The New York Times’ poor driving skills have already caught my attention and are now in the bloodstream of comment and opinion. Driving here refers to journalists’ failure to stay in the lane of journalism by trying to do history, in this case, telling the story of the United States so that slavery is basic to understanding national history and identity. Someone at the Times could just as easily have reframed American history by noticing how much Christianity has been part of the nation’s past (for good and ill). But that would put them into the David Barton lane of historical driving and no one with any good reputation wants to be in the Texas Christian nationalist’s neighborhood (Texas Christian nationalism, oh the irony).
Some journalists, politicians, and historians have objected to the 1619 project. Some really easy problems with the Times’ history are:
1) the United States did not begin in 1619;
2) slavery came to the Americas at least as early as 1492 with Christopher Columbus; do the editors at the Times really want to show such disregard for America’s Latino origins at a time when migrants are coming from parts of the New World the Spanish discovered?
3) essentialism (reducing someone, an action, an institution to one aspect of its identity, history or meaning) is bad history so the Times has botched history by editorializing;
4) we have actually known about the significance of slavery for a long time; the timing of the Times’ “discovery” of slavery has nothing to do with efforts to make up for not calling Donald Trump a racist?
But that does not stop those who see seats on the Times’ bandwagon from jumping on and ridiculing conservatives as they ride away in the newspaper’s glory cloud. For instance, Rebecca Onion, faults conservatives for not being able to handle the complexity of the past. John Fea agrees but then reverses course and says that slavery is still central to American history — don’t want to cross the hallowed Times. (“Central” is not the same as “essential” but it’s in the ballpark.)
Fea goes on to remark, without indicting the Times’ editors, that we have already known what the newspaper is trying to teach:
Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery. Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies. As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth. Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor. As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.
So slavery is only historically important when the Times’ deems it fit to print?
David Walsh wonders why conservatives are so fragile that they can’t handle what the Times is doing? He gives three reasons (the first is that conservatives are ambivalent about equality and the second is that they have a long history with racism) and the third is a stunner:
conservatives revere history as a source of incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience, susceptible to analysis and critique. This manifests itself in a variety of ways. There is the legal doctrine of originalism, a more or less uniquely American form of legal doctrine that interprets constitutional matters solely through the lens of what the adjudicator concludes the original drafters of the U.S. Constitution meant. Originalism—whether cashed out in terms of “original intent” or, as Antonin Scalia preferred, “original meaning”—is predicated on the belief that the Constitution ought to be read mainly through the lens of the intention of its drafters unless it has been amended by the democratic procedures the Constitution specifies.
Does Walsh notice that the Times is guilty of its own brand of originalism? The origins of slavery in English-speaking North America are supposed to explain a lot about American history. Wouldn’t it make more sense for progressives and liberals to look through the lens of ongoing development? That might mean noticing not merely slavery’s founding but also the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Act, and affirmative action. But Walsh thinks it’s fine for the Times’ to use the “right” kind of originalism, the one that traces most of American society back not to 1776 but to 1619. Wow!
Then there is the big stretch of Nancy LeTourneau. She wants to turn the Times’ effort into a form of Old Testament prophetic witness (is she really comfortable with Hebrew nationalism for the secular United States?). She also wants us to think the United States is monopolized by the outlook of conservatives (but do keep in mind all the historians and the duration of their writing that Fea mentioned above):
The reason so many conservatives are threatened by the 1619 Project is that the story the authors tell is prophetic. It challenges the totalism on which their entire world view has been constructed. It is their mindset, which monopolizes imagination and stifles alternatives, that lays the groundwork for authoritarianism.
Nothing like trying to release the prophet Jeremiah’s inner Ta-Nehisi Coates.
But then Nell Irvin Painter, an African-American historian with accomplishments to intimidate any member of the historical profession, weighed in. Not surprisingly, she did not write this for the Times. One point she makes is that history is indeed complicated and that means slavery is not the word to use for 1619 just as freedom is important to notice for eighteenth century Virginia (and beyond):
People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as “servants” for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude.
Enslavement was a process that took place step by step, after the mid-17th century. This process of turning “servants” from Africa into racialized workers enslaved for life occurred in the 1660s to 1680s through a succession of Virginia laws that decreed that a child’s status followed that of its mother and that baptism did not automatically confer emancipation.
…In short, the 1619 Africans were not “enslaved”. They were townspeople in the Ndongo district of Angola who had been captured by Imbangala warlords and delivered to the port of Luanda for shipment to the Americas. Raiding, capturing and selling people was not an exclusively African practice.
In other words, the Times and its fans’ effort to make slavery central does not do justice to the complexity of African Americans’ experience. Plus, Painter does not point this out to avoid criticism of Trump:
In Jamestown in July 2019, the president of the United States spoke within a post-eighteenth-century American ideology of race. He dedicated some 688 words to the “settlers” who “worked hard. They had courage and abundance, and a wealth of self-reliance. They strived mightily to turn a profit”. These “settlers” were hardy Christians who “forged what would become the timeless traits of the American character”.
But what, in presidential discourse, of the “enslaved Africans” arriving the following month of August? They received 67 words that did not include working hard, and the history they “forged” was different. Here lies an emblematic version of the American ideology of race.
Within this ideology of race, the Jamestown Africans of 1619 are always already enslaved, so that seeing the 1619 Africans and their descendants as slaves seals them within the permanent identity of enslavement. It says Africans and their descendants are the same as slaves.
Scholars call this kind of thinking “essentialist”– you are intrinsically what you always must be. When enslavement is the essence of black identity, black people cannot figure as American working men and women who play an active role in American history. It is the “settlers” that is, non-Africans, who forge “the timeless traits of the American character”. They, not African workers, belong to the crucial core of this version of American history. The Africans are an afterthought, so that the president can skip quickly to the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, and finally, to 27 words on how black people have also contributed to the United States of America.
By questioning the president’s essentialism, Painter is also challenging implicitly the Times’ and its fans’ reductionism. Will journalists and historians be asking why Painter is so fragile or afraid of history that she has dared to dissent from the Times’ 1619 Project?