A Matter of FactsRoundup
tags: slavery, New York Times, history wars, 1619 Project
SEAN WILENTZ teaches history at Princeton and is the author, most recently, of No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding.
With much fanfare, The New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue in August to what it called the 1619 Project. The project’s aim, the magazine announced, was to reinterpret the entirety of American history. “Our democracy’s founding ideals,” its lead essay proclaimed, “were false when they were written.” Our history as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy, whose existence made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truth that all men are created equal. Accordingly, the nation’s birth came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year, the project stated, when slavery arrived in Britain’s North American colonies. From then on, America’s politics, economics, and culture have stemmed from efforts to subjugate African Americans—first under slavery, then under Jim Crow, and then under the abiding racial injustices that mark our own time—as well as from the struggles, undertaken for the most part by black people alone, to end that subjugation and redeem American democracy.
The opportunity seized by the 1619 Project is as urgent as it is enormous. For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation.
To sustain its particular take on an immense subject while also informing a wide readership is a remarkably ambitious goal, imposing, among other responsibilities, a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Readers expect nothing less from The New York Times, the project’s sponsor, and they deserve nothing less from an effort as profound in its intentions as the 1619 Project. During the weeks and months after the 1619 Project first appeared, however, historians, publicly and privately, began expressing alarm over serious inaccuracies.
On December 20, the Times Magazine published a letter that I signed with four other historians—Victoria Bynum, James McPherson, James Oakes, and Gordon Wood. Our letter applauded the project’s stated aim to raise public awareness and understanding of slavery’s central importance in our history. Although the project is not a conventional work of history and cannot be judged as such, the letter intended to help ensure that its efforts did not come at the expense of basic accuracy. Offering practical support to that end, it pointed out specific statements that, if allowed to stand, would misinform the public and give ammunition to those who might be opposed to the mission of grappling with the legacy of slavery. The letter requested that the Times print corrections of the errors that had already appeared, and that it keep those errors from appearing in any future materials published with the Times’ imprimatur, including the school curricula the newspaper announced it was developing in conjunction with the project.
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