The New York Times Goes All In on Flawed 1619 Project

11 mins read

Since the New York Times introduced its 1619 Project last summer, the paper has touched off a series of debates about the role of slavery in American history. Although the exchanges that followed haven’t revealed much about our nation’s past, they have told us a lot about state of modern U.S. journalism.  

Named after the year that the first slave ship arrived in America, the 1619 Project aims to recontextualize slavery as the dominant factor in America’s founding, supplanting discussions more focused on American ideals such as freedom and natural rights. Obviously, not everyone is enamored of this approach — there have been numerous critiques of the paper’s attempt to blame slavery for everything from America’s obesity epidemic to our lack of socialized medicine.  

One interesting rebuttal is coming from the newly formed 1776 Project, which seeks to “uphold our country’s authentic founding virtues and values and challenge those who assert America is forever defined by its past failures, such as slavery.” The group of predominantly black scholars and writers was organized by anti-poverty crusader and MacArthur “genius grant” winner Bob Woodson, and features thoughtful essays rebutting the 1619 Project from heavyweight intellectuals such as John McWhorter, Clarence Page, and Shelby Steele.  

Earlier this week, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times Magazine staff writer and the driving force behind the 1619 project, took note of the rival effort. “I want to say this is my response to the 1776 project,” she tweeted, followed by a picture of her pointing at her bottom row of gold teeth with her pinky, a dismissive and deeply unserious hip-hop gesture. She followed that up with a “serious” tweet where she suggested that her African-American critics at the 1776 Project didn’t actually care about the enslaved children at the time of America’s founding. (She later deleted the tweets.) 

This is hardly the first time the 43-year-old Hannah-Jones has behaved immaturely in response to criticism. In her zeal to escalate every disagreement and answer all criticism with ad hominem attacks, her Twitter persona is very much like… Donald Trump’s. That’s not a comparison Hannah-Jones is likely to appreciate, but it’s hard to top the fact that she calls herself “the Beyoncé of journalism.” It’s a ridiculous comparison, except to say that both seem to enjoy performing for captive audiences (and maybe it wouldn’t be surprising if Hannah-Jones also kept a room in her house dedicated to celebrating herself).    

To be sure, there’s been so much substantive criticism of the 1619 Project that it would be impossible to respond to all of it in good faith. Gordon Wood, Sean Wilentz, James McPherson, Wilfred McClay and a who’s who of American historians have all lined up to criticize the history and ideological motivations behind it.  

And as the 1776 Project shows, the opposition here can’t be said to be wholly the result of a racial divide, nor has it been driven by partisan worldviews, even though the 1619 Project obviously aims to further leftist political goals. Gordon Wood’s response was even published on the World Socialist Web Site, an actual Trotskyite organ, which also published several other critiques. “We all want justice, but not at the expense of truth,” Wood rightly surmises.  

Nonetheless, when Wood, Wilentz, McPherson, and two other eminent historians, Victoria Bynum and James Oakes, co-signed a letter asking the Times to correct “factual errors” in the 1619 Project and outlined their ideological concerns, the Times editors’ response was telling. The paper expended a lot of verbiage ducking any responsibility the “paper of record” might have to accurately portray history while claiming no specific historical agenda other than to “expand the reader’s sense of the American past,” whatever that means.  

But the consequences of this debate are very real. The Times is partnering with the Pulitzer Center to produce classroom materials based on the 1619 Project. America’s kids may end up being forced to digest a version of events that America’s most respected historians say is riddled with errors and represents a “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”  

Rather than being contrite or even responsive, the Times is embracing its flawed journalism in a big way. It’s running ads all over social media touting the project as a way to sell subscriptions. The newspaper even sprang for an expensive TV ad promoting the 1619 Project during the Oscars. Presumably Beyoncé wasn’t available to do the spot, because the ad featured another very well-known R&B singer, Janelle Monae, who can henceforth be known as “the Janelle Monae of the 1619 Project.” 

The Times is all in on the 1619 Project despite the wide array of serious criticism. When forced to choose between facts that buttress a more positive narrative about America striving to overcome its original sin and the disingenuous and divisive identity politics currently rampaging through faculty lounges and HR departments, the Times knows all too well the approach that sells newspapers.  

In the end, the whole thing is a shame because the horrifying legacy of chattel slavery is still with us and the Times blew a prime opportunity by dispensing shoddy revisionist history on a topic that more Americans really should study.  

Sometimes the events themselves tell you all you need to know. Earlier this month, the Navy Times reprinted the story of a fascinating and largely unknown Civil War episode. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the short version: William Tillman, a free black man, was a steward on the Union schooner S.J. Waring, when Confederate privateers from the ship Jeff Davis boarded the Waring and took control on July 7, 1861.  

After over a week of being held captive, late in the evening of July 16 Tillman entered the captain’s quarters with a hatchet and killed the Confederate skipper. He then found the first mate and killed him before dispatching with the second mate. Within a few minutes, the Confederate crew met a bloody end and the Union took back control of their own ship.  

Tillman had good reason to fight, as they were sailing back to the port of Charleston and he knew that when they got there he was almost certainly going to be sold into slavery. But self-preservation wasn’t his sole motive — it was freedom in a much grander sense.  

Almost as soon as the Confederates took over the ship, they took down the American flag flying over the Waring and started tearing it up to make a rebel banner. According to Tillman’s own words, it was this desecration of the flag that “incensed me to use violence” and “made my blood boil, and I vowed to have revenge.”  

A lot of terrible things have been done in this country, but Tillman was a hero precisely because he believed that atrocities such as slavery were a perversion of American ideals, not their fulfillment. Unlike the “Beyonce of journalism” and the rest of the New York Times, Tillman was inspired by American ideals to make history — he didn’t try and rewrite it.  

Mark Hemingway is a writer in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on twitter @heminator.

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