On July 27, when I saw that Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) had introduced a bill named the “Saving American History Act of 2020,” one that threatens to withhold federal funds from schools that teach New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, I thought: “well, it’s déjà vu all over again.”
It is almost a foregone conclusion that when new circumstances, and new evidence, force us to evaluate a consensus view of the American past, new and public conflicts erupt. As a history educator, I have seen this all before.
As the culture wars ramped up after 1992, the attempt to craft National History Standards resulted in a similar backlash, and the project collapsed. Conservative critic Lynne Cheney called the standards “the end of history,” claiming that the multi-year efforts of hundreds of historians and teachers from across the country amounted to little more than “politicized history” authored by “an academic establishment.” Its proponents, who told different stories, and, in the process, elevated the experiences of marginalized communities, were also dismissed by conservative culture warriors as anti-American and dangerous. And in 1993, a planned Smithsonian exhibit commemorating the Enola Gay and the fiftieth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, also created a firestorm. Politicians and veterans’ organizations protested representation of the Japanese experience and interpretations of the choice to use a nuclear weapon that did not conform to a view of American actions as unequivocally beyond reproach. A second attempt to mount such an exhibition in 2003 succeeded—but also drew vigorous protests.
While the setbacks that often follow attempts to push historiographical innovations into the mainstream have been frustrating, efforts to revise the American past in school curricula continue. Neither academic historians nor secondary school teachers have accepted the triumphalist or exclusionary vision of the past that their critics embrace. Instead, they have continued to push the boundaries of representation and inclusion to form a larger memory, one that reflects both the pluralism that undergirds American history and the conflicts that pluralism inevitably creates.
There’s no denying that the culture wars are alive and well today. In this most recent salvo, Cotton’s target is the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project. Led by Hannah-Jones and a team of journalists and academics, this series of essays has become a multimedia juggernaut, spawning a podcast and a curriculum designed in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate, a global multi-media company, have signed on to produce a series of films and a television show based on it as well.
The motivation behind the 1619 Project is to elevate knowledge about, and the significance of, slavery and racism in American collective memory. It demands that Americans reckon, as a nation, with their racial past and present. But Cotton’s legislation frames the project as an attack on America: “The 1619 Project,” he writes, “is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded.” In fact, the 1619 Project aims to reimagine what United States history would look like with slavery, anti-Black racism, and racial injustice as its central focus.
In other words, the project emphasizes the gap between America’s founding principles and the lived experience of generations of African Americans, during and long after slavery.
Notably, Cotton’s legislation also has a history. Previous efforts to make a full accounting of African American history in school curricula have only been partially successful. The field is at its most robust during February’s Black History Month, and in the portions of textbooks devoted to slavery and civil rights. But the ongoing struggle of African Americans, and the violent history of racial repression, fades from view as other events—World Wars, presidential administrations – take the stage. This compartmentalized approach has, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced a binary between African American and “United States history,” as if the two were not one and the same.
Moreover, when it comes to moving popular history into school curricula, the 1619 Project has a recent, and less controversial, precedent. The partnership between the Gilder Lehrman Society and playwright-performer Lin-Manuel Miranda to design curriculum around the Broadway musical Hamilton re-imagined the American founding as a history that wasn’t white at all. This project was also criticized, but from the left. Detractors argued that while Hamilton inspired the young to study the past, it sent the wrong message to students of color: that personal gumption, and boot-strap individualism is an American tradition leads to personal success.
In a more powerful way than Hamilton, which reimagined slave-owning founders as Black and Brown, the 1619 Project created a platform for Black scholars to take ownership of the American narrative. Because that platform was the New York Times, this account of U.S. history has now, unequivocally, moved into the mainstream. Moreover, the 1619 Project does not start and end with slavery and persecution. Rather, it emphasizes cultural contributions: music and art forms so deeply woven into American culture that, as with European immigrants, it becomes nearly impossible to extricate African Americans from all aspects of the nation’s history.
Because of this, it belongs in the history classroom.
Eric Foner once asked: “Who owns history?” Tom Cotton, and others who seek to push the 1619 Project out of view, would claim that they are the guardians of a sacred past and that Hannah-Jones and her fellow authors are propagating a myth. Yet, this should give us pause: as Foner reminds us, “There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history.”
That is true—often it is not because we know more about the past, but because we become willing to listen to it differently. Tom Cotton is right about one thing: schools do form citizens. Schools have often been explicit vehicles for forging national identity. Textbooks, written to appeal to the broadest possible audience, have too often been complicit in perpetuating misconceptions, stereotypes, and a consensus view of the past that downplays conflict, injustice, and the contribution of minoritized communities.
The 1619 Project is a step towards not just addressing lapses in our collective memory, but also taking this revisionist history to the place where citizenship is formed: school. It demystifies the past and the present, showcasing the diversity and dynamism of communities that are often misunderstood and subject to demeaning representations. As a curriculum, it is a move towards expanded and equitable representation in classrooms. It challenges absences. As all good history does, it makes the familiar strange.
The 1619 Project deserves to be examined, questioned, discussed, debated, critiqued, and appreciated as one installment in the ongoing conversation between the past and the present.
Daniel Osborn is a program director at Primary Source and the author of Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness(Routledge, 2018).