1619 to 202210-09-2022
I’ve been teaching the 1619 Project in classes this week. I was excited to see that Mark Weitzmann has a long essay exploring Nikole Hannah Jones and the controversy around the 1619 Project as a rorschach test for the American discourse on race. Weitzmann writes:
The right-wing backlash to the project has been mostly offensive, but the long-term impact of 1619’s genuine flaws may have been more damaging than anticipated. On Aug. 17, 2022, when president of the American Historical Association James H. Sweet published a column in the organization’s magazine mildly criticizing The 1619 Project for being a “powerful” journalistic event rather than a work of history, he launched a storm of criticism on Twitter, where several activist historians (most of whom, for what it’s worth, were white) demanded his immediate resignation on the perfectly circular logic that any public criticism of the project is “going to be weaponized by the right.” Others claimed the project is indeed a work of scholarship, but did not rebut any prior claims of error. Hannah-Jones, who in 2020 claimed that “I’ve always said that The 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism,” retweeted the criticism of Sweet.
It is episodes like these that sparked my fascination in the first place. In the course of researching, reporting, and interviewing for this story, I became less interested in finding out how exactly The 1619 Project came to be or in unearthing the gossipy details of Hannah-Jones’ role at The New York Times—a tired story, in large part, of digital-age news media business-model implosion—than in how Americans increasingly find themselves in this odd and idiosyncratic predicament: splitting into opposing camps that are more or less aware of their deliberate deviations from the truth, yet clinging desperately to ever more extreme and factional positions of unreality. To a foreign observer, at least, few things seem more distinctly American than this racially tainted, self-destructive double nature of every norm, institution, and subculture.
And what could better embody these internal American contradictions than the story of the author of The 1619 Project herself—the tirelessly careerist daughter of a civil rights-activist white mother and a troubled Black father; the formerly quiet, bookish, Midwestern, working-class girl who became one of the most powerful and influential figures at The New York Times, where she often speaks with a Southern accent strikingly displaced from the region in which she grew up; the would-be scholar of American slavery for whom history is as much about“narrative,” “memory,” and “the present” as it as about truth or “the past”; the journalist driven by a seemingly outdated faith in the power of the written word, but whose output as a public intellectual has been largely distributed through the unforgiving medium of Twitter, where her sometimes cruel, often petty tweets come under the name of Ida Bae Wells—derived from Ida B. Wells, the pioneering 19th-century journalist who was born a slave and died a legend of both the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements.