As you probably know, the 1619 Project has produced a book (below), which is an expansion and supplementation of the original essays in the New York Times magazine. It’s selling like hotcakes, too: #4 on Amazon. Click on the image below to go to the Amazon site:
I haven’t read it yet, and am not sure that I will given the queue of books by my bed, but I did read two reviews of it. The first, in the Washington Post below, is quite critical. The reviewer is Carlos Lazada, identified as “the Post’s nonfiction book critic and the author of “What Were We Thinking: A Brief Intellectual History of the Trump Era.”
The second review appears in the NYT itself, and the paper has a long history of reviewing books by its own writers favorably. That review is at the second screenshot below (you can access the reviews by clicking on the screenshots), and the reviewer is Adam Hochschild, author, journalist, and historian, who wrote a book I read not long ago and liked very much: King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa. I would have bet a lot of money in advance that the NYT review would be highly positive, given their history of printing only positive reviews by their bigwig writers and the fact that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the main force behind the book, won a Pulitzer Prize for her first 1619 essay.
The contrasting titles of the reviews show their differential assessments. While both authors like parts of the book, Lazada is unwilling to excuse major claims in the book that are erroneous, misleading, or distorted, while Hochschild largely ignores or minimizes them. More important, Lazada emphasizes that the book pushes an ideological program, especially in a new essay contributed by Ibram X. Kendi.
I’ve always objected to the 1619 Project’s aim to inculcate schoolchildren with distorted and “progressive” Leftist views. It is propaganda and is not counteracted in schools by requiring other books giving other views. It’s the first time I know of that a newspaper has deliberately inserted itself into the school curriculum to push a set of ideological values and dubious “truth” statements.
Hochschild, on the other hand, gives a very laudatory review, picks out a few perfunctory problems, barely mentions Kendi’s essay, which he agrees with, and says it’s the book is a valuable and necessary corrective for racism. It might well be in bits, but if the assertions of Lazada be correct, there’s a considerable amount of distortion and cherrypicking going on. It’s amazing how the two reviews have such different takes on the same contentions of the 1619 Project.
First, Lazado’s review. I’ll concentrate on a few issues historians had with the book, and also on its propagandistic aims. Both reviewers’ words are indented:
Together these elements form a powerful and memorable work, one that launched a seismic national debate over the legacy of slavery and enduring racial injustice in American life. It is also a work with a variety of competing impulses, ones that can at times confuse and conflict. This is evident in “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” a book that softens some of the edges of the prior magazine collection but also transcends its original mission as a historical corrective, informing readers what they now must do or else risk personal complicity in the painful story they have just been told.
This is Kendi’s view, but more later. I doubt readers will appreciate being deemed racist if they’re not doing something, which includes paying reparations to the black community. (I favor a form of reparations, but in terms of social benefits, better schools, and affirmative action, not direct payments to individuals who can prove some black heritage.)
One of the contentious assertions of the first 1619 Project was Hannah Nikole-Jones’s claim that 1619, the date that the first slaves arrived in the colonies, was the true founding date of America, for slavery conditioned, she said, every aspect of American life, even being a major cause of the American Revolution. The paper has walked that claim back a bit in the face of historians’ corrections, but the book still waffles on the issue. From Lozada:
The elusiveness begins where the project begins — in 1619, with the first ship carrying enslaved Africans to reach the English American colonies, and that moment’s proper status in the history of the United States. In his note introducing the special issue, New York Times Magazine Editor Jake Silverstein first depicts the project as something of a thought experiment, counterfactual to the common notion of 1776 as the year of the nation’s birth. “What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619?” Three sentences later, the question mark is gone, the tone more declarative. The barbaric system of slavery introduced that month is not just the United States’ “original sin,” Silverstein asserts; it is “the country’s very origin.” The project’s broadsheet supplement widens that perspective, declaring that “the goal of the 1619 Project is to reframe American history, making explicit that slavery is the foundation on which this country is built.” From what-if to no-matter-what, all on the same day.
This hardly settles matters. More than a year later, in an article titled “On Recent Criticism of The 1619 Project,” Silverstein indicated that the notion of 1619 as the country’s birth year should be regarded as a “metaphor” and not read literally. This is why, he explained, the Times had deleted a description of 1619 as our “true founding” that previously appeared in the project’s online presentation. But then, in an essay this month titled “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History,” Silverstein wrote that the date indeed “could be considered” the moment of the United States’ “inception.”
In the new book version, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times journalist who conceived of the overall effort and wrote its lead magazine essay, offers a few interpretations. In the preface, she cautions that the project is “not the only origin story of this country — there must be many.” Then, in the opening chapter, Hannah-Jones repeats the text of her original magazine essay and refers to Black Americans as the country’s “true ‘founding fathers,’” as deserving of that designation “as those men cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” Some 400-plus pages later, in a concluding chapter, she writes that the origin story in the 1619 Project is “truer” than the one we’ve known.
What might an assiduous reader conclude from all this? That 1619 is a thought experiment, or a metaphor, or the nation’s true origin, but definitely not its founding, yet possibly its inception, or just one origin story among many — but still the truer one? For all the controversy the project has elicited, this muddle over the starting point is an argument that the 1619 Project is also having with itself.
Lozada finds the 18 essays “both constructive and uneven”. An example of the latter is the chapter on “Capitalism”, which seems to distort matters (note that Hochschild’s review below accepts the chapter’s contentions whole hog):
Consider sociologist Matthew Desmond’s chapter, “Capitalism.” In his original magazine essay, Desmond argued that many labor-management and record-keeping practices of modern American capitalism originated on plantations, with lasting consequences for the nation’s growth and industry. He indicated, for instance, that the vast increases in the productivity of America’s cotton fields — an average enslaved field worker in 1862 picked 400 percent more cotton than one had in 1801, he noted — flowed from the meticulous efforts to manage every detail and moment of those workers’ lives. “Bodies and tasks were aligned with rigorous exactitude,” Desmond wrote in the essay, describing the “uncompromising pursuit of measurement and scientific accounting displayed in slave plantations.”
Critics of this essay pointed out that some financial and management practices Desmond mentions, such as double-entry bookkeeping, predated the slave-plantation era. More consequentially, they argued that Desmond’s discussion of cotton productivity bypassed the real explanation for the increase. In the new book, Desmond addresses this, but only to a point. Following a detailed discussion of the management of enslaved labor, he again cites the boost in productivity. Then he adds this caveat: “Historians and economists have attributed this surge in productivity to several factors — for example, Alan Olmstead and Paul Rhode found that improved cotton varieties enabled hands to pick more cotton per day — but advanced techniques that improved upon ways to manage land and labor surely played their part as well.”
Note what is happening: A different explanation is introduced for an important point of fact, but the overall narrative remains — because “surely” it still holds. Readers should always be open to new historical interpretations, but when revising history, “surely” does not reassure. When facts complicate a story, they shouldn’t be tucked in an aside but taken up as part of that dynamic and contested process of discovery that Silverstein so praised.
Finally, Lozada criticizes the narrative of Hannah-Jones that the maintenance of slavery was a major cause of the American Revolution, which is based almost solely on an offer from the British in Virginia that any slave who joined them fighting the colonists would be freed:
In the opening chapter of the book, titled “Democracy,” Hannah-Jones adds two explanations supporting her interpretation of colonial motives. One involves the Dunmore Proclamation of November 1775, in which the royal governor of Virginia offered freedom to enslaved people if they joined the British side of the fight. (The declaration went unmentioned in Hannah-Jones’s original essay and did not appear in the magazine’s timeline of important events in African American life; now, it is featured in the book’s expanded timeline.) She writes that the proclamation “would alter the course of the Revolution,” appropriate phrasing given that the revolution was well underway by the time of the proclamation.
How influential was this episode in the fight for independence? Here Hannah-Jones narrows the story. She stresses that the proclamation “infuriated white Virginians” and that when you think about it, the revolution was mainly a Virginia thing, anyway. “Schoolchildren learn that the Boston Tea Party sparked the Revolution and that Philadelphia was home to the Continental Congress, the place where intrepid men penned the Declaration and Constitution,” she writes. “But while our nation’s founding documents were written in Philadelphia, they were mainly written by Virginians. . . . No place shaped the Revolution and the country it birthed more than Virginia.” It is a subtle but effective shift: Rather than expand history to encompass the range of the colonists’ rationales, Hannah-Jones limits the universe of colonists who matter. Now, Virginia is real colonial America.
This sounds a bit sleazy to me, but none of this is mentioned in the NYT’s own review. Lozada also criticizes the claim that the civil rights movement was fought almost completely without white allies, but I don’t have time to address that.
Finally—and I know I’m quoting too much, but readers may not have access to the story—Ibram Kendi writes the penultimate chapter with with his denial that American is making progress in racial relations (a claim I’ve always found totally ludicrous), so that the readers need to take antiracist action. Note the one fact Kendi adduces to deny the arc of progress (I’ve put it in bold):
In a chapter titled “Progress,” historian Ibram X. Kendi writes that the popular notion of America making steady, if slow, headway toward greater racial justice is “ahistorical, mythical, and incomplete.” The “mantra” of incremental improvement can undermine efforts to promote real equality. Kendi cites Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), which held that the country’s progress against discrimination meant that certain states and counties no longer needed federal approval before amending their voting laws, as the Voting Rights Act required. (The decision unleashed a series of state-level initiatives creating obstacles to voting.) “Saying that the nation has progressed racially is usually a statement of ideology,” Kendi writes, “one that has been used all too often to obscure the opposite reality of racist progress.” The failures of the Reconstruction era led to the “Second Reconstruction” of the 20th-century civil rights movement, a cause and effect that Kendi says is too often “left out of the story.”
That is one action (there are some others, of course), but what we no longer have is blatant segregation (dual water fountains and restrooms, back-of-the-bus policies, segregated hotels), lynchinga, and mistreatment of and bigotry against blacks in every situation. What we do have are the Civil Right Act, the Voting Act, and a strident effort to hire blacks and provide affirmative action in college admissions and hiring. It appears, though, that the aim of both Kendi and Hannah-Jones is to deem all Americans as racists if they’re not antiracist by paying reparations. I favor reparations, but as a moral issue and not a duty (my ancestors, after all, came from eastern Europe around 1890), and not by dispensation of cash to individuals.
Kendi then introduces something else he says is left out of the story — that America requires a “Third Reconstruction” to address the unfulfilled promise of the second. Here the 1619 Project’s project becomes explicitly political. Hannah-Jones fills in the details in the book’s final chapter, “Justice,” where she identifies the racial wealth gap as the most serious challenge for Black Americans. “White Americans’ centuries-long economic head start,” she writes, is what “most effectively maintains racial caste today.” To narrow that gap, the country must embark on “a vast social transformation produced by the adoption of bold national policies.”
Among these are a slate of priorities such as “a livable wage; universal healthcare, childcare, and college; and student loan debt relief,” Hannah-Jones indicates. They also include cash reparations for Black Americans — specifically, for those who can document having identified as Black for at least 10 years prior to any reparations process and who can “trace at least one ancestor back to American slavery.” Also suggested is a commitment to enforce civil rights laws regarding housing, education and employment, as well as “targeted investments” in Black communities across the country.
And so the New York Times’s 1619 Project is now enlisted in the service of a policy agenda and political worldview. The book’s concluding chapter underscores that link. “It is one thing to say you do not support reparations because you did not know the history, that you did not understand how things done long ago helped create the conditions in which millions of Black Americans live today,” Hannah-Jones writes. “But you now have reached the end of this book, and nationalized amnesia can no longer provide the excuse. None of us can be held responsible for the wrongs of our ancestors. But if today we choose not to do the right and necessary thing, that burden we own.”
Is this the message that we want to convey to children—that if they aren’t antiracist, they are racist? That is Kendi-an to the bone. I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s proper.
The NYT’s review:
Hochschild takes a diametrically opposed view, saying that his worries about historians’ concerns “largely melted away” when he read the book. He then lauds the book for showing connections between past racism and present-day acts. Here’s one example:
Part of the book’s depth lies in the way it offers unexpected links between past and present. New Yorkers, for instance, have long protested that the city Police Department’s “stop and frisk” searches for contraband or guns disproportionally snag people of color. But how many had connected it, as Leslie Alexander and Michelle Alexander do here, to the slave patrols of the old South, in which groups of armed white men routinely barged into the cabins of enslaved men and women to hunt for stolen goods or “anything they judged could be used as a weapon”?
Is there a direct connection here, or merely an analogy? Connecting two things because they’re similar doesn’t show an ancestor-descendant relationship. And Hochschild accepts Desmond’s chapter without quibbles:
Another contributor, Matthew Desmond, points out that the cotton plantation “was America’s first big business.” On the eve of the Civil War the monetary value “of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation.” That fact alone should silence anyone who claims that slavery is not central to American history.
No, that’s best shown in other ways, not by comparative value.
Moreover, controlling those workers “helped mold modern management techniques.” The plantations’ size allowed for economies of scale. And “like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker. So they paid close attention to inputs and outputs” — easy to do when you compared harvesters according to how far each had progressed down parallel rows of cotton plants. Every fieldworker’s yield was carefully recorded, and rewards or whippings administered accordingly. Spreadsheets tabulated the depreciating value of human property over time. Trade magazines for planters carried management tips on getting the most out of enslaved workers: the best diet, clothing and even the proper tone of voice to use when giving orders.
Does Hochschild, a historian, not realize that many modern management techniques were afoot independently in the North, not copied from slaveholders? And, of course, modern managers don’t dictate the diets of their employees nor whip them. He also buys Kendi’s assertion that Justice Roberts’s comment shows that racism has not waned a bit since the antebellum era.
To be fair, Hochschild does have some beefs about the book. He calls the claim that the Founding Fathers created the American system, and fomented revolution, all to preserve the institution of slavery “going out on a shaky limb.” He bemoans the lack of discussion of slavery in countries outside the U.S., and wishes that there were more about white allies of slavery. (Here he’s really admitting that the main criticisms of historians are correct.) But in the end, he sees the book as a necessary corrective—part of “The Reckoning.”
Despite what demagogues claim, honoring the story told in “The 1619 Project” and rectifying the great wrongs in it need not threaten or diminish anyone else’s experience, for they are all strands of a larger American story. Whether that fragile cloth holds together today, in the face of blatant defiance of election results and the rule of law, depends on our respect for every strand in the weave.
Yes, we do need a corrective to counteract the glossing-over of slavery and racism taught in many American history courses. But I’m not down with distortions of that history, and I’m opposed to calls for action and reparations in a book that will be used widely in schools. They should have left Kendi out, and also had the book reviewed not by self-picked reviewers but, like science papers, by anonymous but qualified reviewers picked by someone other than the authors.