Despite being written as a journalism project, I believe The 1619 Project surpasses that, serving as a combination of history and journalism. It features a great deal of historical information, along with the current, sociological effects that the past has had on society. Often, history is used as a tool for understanding the present; it is a way to make sense of our current society. As Serwer says, The 1619 Project is “a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American political, social, and economic institutions” (Serwer, p. 1). The formation of American society—the society which is enveloped in anti-black racism and white supremacy—can be traced back to slavery. This project incorporates history into modern issues, showing how we still see prominent traces of past events in our everyday lives. Silverstein, the Editor in Chief of The New York Times explains, “The project was intended to address the marginalization of African-American history in telling our national story and examine the legacy of slavery in contemporary American life” (Silverstein, p. 4). As IB History students, we all know: scope is essential when writing history. Many criticisms against The 1619 Project argue the fact that it does not discuss “the widespread practice of slavery outside the Americas” (Niemuth, p. 4). However, the writers of the project limited their scope to the United States, rather than slavery as a whole. Their objective was to discuss the “marginalization of African-American history” through education about slavery, and they fulfilled that. Although their claims were often worded strongly, there was evidence supporting their arguments. There are definitely elements of their history that are framed, due to this focus on America. Regardless, it is still history. Connections to present society or to select ideologies should not diminish this project, because we see this across the board. By nature, history will be framed, because historians and writers are people above all else. We see flaws throughout history, whether that be through documentation, subjectivity, or bias. Nevertheless, we still consider that to be history, so this project should be, as well.
Reading these arguments and counter arguments has raised several questions regarding both historical objectivity, and how history is remembered according to a nation’s “identity”. We often portray history as something that is solely factual, based on evidence, and fixed. In actuality, this is not the case. As Hannah-Jones states, “people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts” (Serwer, p. 14). There are a plethora of factors that can alter the accuracy of history, ranging from poor documentation to the manipulation of evidence. We make mistakes, we have opinions, and we can be blind to our errors. Though it is important to be as factually accurate as possible, perfection seems unattainable. This makes me wonder, is it impossible to achieve full objectivity in history, considering relativity, framing, and context? And if so, whose truth should we prioritize? Between The 1619 Project and the critiques, there seem to be two routes, “The letter is rooted in a vision of American history as a slow, uncertain march toward a more perfect union. The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay in particular, offer a darker vision of the nation, in which Americans have made less progress than they think, and in which black people continue to struggle indefinitely for the rights they may never fully realise” (Serwer, p. 4). Along with questions about prioritization, this raises questions about the impact that “American identity” has had on history. Certain historians tend to favour the idea that America is in a state of constant progression, and will continue along this upward trajectory. Others, who have felt the seemingly ever-present oppression within America, tend to be more pessimistic regarding this progression. These viewpoints are impacted by nationalism, experiences, and maltreatment. As a result, they impact the frame of history. The 1619 Project is “Viewed from the perspective of those historically denied the rights enumerated in America’s founding documents, [making] the story of the country’s great men necessarily look very different” (Serwer, pp. 1-2). In history, I believe it is important to see these different perspectives. We hear from those who have had white privilege since the formation of the nation, then those who have been oppressed by this. Returning to my question about prioritization, I personally believe that we should be listening to and elevating the voices of the people who have been most affected by systemic racism and slavery. However, it is equally important to examine slavery using other resources, to ensure that we have well-rounded knowledge.
Overall, The 1619 Project is an excellent “supplementary” resource, in terms of its purpose to “enhance traditional curricula, not replace [it]” (Serwer, p. 5). It is a unique way for people to examine slavery and racism, as it provokes many questions about those topics, and about history itself. By evaluating it rather than solely reading it, we’re able to raise these questions on the nature of history, which is an essential component in historical education.