutions were shaped by slavery, and so many of our persistent racial inequalities stem from its enduring legacy. Identifying the start of such a vast and complex system is a somewhat symbolic act. It was not until the late 1600s that slavery became codified with new laws in various colonies that firmly established the institution’s racial basis and dehumanizing structure. But 1619 marks the earliest beginnings of what would become this system. (It also could be said to mark the earliest beginnings of what would become American democracy: In July of that year, just weeks before the White Lion arrived in Point Comfort with its human cargo, the Virginia General Assembly was called to order, the first elected legislative body in English America.)
But the argument for 1619 as our origin point goes beyond the centrality of slavery; 1619 was also the year that a heroic and generative process commenced, one by which enslaved Africans and their free descendants would profoundly alter the direction and character of the country, having an impact on everything from politics to popular culture. “Around us the history of the land has centered for thrice a hundred years,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1903, and it is difficult to argue against extending his point through the century to follow, one that featured a Black civil rights struggle that transformed American democracy and the birth of numerous Black art forms that have profoundly influenced global culture. 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. This argument was supported by 10 works of nonfiction — an opening essay by Nikole, followed by works from the journalists Jamelle Bouie, Jeneen Interlandi, Trymaine Lee, Wesley Morris and Linda Villarosa and the scholars Matthew Desmond, Kevin M. Kruse, Khalil Gibran Muhammad and Bryan Stevenson, all focused on the enduring impacts of slavery and racism and the contributions of Black Americans to our society.
Initially, the magazine issue was greeted with an enthusiastic response unlike any we had seen before. The weekend it was available in print, Aug. 18 and 19, readers all over the country complained of having to visit multiple newsstands before they could find a copy. A week later, when The Times made tens of thousands of copies available for sale online, they sold out in hours. Copies of the issue began to appear on eBay at ridiculous markups. Portions of Nikole’s opening essay from the project, which would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, were cited in the halls of Congress; candidates in what was then a large field of potential Democratic nominees for president referred to it on the stump and the debate stage; 1619 Project book clubs seemed to materialize overnight. All of this happened in the first month.
Substantive criticisms of the project began a few months later. Five historians, led by the Princeton scholar Sean Wilentz, sent a letter that asked The Times to issue “prominent corrections” for what they claimed were the project’s “errors and distortions.” We took this letter very seriously. The criticism focused mostly on Nikole’s introductory essay and within that essay zeroed in on her argument about the role of slavery in the American Revolution: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology,” Nikole wrote, “is the fact 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.”
Though we recognized that the role of slavery is a matter of ongoing debate among historians of the revolution, we did not agree that this line or the other passages in question required “prominent corrections,” as I explained in a letter of response. Ultimately, however, we issued a clarification, accompanied by a lengthy editors’ note: By saying that protecting slavery was “one of the primary reasons,” Nikole did not mean to imply that it was a primary reason for every one of the colonists, who were, after all, a geographically and culturally diverse lot with varying interests; rather, she meant that one of the primary reasons driving some of them, particularly those from the Southern colonies, was the protection of slavery from British meddling. We clarified this by adding “some of” to Nikole’s original sentence so that it read: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
We published the letter from the five historians, along with my response, a few days before Christmas. Dozens of media outlets covered the exchange, and the coverage set certain corners of social media ablaze — which fueled more stories, which led others to weigh in. The editor of The American Historical Review, the journal of the American Historical Association, the nation’s oldest professional association of historians, noted in an editor’s letter that the controversy was “all anyone asked me about at the A.H.A.’s annual meeting during the first week of January.” The debate was still raging two months later, when everyone’s world changed abruptly.
Almost immediately, present and past converged: 2020 seemed to be offering a demonstration of the 1619 Project’s themes. The racial disparities in Covid infections and deaths made painfully apparent the ongoing inequalities that the project had highlighted. Then, in May, a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, and decades of pent-up frustration erupted in what is believed to be the largest protest movement in American history. In demonstrations around the country, we saw the language and ideas of the 1619 Project on cardboard signs amid huge crowds of mostly peaceful protesters gathering in cities and small towns.
It was around this time that Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced a bill called the Saving American History Act, which would “prohibit federal funds from being made available to teach the 1619 Project curriculum in elementary schools and secondary schools, and for other purposes.” Cotton, who just weeks earlier published a column in The New York Times’s Opinion section calling for federal troops to subdue demonstrations, stated that the project “threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” (The “curriculum” Cotton’s legislation referred to was a set of educational materials put together not by The Times but by the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit organization that supports global journalism and, in certain instances, helps teachers bring that work into classrooms. Since 2007, the Pulitzer Center, which has no relationship to the Pulitzer Prizes, has created lesson plans around dozens of works of journalism, including three different projects from The Times Magazine. To date, thousands of educators in all 50 states have made use of the Pulitzer Center’s educational materials based on the 1619 Project to supplement — not replace — their standard social studies and history curriculums.)
Cotton’s bill did not move forward, but it inspired many similar efforts, perhaps most prominently the 1776 Commission, an advisory committee formed by President Donald Trump to respond to the 1619 Project and other attempts to advance a more complicated narrative of the American past. Referring to an academic framework that seeks to locate the ways racism affects the law and other institutions, Trump said, “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” Instead, Trump’s commission would promote “patriotic education” focused on “the legacy of 1776.” This never got very far. The committee’s members issued a report on Jan. 18, just weeks after the failed insurrection in Trump’s name at the U.S. Capitol, but it was widely criticized by historians, and one of Joe Biden’s first acts as president was to disband the 1776 Commission altogether.
This barely mattered. In the United States, the real decisions over education are left to local governments and state legislatures, and the Republican Party has been steadily gaining control of legislatures in the last decade. Today the party holds full power in 30 state houses, and as the 2021 sessions got underway, Republican lawmakers from South Carolina to Idaho proposed laws echoing the language and intent of Cotton’s bill and Trump’s commission. By the end of the summer, 27 states had introduced strikingly similar versions of a “divisive concepts” bill, which swirled together misrepresentations of critical race theory and the 1619 Project with extreme examples of the diversity training that had proliferated since the previous summer. The list of these divisive concepts, which the laws would prohibit from being discussed in classrooms, included such ideas as “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or sex” and “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race, ethnicity or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of the same race, ethnic group or sex,” as Arizona House Bill 2898 put it. To be clear, these notions aren’t found in the 1619 Project or in any but the most fringe writings by adherents of critical race theory, but the legislation aimed at something broader. “The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,” the A.H.A. and three other associations declared in a statement in June. “But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public.” Eventually, more than 150 professional organizations would sign this letter, including the Society of Civil War Historians, the National Education Association, the Midwestern History Association and the Organization of American Historians.
Nevertheless, by late August, the two-year anniversary of the 1619 Project, 12 states had enacted some form of these bans. In Florida, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to prohibit the teaching of the project at a meeting in June, following a brief address from Gov. Ron DeSantis, in which he explained his opposition (mischaracterizing, as was so often the case, the claim from Nikole’s essay that the original five historians seized on):
A curious feature of this argument on behalf of the historical record is how ahistorical it is. In privileging “actual fact” over “narrative,” the governor, and many others, seem to proceed from the premise that history is a fixed thing; that somehow, long ago, the nation’s historians identified the relevant set of facts about our past, and it is the job of subsequent generations to simply protect and disseminate them. This conception denies history its own history — the dynamic, contested and frankly pretty thrilling process by which an understanding of the past is formed and reformed. The study of this is known as historiography, and a knowledge of American historiography, in particular the way our historical profession evolved to take fuller account of the role of slavery and racism in our past, is critical to understanding the debates of the past two years.
The earliest attempts to record the nation’s history took the form of accounts of military campaigns, summaries of state and federal legislative activity, dispatches from the frontier and other narrowly focused reports. In the 19th century, these were replaced by a master narrative of the colonial and founding era, best exemplified by “the father of American history,” George Bancroft, in his “History of the United States, From the Discovery of the American Continent.” Published in 10 volumes from the 1830s through the 1870s, Bancroft’s opus is generally seen as the first comprehensive history of the country, and its influence was incalculable. Bancroft’s ambition was to synthesize American history into a grand and glorious epic. He viewed the European colonists who settled the continent as acting out a divine plan and the revolution as an almost purely philosophical act, undertaken to model self-government for all the world.
The scholarly effort to revise this narrative began in the early 20th century with the work of the “Progressive historians,” most notably Charles A. Beard, who tried to show that the founders were motivated not exclusively by idealism and virtue but also by their pocketbooks. “Suppose,” Beard asked in 1913, “our fundamental law was not the product of an abstraction known as ‘the whole people,’ but of a group of economic interests which must have expected beneficial results from its adoption?” Though the Progressives’ work was influential, they were bitterly attacked for their theories, which shocked many Americans. “SCAVENGERS, HYENA-LIKE, DESECRATE THE GRAVES OF THE DEAD PATRIOTS WE REVERE,” blared one headline in an Ohio newspaper.
As the Cold War dawned, it became clear that this school could not provide the necessary inspiration for an America that envisioned itself a defender of global freedom and democracy. The Beardian approach was beaten back by the counter-Progressive or “Consensus” school, which emphasized the founders’ shared values and played down class conflict. Among Consensus historians, a keen sense of national purpose was evident, as well as an eagerness to disavow the whiff of Marxism in the progressive narrative and re-establish the founders’ idealism. In 1950, the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison lamented that the Progressives were “robbing the people of their heroes” and “insulting their folk-memory of the great figures whom they admired.” Seven years later, one of his former students, Edmund S. Morgan, published “The Birth of the Republic, 1763-1789,” a key text of this era (described by one reviewer at the time as having the “brilliant hue of the era of Eisenhower prosperity”). Morgan stressed the revolution as a “search for principles” that led to a nation committed to liberty and equality.
By the 1960s, the pendulum was ready to swing the other way. A group of scholars identified variously as Neo-Progressive historians, New Left historians or social historians challenged the old paradigm, turning their focus to the lives of common people in colonial society and U.S. history more broadly. Earlier generations primarily studied elites, who left a copious archive of written material. Because the subjects of the new history — laborers, seamen, enslaved people, women, Indigenous people — produced relatively little writing of their own, many of these scholars turned instead to large data sets like tax lists, real estate inventories and other public records to illuminate the lives of what were sometimes called the “inarticulate masses.” This novel approach set aside “the central assumption of traditional history, what might be called the doctrine of implicit importance,” wrote the historian Jack P. Greene in a 1975 article in The Times. “From the perspective supplied by the new history, it has become clear that the experience of women, children, servants, slaves and other neglected groups are quite as integral to a comprehensive understanding of the past as that of lawyers, lords and ministers of state.”
An explosion of new research resulted, transforming the field of American history. One of the most significant developments was an increased attention to Black history and the role of slavery. For more than a century, a profession dominated by white men had mostly consigned these subjects to the sidelines. Bancroft had seen slavery as problematic — “an anomaly in a democratic country” — but mostly because it empowered a Southern planter elite he considered corrupt, lazy and aristocratic. Beard and the other Progressives hadn’t focused much on slavery, either. Until the 1950s, the institution was treated in canonical works of American history as an aberration best addressed minimally if at all. When it was taken up for close study, as in Ulrich B. Phillips’s 1918 book, “American Negro Slavery,” it was seen as an inefficient enterprise sustained by benevolent masters to whom enslaved people felt mostly gratitude. That began to change in the 1950s and 1960s, as works by Herbert Aptheker, Stanley Elkins, Philip S. Foner, John Hope Franklin, Eugene D. Genovese, Benjamin Quarles, Kenneth M. Stampp, C. Vann Woodward and many others transformed the mainstream view of slavery.
Among the converts was Edmund Morgan himself, who noted in a 1972 address that “American historians interested in tracing the rise of liberty, democracy and the common man have been challenged in the past two decades by other historians, interested in tracing the history of oppression, exploitation and racism. The challenge has been salutary, because it has made us examine more directly than historians have hitherto been willing to do the role of slavery in our early history. Colonial historians, in particular, when writing about the origin and development of American institutions, have found it possible until recently to deal with slavery as an exception to everything they had to say. I am speaking about myself but also about most of my generation.”
To be more precise, Morgan might have said that white historians had “found it possible” to hold slavery and the creation of American democracy entirely apart. Black historians, working outside the mainstream for a hundred years, tended to see the matter more clearly. For during this whole evolution in American history, from Bancroft through the 1960s, there was another scholarly tradition unfolding, one that only rarely gained entry into white-dominated academic spaces.
It began, like all historiographies, with the work of non-historians, the sermons, poems, speeches and memoirs by Black writers of the revolutionary period and beyond. The antebellum historians William C. Nell and William Wells Brown wrote scholarly accounts of Black participation in the American Revolution. But the first work by a Black author generally considered part of what was then the emerging field of professional history was George Washington Williams’s “History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers and as Citizens,” published in 1882.
Williams was an innovator. He had to be. In writing his landmark book, he pioneered several research methodologies that would later re-emerge among the social historians — the use of oral history, the aggregation of statistical data, even the use of newspapers as primary sources. His view of the centrality of slavery was also far ahead of its time:
Like so many Black historians, Williams was writing against the grain, not only in his insistence on the influence of slavery in shaping American institutions but in something even more basic: his assumption of Black humanity. This challenge he faced is made clear from the first chapter of Volume I: “It is proposed, in the first place, to call the attention to the absurd charge that the Negro does not belong to the human family.” In a nation backtracking on the promise of Reconstruction, this was an inherently political statement. Just one year after “History of the Negro Race” was published, the U.S. Supreme Court would invalidate as unconstitutional the protections of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which barred racial discrimination in public accommodations and transportation. A country that denied Black people the rights of citizens could not also see them as significant historical actors.
“History is a science, a social science, but it’s also politics,” the historian Martha S. Jones, who contributed a chapter in the new 1619 book, told me. “And Black historians have always known that. They always know the stakes. In a world that would brand Africans as people without a history, Williams understood the political consequence of the assertion that Black people have history and might even be driving it.”
We can see evidence of this in the decades of Jim Crow that followed Reconstruction, when Black people were not only prevented from voting and denied access to a wide array of public accommodations but also, for the most part, kept out of the mainstream history profession. Nevertheless, a rich Black scholarly tradition continued to unfold in publications like The Journal of Negro History, founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1916, and in the work of scholars like W.E.B. Du Bois, Helen G. Edmonds, Lorenzo Greene, Luther P. Jackson, Rayford Logan, Benjamin Quarles and Charles H. Wesley. Quarles’s book “The Negro in the American Revolution,” published in 1961, was an important part of that decade’s historiographical reassessments. It was the first to thoroughly explore an often-overlooked feature of that war: that substantially more Black people were drawn to the British side than the Patriot cause, believing this the better path to freedom. Quarles’s work posed profound questions about the traditional narrative of the founding era. While acknowledging that for some white people the ideals of the Revolution had “exposed the inconsistencies” of chattel slavery in a nation founded on equality, he also observed a deeply uncomfortable fact: “They were far outnumbered by those who detected no ideological inconsistency. These white Americans, not considering themselves counterrevolutionary, would never have dreamed of repudiating the theory of natural rights. Instead they skirted the dilemma by maintaining that blacks were an outgroup rather than members of the body politic.”
The story told by Quarles and his predecessors amounted to a counternarrative of American history, one in which, contrary to what many white historians had argued, slavery was essential to the development of the colonies; Black soldiers played an important role on both sides of the American Revolution and in the Union victory in the Civil War; and Reconstruction was an idealistic attempt to make the United States an interracial democracy, not a failed experiment that served only to demonstrate the folly of giving Black people the right to vote.
It is no coincidence that this counternarrative began to break through in the 1960s, at the same time as Black Americans finally won that right, one that the 15th Amendment to the Constitution sought to guarantee in 1870 (for men), only to see it abrogated in all the Southern states by the turn of the century. As Bancroft demonstrated and Jones noted, history is not simply an academic exercise — it is inherently political. Those without political standing in the present are generally discounted as historical actors in the past. In the 1960s, after hundreds of years, American democracy had been made to include Black people; now American history would, too.
It’s one thing for scholars to face the “salutary” challenge that Morgan spoke of and quite another for the nation as a whole to reckon with a new history that acknowledges oppression, exploitation and racism. For generations, Hollywood movies, museum exhibits and, most of all, standard K-12 social-studies school curriculums had told a relatively simple, mostly stable and basically uplifting story about the American past. Two decades or so downstream from the political and historical paradigm shift of the 1960s, that began to change.
One driver of this change, curiously enough, was a conservative-led national anxiety about the competitiveness of the American work force in a globalized world. This gnawing fear was crystallized in breathless reports like 1983’s “A Nation at Risk,” commissioned by President Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education, which declared that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future.” This led to an unprecedented federal effort to raise the standard of instruction in public schools. In 1991, the administration of President George H.W. Bush announced an ambitious plan “to move every community in America toward the national education goals.” A cornerstone of this plan was the creation of voluntary educational guidelines in all the main subject areas that would bring the most up-to-date scholarly perspectives and pedagogical practices into the pre-collegiate classroom.
The National Endowment for the Humanities, then under the direction of Lynne Cheney, was responsible for helping to initiate the standards in history. Several years earlier, the N.E.H. created the National Center for History in Schools, an organization intended, in Cheney’s words, to “reinvigorate the study of history at all levels of elementary and secondary education.” The N.C.H.S. was located at U.C.L.A. and directed by Charlotte Crabtree, a scholar of education. Now Crabtree and Gary B. Nash, a historian of early America, were tapped to direct the country’s first-ever national standards for what schoolchildren should be taught about the American past.
This was a daunting challenge. To begin with, the paradigm shift of the 1960s resulted in a vast increase in the number of new histories. “Historical inquiries are ramifying in a hundred directions at once, and there is no coordination among them,” Bernard Bailyn, one of the nation’s most esteemed historians, wrote a few years earlier. The sheer volume of new history fractured what had been a simple story and fostered a sense of anxiety that the days of a single master narrative were over. Among academics, this collapse of “synthesis” was fretted over throughout the 1980s. And yet, as the scholar Nell Irvin Painter pointed out at the time, “The new histories expose the sad fact that the purported syntheses of the 1950s … claimed to encompass all the American people but spoke only of a small segment.”
In this environment, channeling new research into national educational standards required delicate, methodical work. Over the next two and a half years, the N.C.H.S. undertook what its assistant director at the time, Linda Symcox, described as “a vast collaboration among public schoolteachers, state social-studies specialists, school superintendents, university historians and a broad range of professional and scholarly organizations, public interest groups, parents’ and teachers’ organizations and individual citizens nationwide.” As Nash described it later, “At no time in the previous century had so many different history educators from so many different sectors of the world of education worked collaboratively on a project of this magnitude.”
Credit…Illustration by Derek Brahney
There were three separate volumes of the standards, one for U.S. history, one for world history and one for grades K through 4. The U.S. history standards were divided into 10 chronological eras, beginning with “Era 1: Three Worlds Meet,” in which students would learn “the characteristics of societies in the Americas, Western Europe and West Africa that increasingly interacted after 1450.” In “Era 2: Colonization and Settlement,” they would understand, among other things, “how the values and institutions of European economic life took root in the colonies” and “how slavery reshaped European and African life in the Americas.” And in “Era 3: Revolution and the New Nation,” they would come to see how “the American Revolution involved multiple movements among the new nation’s many groups to reform American society.”
In a sense, this was precisely what President Bush and Lynne Cheney had ordered up: a fresh set of educational guidelines that reflected the most up-to-date research. The problem, as Symcox shrewdly notes in her 2002 book, “Whose History? The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms,” was that “the standards were the product of recent historical scholarship that challenged traditional conceptions of the nation’s history.” The most up-to-date research had increasingly come to focus on the “formerly excluded,” whose “anonymous lives,” once recovered, “could not easily be incorporated into the traditional patriotic narrative of a shared and glorious past whose onward march had been determined solely by the actions of great leaders and generals.”
In October 1994, about a week before the standards were scheduled to be released to the public, Cheney — who had by then resigned from her position as head of the N.E.H. — published a column in The Wall Street Journal titled “The End of History.” Though she had helped start the process that led to the standards, she now professed to being appalled at how they had turned out, describing them in an interview as “grim and gloomy” and calling on readers to fight their certification. Many of her criticisms relied on misrepresentations, like the claim that the standards barely mentioned the Constitution (which was in fact mentioned often in the chapters explaining the relevant standards and in the sample activities for teachers); others evinced skepticism toward the increased inclusivity that marked the previous decades’ scholarship, such as her complaint that Harriet Tubman was mentioned more times than Ulysses S. Grant. Standing in the way of this agenda would be a challenge, she warned, because “those wishing to do so will have to go up against an academic establishment that revels in the kind of politicized history that characterizes much of the national standards. But the battle is worth taking on. We are a better people than the national standards indicate, and our children deserve to know it.”
Cheney’s column stunned Crabtree, with whom she had worked closely for years. (Ross E. Dunn, a professor emeritus of history at San Diego State University and associate director of the N.C.H.S., told me that this ended their relationship.) Rush Limbaugh followed Cheney’s lead, weighing in just days after her column to lambaste the standards as a “bastardization of American history” and complaining that the United States “does not deserve the reputation it’s getting in multicultural classrooms.” A headline in The Times noted that the “Plan to Teach U.S. History Is Said to Slight White Males.” Charles Krauthammer’s Washington Post column “History Hijacked” inveighed against the standards for trying “to promote the achievements and highlight the victimization of the country’s preferred minorities, while straining equally to degrade the achievements and highlight the flaws of the white males who ran the country for its first two centuries.”
Though Cheney had distorted the standards, she had effectively “dictated the script that others would follow,” as Symcox put it. A letter to the editor in response to her column commended Cheney for revealing that the work of Nash and the others was “nothing more than a cynical ploy to indoctrinate children with their own hatred of America; to steal the American birthright from the children of our country; to teach our children to feel guilt over their own heritage.” It continued, “Are we prepared to allow the haters of America to dictate how American history will be taught to our children?”
As soon as they were released, the country’s first national guidelines for teaching American history were torpedoed, but not by serious scholars. By the mid-1990s, there was no longer much dispute among academic historians about the importance of social history; Black history and Black studies had gained a foothold in the history departments of many American universities, which themselves had changed significantly — for the first time, many now included female and African American professors. The dispute over the standards was brought not by academics but by politicians, pundits and lay historians.
“Controversies about the teaching and writing of history had occurred at a number of times in the past, but these had mostly taken place within the historical profession,” the historian Eric Foner told me. “But the direct politicization of history during the standards debate was something new. Once history became a political football, the conversation was taken over by demagoguery and misrepresentation.”
Timing played a role. The controversy erupted just weeks before the 1994 midterm elections. Rallying behind Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America, Republican congressional candidates across the country were in the homestretch of a campaign that would result in their party’s regaining control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Attacking the standards was a way to reaffirm commitment to an idealized view of the past portrayed as being under attack from “political correctness” and “multiculturalism.” This perspective is perhaps best laid out in the analysis found in the first chapter of Gingrich’s 1995 book, “To Renew America”:
By the time his book was published, Gingrich and the other members of his Republican Revolution had been sworn in, the first session of Congress since 1954 in which the G.O.P. controlled both houses. One of the first acts of the Senate was to pass a nonbinding resolution repudiating the national history standards and affirming that any recipient of federal funds for developing standards “should have a decent respect for the contributions of Western civilization, and United States history, ideas and institutions, to the increase of freedom and prosperity around the world.”
Much has changed in the past 25 years, as new research has transformed and expanded the field of American history yet again. Among other subjects, the role of Black women in the nation’s story has increasingly been an area of focus. It was only in the 1980s that the Library of Congress, trying to classify Deborah Gray White’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman: Female Slaves in the Plantation South,” approved a new heading in its classification system for “women slaves.” Since then, a huge amount of scholarship has been published about the experience of enslaved women, including pathbreaking research like Annette Gordon-Reed’s work on the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman who was one of the hundreds of people the third president enslaved. For many generations, some historians denied that Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Hemings or that she bore some of his children. Gordon-Reed’s work, along with DNA testing published in 1998 that confirmed Jefferson’s paternity, established the relationship beyond a doubt.
And yet today we find ourselves back in the midst of another battle over the teaching of American history. Though it differs in some respects from the debate over the national history standards, the two episodes have enough in common that the conclusions drawn by Nash and Crabtree in their 1997 book, “History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past,” written with Ross E. Dunn, offer some insight into our present struggles. For them, the culture war of the 1990s was clearly connected to the upheaval in American historiography. In their view, the standards’ opponents believed that “history that dwells on unsavory or even horrific episodes in our past is unpatriotic and likely to alienate young students from their own country.” Their own perspective was that “exposing students to grim chapters of our past is essential to the creation of informed, responsible citizens.”
This dispute about the use and potential misuse of history, it seems to me, is what we have been arguing about for the past two years. (Indeed, Dunn told me that about a month before his death, in July 2021, Nash proposed an updated edition of “History on Trial” that would address the wave of “divisive concepts” legislation.) You hear it in Trump’s warning that the 1619 Project would “dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together”; it’s there in the explanation given by State Representative Danny Crawford of Alabama, for the bill he sponsored to ban the teaching of critical race theory: “To start teaching something like that just inflames and throws salt on the wound”; and in the comment by Glenn Youngkin, the governor-elect of Virginia, to a radio host in June that “Slavery was abhorrent, but it doesn’t mean that we have to actually drive division into our schools.”
It also appears in more scholarly form in a review of the historian Alan Taylor’s 2016 book, “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804,” by Gordon Wood, one of the five historians who wrote the letter to the editor protesting the 1619 Project. The version of the revolution narrated by Taylor, who holds the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Chair in American History at the University of Virginia and has twice won the Pulitzer Prize, is raucous, complicated, unheroic and based on extremely rigorous scholarship. It also asserts that among the motivations of the colonists who broke away from Britain was the protection of slavery: “In the Southern mainland colonies, Patriots fought to preserve slavery for Blacks as well as the liberty of whites. Indeed, they regarded slave labor as an essential economic foundation for sustaining the freedom of white men.” Astute readers will note the similarities between this line and the sentence in Nikole’s essay that was at the center of the five historians’ complaints. In his review, Wood raises no direct objection to this interpretation, but he concludes with concern: “The question raised by Taylor’s book is this: Can a revolution conceived mainly as sordid, racist and divisive be the inspiration for a nation?”
Instilling civic pride, of course, has always been one of the purposes of national history. The political goals of Bancroft’s narrative are self-evident, as are those of George Washington Williams’s “History of the Negro Race.” But it is only in the past few decades, since the historiographical paradigm shift of the 1960s finally trickled into the public consciousness, that we have had to face down the question of how to square this purpose with an increasingly problematic story line. Another way to pose the dilemma is to invert Wood’s question: What if a revolution conceived as sordid, racist and divisive cannot be the inspiration for a nation? What then? Should we set aside the best scholarship in favor of a unifying myth? Is history a science or a patriotic art?
And what are its responsibilities? Democracy, we are often told, requires a free press, one that will hold power to account. Does it also require a robust historical profession, free to ramify in a hundred directions at once, not all of them inspiring? Or in this regard do journalism and history differ, with journalism providing democracy its greatest service when most unshackled and critical, while history operates best with the sense of decorum and tradition that foments civic pride?
The answer may lie in another of history’s purposes, one that draws it closer to a core mission of journalism: to explain how we have arrived at the world we inhabit. “History is worth writing and studying primarily because of its power to shape our thinking about our present and future,” Gary Nash wrote. With this purpose in mind, the upheaval in American history seems less like a destabilizing force and more like a movement toward transparency, a clearing away of spin. With any luck, our descendants will see the past from a more propitious perspective than our own. But we can perceive it only from our present reality: a nation plagued by rampant inequality and racial injustice, bitterly divided in its politics and incapable of achieving unity on public-health goals or the existential demands of climate change.
Over the years, many scholars have pointed out the need for a story that better explains how we got here. “Our times seem to call for new myths and a revised master narrative that better inspire and reflect upon our true condition,” observed the historian Nathan Irvin Huggins in 1989. Standing in what he called “the backwash of the so-called Second Reconstruction,” Huggins, who was the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of History and of Afro-American Studies at Harvard, envisioned a narrative that might take shape out of the fragmentation of the new history, one that would be more chastened but also, in a sense, more heroic: “Such a new narrative would find inspiration,” he wrote, “in an oppressed people who defied social death as slaves and freedmen, insisting on their humanity and creating a culture despite a social consensus that they were ‘a brutish sort of people.’ Such a new narrative would bring slavery and the persistent oppression of race from the margins to the center, to define the limits and boundaries of the American Dream. Such a new narrative would oblige us to face the deforming mirror of truth.”
This is, in a sense, what the 1619 Project set out to do. As an issue of a magazine, produced from start to finish in six months, it could only partly achieve that goal. Whether the book has drawn closer is for others to say, but our hope in publishing it is to realize Nikole’s original idea as fully as we can. To that end, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” represents a significant enlargement of the version of the project we produced two years ago. That version was not perfect, as few first efforts are, and the enormous amount of feedback we’ve received — both praise and criticism — has helped us deepen and improve it. We revised and expanded the 10 original essays and added seven new essays from the historians and scholars Leslie Alexander, Michelle Alexander, Carol Anderson, Anthea Butler, Martha S. Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, Tiya Miles and Dorothy Roberts.
The original project also featured 17 works of fiction and poetry about specific moments in the past 400 years; for the book, this timeline has been expanded to include 36 pieces of original imaginative writing, beginning with a 1619 poem by Claudia Rankine and ending with a 2020 poem by Sonia Sanchez. This literary element nods to the role of creative writing in the Black historiographical tradition (as in many others, from the Greeks to the Elizabethans to the Ashanti). “For those of us whose history has been erased,” the poet, novelist and scholar Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, who wrote a poem for the book, told me, “it is important for us to be able to imagine what our ancestors went through.” All told, the book contains the essays, poetry and fiction of more than 50 writers, all of which was submitted to a peer-review process involving more than 25 other scholars. Their names are listed in the book, which also contains footnotes to relevant documents and works of historical scholarship.
I am aware that no matter how diligent the work has been, the book will kick up a new round of debates. After all, years of careful consensus-building around the national history standards did nothing to forestall that eruption. But in a sense, these arguments themselves may represent the apotheosis of our historiography. “Increasingly, I understand U.S. history as the history of debate, and our style of democracy as one that moves only through contest and challenge,” Martha Jones told me. “We lament conflict and strife, but I think the lesson is that that’s exactly how we do and must do democracy.”
Perhaps, as Jones suggests, we are a nation of argument that has been fooled all these years, through the exclusionary mythmaking of an elite few, into thinking we were a nation of consensus. Our present turmoil suggests as much. The story of a country designed by Providence and set marching on the righteous path by leaders of pure and noble purpose fails to make sense of this moment, which requires a deeper examination of our founding paradox.
It’s a particularly American irony that the effort to do so has been deemed a “divisive concept” and banned from the classroom in 12 states. We may need, instead, legislation that requires us to study divisive concepts, beginning with the most basic one of all: All men are created equal. As Quarles and others have explained, our founding concept of universal equality, in a country where one-fifth of the population was enslaved, led to an increase in racial prejudice by creating a cognitive dissonance — one that could be resolved only by the white citizenry’s assumption of Black inferiority and inhumanity. It’s an unsettling idea, that the most revered ideal of the Declaration of Independence might be considered our original divisive concept.
Devotion to the traditional origin story of the United States, and the hostile reaction that has greeted nearly every attempt to revise it, have prevented generations of Americans from learning how to accept this fundamental contradiction at our core — the painful twinning of slavery and democracy that began as far back as the summer of 1619. But as we have seen, in a democratic nation, history does not stand still. As our country has moved forward from its imperfect beginnings, haltingly expanding its audacious promise to enfranchise more and more of us, our history has transformed behind us, rearranging itself as the advance of our founding principles enables us to see more of our American ancestors as having had a legitimate, recoverable perspective on the events of their own day.
We reached this stage only recently (and should not consider our progress secure). As Nikole pointed out in her prizewinning essay, an essay that has done so much to stimulate public engagement with American history over the past two years, we Americans have precious little experience of true, sustained multiracial democracy. Our great experiment in self-governance, deferred by nearly a century of slavery after our founding and by another century of Jim Crow voter suppression after emancipation, really got underway only in 1965. You could see the pitched battles over public memory that have occurred since then as a product of the new history’s corrosive effect on national unity; or you could conclude that a republic founded on an irresolvable contradiction — freedom and slavery — was always going to wind up in an irresolvable argument over how to tell its story, that this contentiousness is American democracy, that the loss of consensus means we’ve finally arrived.
Photography credits: Du Bois: Getty Images. Bancroft: via Library of Congress. Beard: Library of Congress. Morgan: Bob Child/Associated Press. Quarles: via Beulah M. Davis Special Collections, Morgan State University. Woodson: Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Nash: Ann Johansson. Gordon-Reed: Tony Rinaldo. Huggins: via Harvard University Archives.