One of the great questions of our current political moment is about how we tell the story of slavery in America during the digital age. This question has gained new potency in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the revelations about the existence of institutional racism that still pervades America. Black Millenials have been stopped and frisked since before they could vote. Black people cannot sit in a Starbucks without worrying that the police might be called on them. Black people continue to endure all sorts of “othering” experiences throughout American life. And Black people today must also suffer the torturous cultural phenomenon of white people trying to explain away slavery to each other, just as every previous generation of Black Americans have.
The 1619 project has been a noble attempt to right that last wrong. There is a saying that every generation must retell history in its own words in order for it to make sense in its time. History must be retold with the current language, the current frames of reference, and the current sentiments. Telling history is an activity we do, not just a passive experience that happens to us. That is the goal of the 1619 project: to retell the history of slavery for the digital generation.
The problem with the 1619 project is that it tries to explain slavery in a way that frames slavery as a permanent stain on the current generations who are listening to the retelling. In her opening essay, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.” There is a vast amount of truth in this statement. No one who has studied the history of America, nor anyone who has studied the history or how history is told in America, can deny that racism runs deep in the veins of the nation’s past. It has been suggested, with much historical research to back up the claim, that the Constitution would not have been agreed to by some of the Founding Fathers if emancipation had been included in it. Indeed, it is one of the enduring shames of the American Revolution that emancipation was not included in the Constitution while emancipation was a major feature in the French Revolution. In this sense, the American Revolution is inferior to the French Revolution, much to our chagrin.
Unfortunately, this statement is deeply misleading. By saying that the stain of slavery is in our DNA, the message the project sends to readers is that racism and the marks of slavery are immutable, permanent, and irreconcilable. That is false. Perhaps our generation of history tellers is still suffering under the living memory of former slaves and sharecroppers. Perhaps the current generations of Americans are damaged, permanently. But part of what makes human being wonderous creatures is that we have the ability to grow and change and overcome ourselves. We can appeal to our better natures. To say that racism and the legacy of slavery is in our DNA is to deny the core belief behind the phrase “a more perfect union.”
If there is one major piece of the puzzle of slavery missing, then, it is the story of slavery as labor. Indeed, slavery has existed in one form or another for thousands of years. In the American context, racism against Black people was used to obfuscate the core injustice of forcing another human being into indentured servitude. Racism was and still is present, there is no denying that, and slavery and racism worked together in the American context like two sides of the same coin. But the coin was labor. Without the story of labor, labor rights, the unions that fought with the abolitionists, the tactics that Whites as bourgeois owners used to control the lower classes, namely the slaves, the story is incomplete. In many ways, the story of slavery and racism is as much about how the bourgeois whites used anti-black racism to prevent the working-class whites from organizing with the slaves to secure their rights against the owners. The 1619 project would do well to offer this analysis to complete the story.
How we tell the story of the creation of the Constitution, the subsequent century of slavery, as well as the century and half of slavery that preceded the American Revolution, will shape us, both as tellers and as listeners. It is so important to be careful with this task. While it is unlikely that any telling will be without some fault, each telling must be rendered as close to our ideals of perfection as possible if we wish to do justice to those who came before us. The 1619 project is a good faith effort to tell the history of slavery according to our highest ideals as a nation. Even if there are some factual errors and some mischaracterizations, it is an honest telling, and it captures deep truths about America and its spirit. To that end, the project has been a success and we are better off for it. That sentiment is shared by the dozens of historians who declined to sign the letter sent by 5 historians to the New York Times last week criticizing the project. The project is worth doing. But it is worth doing correctly, and it needs to be corrected to include the history of slavery as labor. Until it does that, the 1619 project is incomplete.