Do you know what our teachers are being taught about American history?

Posted on April 1, 2020

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Did you know that “that slavery and racism are the foundations of American history?”

How can that be? What happened to “all men are created equal” with liberty and justice for all? Democracy? The Vote? Liberty? Free Enterprise?

Naw, forget all that claptrap. Here’s what our children need to be taught.  

In 2019 The New York Times published its1619 Project “whose aim,” noted a January 2020 article in The Atlantic, “the New York Times announced, was to reinterpret the entirety of American history. ‘Our democracy’s founding ideals,’ the Times noted, ‘were false when they were written.’”

The 1619 Project (remember, “all the news that’s fit to print?) argues that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery,” an interpretation judged by four historians with distinguished credentials as “a striking claim built on three false assertions.”

This is as close as thoughtful and—still—polite historians are likely to disagree in public. But in the recent article, “A Matter of Facts,” in The Atlantic by one of those historians, Sean Wilentz of Princeton, the gloves came off, for at stake is not some recondite academic debate, but what our country has been about for virtually since it’s founding. And especially in an election year, it’s important to know the truth.

We can only point out some of the highlights of this argument in a short Op-Ed column, but maybe will take it up later in more detail. –

 Wilinetz, of Jewish and Irish extraction, outlines it well. Basically 1619 claims that our history “as a nation rests on slavery and white supremacy, whose existence made a mockery of the Declaration of Independence’s ‘self-evident’ truth that all men are created equal.”

So, “the nation’s birth came not in 1776 but in 1619, the year, the project stated, when slavery arrived in Britain’s North American colonies.”

Read this way, “America’s politics, economics, and culture have stemmed from efforts to subjugate African Americans—first under slavery, then under Jim Crow, and then under the abiding racial injustices that mark our own time—as well as from the struggles, undertaken for the most part by black people alone, to end that subjugation and redeem American democracy.”

What about Henry Ford I thought, for example, when encountering this interpretation of American history? He transformed transportation history, started a new and vital industry, and increased wealth and opportunities across the nation. Was he just a white racist bent on subordinating African Americans as the authors of the 1619 would have you believe? If you believe that, you’ve just missed one of the key principles that has driven America to be what it is in world history.

Four historians took serious issue with some basic inaccuracies in the Project and asked The Times to correct or retract the errors.  The Times responded flatly denying that the project “contains significant factual errors” and the jousters prepared for a third or fourth round.

The American Revolution, the Civil War, and the era of Jim Crow were the focus of Project 1619. Henry Ford or Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller were not included.

Let’s examine the American Revolution. 1619 argues that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” Their evidence is buttressed by three false premises: One, that Britain in the 1770s was avidly devoted to abolishing the slave trade and slavery. It wasn’t. “What 1619 described as a perceptible British threat to American slavery in 1776 in fact did not exist.”

1619 claimed that Britain threatened to end the slave trade. In fact, most of the colonies had already taken steps between 1769 and 1774 to outlaw the slave trade. Britain was not taking the lead in this enterprise.

What arguments did 1619 historian Nikole Hannah-Jones bring to bear on Abraham Lincoln? She wrote “Lincoln not only opposed slavery as a cruel system at odds with American ideals but he also opposed black equality.” To which Wilinetz responded. That argument “is built on partial truths and misstatements of the facts which combine to impart a fundamentally misleading impression.”

Lincoln, like many abolitionists of those times, “harbored the belief that white people were socially superior to black people.” But he acted as he believed, that in every other, and legal way, they had, in Lincoln’s words, “the right to eat the bread without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, [the Negro] is my equal, and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every other man.”

To state flatly, as Hannah-Jones’s essay does, that Lincoln “opposed black equality” is to deny the very basis of his opposition to slavery.

Nor was Lincoln known to treat black people as inferior. After meeting with Lincoln at the White House, Sojourner Truth, the black abolitionist, said that he “showed as much respect and kindness to the coloured persons present as to the white,” and that she “never was treated by any one with more kindness and cordiality” than “by that great and good man.”

And, “in his first meeting with Lincoln, Frederick Douglass wrote, the president greeted him ‘just as you have seen one gentleman receive another, with a hand and voice well-balanced between a kind cordiality and a respectful reserve.’ Lincoln addressed him as “Mr. Douglass” as he encouraged his visitor to spread word in the South of the Emancipation Proclamation and to help recruit and organize black troops.”

As president, moreover, Lincoln acted on his beliefs, taking enormous political and, as it turned out, personal risks. In March 1864, as he approached a difficult reelection campaign, Lincoln asked the Union war governor of Louisiana to establish the beginning of black suffrage in a new state constitution, “to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom.” A year later, in his final speech, Lincoln publicly broached the subject of enlarging black enfranchisement, which was the final incitement to a member of the crowd, John Wilkes Booth, to assassinate him.

Jake Silverstein, New York Times, acknowledged that Hannah-Jones’s essay presented a partial account of Lincoln’s ideas about abolition and racial equality, but excused the imbalance because the essay covered so much ground. “Admittedly, in an essay that covered several centuries and ranged from the personal to the historical, she did not set out to explore in full his continually shifting ideas about abolition and the rights of black Americans,” he wrote. In fact, throughout the essay’s lengthy discussion of Lincoln and colonization, what Silverstein called Lincoln’s “attitudes” are frozen in time, remote from political difficulties. Still, Silverstein contended, Hannah-Jones’s essay “provides an important historical lesson by simply reminding the public, which tends to view Lincoln as a saint, that for much of his career, he believed that a necessary prerequisite for freedom would be a plan to encourage the four million formerly enslaved people to leave the country.” Whether or not the public still regards Lincoln as a saint, a myth cannot be corrected by a distorted view. As Silverstein himself acknowledged, “At the end of his life, Lincoln’s racial outlook had evolved considerably in the direction of real equality.”

Moving beyond the civil war, the essay briefly examined the history of Reconstruction, the long and bleak period of Jim Crow, and the resistance that led to the rise of the modern civil-rights movement. “For the most part,” Hannah-Jones wrote, “black Americans fought back alone.”

This is the third claim that my colleagues and I criticized, and although it covers the longest period of the three, it can be dealt with most directly. Before, during, and after the Civil War, some white people were always an integral part of the fight for racial equality. From lethal assaults on white southern “scalawags” for opposing white supremacy during Reconstruction through resistance to segregation led by the biracial NAACP through the murders of civil-rights workers, white and black, during the Freedom Summer, in 1964, and in Selma, Alabama, a year later, liberal and radical white people have stood up for racial equality. A. Philip Randolph, the founder of the modern civil-rights movement, stated in his speech at the March on Washington, in 1963, “This civil-rights revolution is not confined to the Negro, nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not.”

Silverstein, in his reply, observed that civil-rights advances “have almost always come as a result of political and social struggles in which African-Americans have generally taken the lead.” But when it comes to African Americans’ struggles for their own freedom and civil rights, this is not what Hannah-Jones’s essay asserted.

The specific criticisms of the 1619 Project that my colleagues and I raised in our letter, and the dispute that has ensued, are not about historical trajectories or the intractability of racism or anything other than the facts—the errors contained in the 1619 Project as well as, now, the errors in Silverstein’s response to our letter. We wholeheartedly support the stated goal to educate widely on slavery and its long-term consequences. Our letter attempted to advance that goal, one that, no matter how the history is interpreted and related, cannot be forwarded through falsehoods, distortions, and significant omissions. Allowing these shortcomings to stand uncorrected would only make it easier for critics hostile to the overarching mission to malign it for their own ideological and partisan purposes, as some had already begun to do well before we wrote our letter.

Taking care of the facts is, I believe, all the more important in light of current political realities. The New York Times has taken a lead in combatting the degradation of truth and assault on a free press propagated by Donald Trump’s White House, aided and abetted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and spun by the far right on social media. American democracy is in a perilous condition, and the Times can report on that danger only by upholding its standards “without fear or favor.” That is why it is so important that lapses such as those pointed out in our letter receive attention and timely correction. When describing history, more is at stake than the past.

Published in a much shorter form as “Are children being taught the facts, or ideology,” to conform to length restrictions in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday March 22, 2020.