Shortly before leaving office, the former president established the 1776 Commission. It was formed to control narratives about the history of the United States and maintain white supremacist propaganda that erased the nation’s histories of settler colonialism, slavery, and anti-Blackness. The commission’s report, released on January 18, 2021 was posted on the White House’s website for only two days. It, however, sparked outrage amongst professional historians and others on social media and in the press. Despite this backlash, the report’s eventual removal, and the current administration’s move to end the commission immediately upon taking office, the larger forces directing its political project have long histories and remain at work in the continued and expanded fight against Critical Race Theory and other imagined curricular threats. These are not just intellectual debates over how we analyze and narrate the past. As Keisha N. Blain has recently reminded us, it is, instead, a “matter of life and death.” African American historians and activists have always understood the stakes of these arguments and the importance of teaching Black perspectives on the history of the nation.
Those who now fight teaching the history of the United States have, in part, been responding to Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, which was published in 2019 by the New York Times on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of “20 and odd” captive Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia. The 1619 Project attempted to address the role that slavery played in the founding of the United States, its continued influence on our present, and the role that African Americans have played in shaping American democracy. The project asked popular audiences to readjust how we understand the nation’s past, making slavery our continued—or continual—origin story. In this way, the project built off the work of Black Studies scholars like Saidiya Hartman who configured the idea of “slavery’s afterlife” as one in which “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago.”1 Indeed, more radical scholarship like this offers us important ways to critique the framing of the 1619 Project itself in useful and generative ways, unlike those of right-wing ideologues.2
The uprisings in the Spring and Summer of 2020 in response to the police murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade and others and the resulting calls for abolition were also an important catalyst for the 1776 commission and its broader manifestations. These protests saw the removal of monuments to white supremacy and settler colonialism across the world. These actions had historical significance. But, they were also public acts of historical narration that offered alternative ways to understand the past and what else might be possible.
Happening during a global pandemic, these events were met with counter-revolutionary force. From the state violence that met protesters, to attempts to limit American history to the realm of fantasy, politicians worked to quell insurrection by using a mix of methods that have a deep history in the United States. At the turn of the 20th century, United Daughters of the Confederacy led efforts to memorialize the Lost Cause in public spaces and in schools. In the same period, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) turned to educational reform as part of its white supremacist platform.
These efforts have continued to manifest themselves across the nation, as local school boards and state governments attempt to control curriculum (some of whom have succeeded) and enact censorship at local libraries. This is also evident in the actions of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees and their response to the hire and tenure of Nikole Hannah-Jones. The whitewashing of slavery continues in schools and helps us to understand why Hannah-Jones’1619 Project is still singled out years after its publication. In doing so, proponents of this kind of legislation further underscore their lack understanding on this project—going as far as merging and/or using it interchangeably with other frameworks such as Critical Race Theory. However, their all-encompassing claims make their efforts even more dangerous for educators and students, and all of us, at every level.
A letter from “Civil Rights Movement Veterans” to teachers posted on the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project’s Twitter account last summer carefully reminds readers that these current efforts, which, not uncoincidentally, include contemporary voter suppression and judicial attacks on foundational rights, are all strategies that educators and activists have seen before and organized against. After emancipation, African Americans organized massive education efforts for the formerly enslaved. Both SNCC and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense understood political education as a central part of their activism. History tells us that educators must and will continue to do so.
Centuries after 1619 and decades after the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power, we continue to grapple with the “propaganda of history,” as W.E.B. Du Bois described it in Black Reconstruction in America. It was no mistake that Du Bois opened this chapter by showing how Reconstruction was taught in schools. As Du Bois also revealed, Black radical traditions from abolition in the 19th century to Black Power in the 20th, have long given us alternatives to the myth of America. So, too, have others like Indigenous activists and thinkers who have demanded sovereignty and Land Back. Those who refused the terms of nation as a white supremacist, settler colonial form, and envisioned something else must remain at the core of our understanding of the past, present, and what futures we can bring into being.
As educators and historians, we are obligated to help our students understand how the world as we know it came to be. We can only do that by telling the truth about the past by teaching it as it was. However, we must also show students how historical actors, who faced so many of the forces we do now, imagined their capacity for action, all that they accomplished despite the odds, and the work that remains.
- Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), 6. ↩
- “NYT 1619 Project More Pro-American Exceptionalism than Anti-Slavery with Josh Meyers” Black Agenda Report (October 14, 2019) https://www.blackagendareport.com/nyt-1619-project-more-pro-american-exceptionalism-anti-slavery. Lauren Michele Jackson “The 1619 Project and the Demands of Public History” The New Yorker (December 8, 2021) https://www.newyorker.com/books/under-review/the-1619-project-and-the-demands-of-public-history Derek Litvak “There’s a Legitimate Critique of the 1619 Project. And Then There’s Sean Wilentz” Clio and the Contemporary https://clioandthecontemporary.com/2020/10/23/theres-a-legitimate-critique-of-the-1619-project-and-then-theres-sean-wilentz/. ↩