Amid an ongoing cultural reckoning that’s spotlighted anti-Black racism in the U.S, educators around the country are searching for new ways to teach Black history in their classrooms. To this end, many public school districts are incorporating the New York Times’ “The 1619 Project” into their curriculum. The 1619 Project is an interactive project (originally consisting of essays, poems, fiction, and photos, now adapted into a podcast and free online curriculum) that reexamines U.S history by centering African slavery in our understanding of America’s past and present, beginning in 1619 — the year the first slave ship arrived on America’s shores. The effort positions slavery — often woefully mistaught in U.S schools — and its legacy as critical to understanding wide-ranging aspects of American society and history.
The 1619 Project being incorporated into schools has drawn outrage and criticism from Republican lawmakers. In July, Senator Tom Cotton ’98 (R-Ark.), a former Crimson Editorial editor, introduced a bill that would prohibit distributing federal funding to K-12 schools and school districts that teach The 1619 Project. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have argued that The 1619 Project is un-American propaganda, and that its incorporation in educational curriculum encourages the revision and politicization of American history.
Ever upping the ante, President Donald Trump tweeted on Sept. 6 that the Department of Justice will investigate whether California public school districts are using the project in their curriculum. He warns such schools will be defunded.
Public school curriculum generally does not adequately cover racial history. As a result, horror stories of teachers instructing students to list the pros of slavery and orchestrating mock slave auctions abound. We oppose any attempts to hinder improving slavery’s teaching in the U.S, recognizing the damage an inadequate racial education can cause. When American history is taught without the nuance racial history provides, educators risk cultivating students with damaged perceptions of the world.
The stakes of understating the impacts of American slavery are high. Educators must intentionally teach students about the formation and development of oppressive institutions and systems in the U.S, because, without understanding their legacies, dismaying statistics and blight in Black communities in the U.S can appear to be matters of personal responsibility, not facets of the long shadow of slavery. The absence of Black history in curriculums hinders the cultivation of empathy and denies students critical context needed to engage with racial issues and racial identity.
To deem centering this history as un-American suggests a dangerous idea of what it means to be American.
Labeling The 1619 Project as such suggests that Black history in the U.S. is not American history. It implies that it is un-American to recognize violence and discrimination against Black people. Ultimately, it suggests that validating the experiences of Black Americans is inherently un-American — a nasty undercurrent likely underpinning the largely white history we are taught in schools.
Examples set by other countries that rigorously teach their ugly racial pasts should dispel fears that projects like The 1619 Project will inspire a decline in patriotism. See Germany, where concentration camps are used as teaching sites to impress upon students the horrors of anti-Semitism, or South Africa, where national pride soars even after the country undertook a national truth-telling initiative to address its long history of institutionalized racism under apartheid. Despite these countries’ pasts and their acknowledgements of horrifying wrongdoing, patriotism lives on. Germany and South Africa signal that America’s students need not be exposed to a solely positive (and consequently, incomplete) version of history to be patriotic.
Trump’s reaction to The 1619 Project strikes us as a barefaced attempt to score political points and pander to growing conservative opposition to cultural sensitivity efforts, rather than legitimate historical criticism. His threat to defund California schools who teach The 1619 Project is authoritarian and undemocratic — an attempt to outlaw readings of history that displease him.
This attempt to censor our collective memory is an encroachment upon American freedom: textbook dictator-style. This is not how any normal democratic government would operate, but it has become a trademark of this president: threatening to withhold federal fundings as a political gimmick, as he did earlier this year to pressure K-12 to reopen in person despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Without rich primary source materials to expose children to the hard truths of slavery in America, indifference to generations of routinized, legally sanctioned murder, sexual violence, and forced labor can run rampant. Politics that denounce the legitimacy of the needs of Black and other marginalized communities, that diminish and seek to control their histories, and that perpetuate their oppression do so on the back of that indifference. Education is the best hope against that indifference, and the cruel policies it sustains.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.