A Historian’s View of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project, Part 1

Posted on July 27, 2021

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Last summer, the Pandemic Summer of 2020, I took up two subjects that have now come to dominate the political discourse in our country. Everyone seems to have an opinion on CRT and the 1619 theory and how they impact the nature of our country’s history. I thought I’d revisit these from the perspective of a professional historian, kind of like a heart surgeon describing her trade rather than a journalist who watched a few bypasses and some other procedures to get a feel for the operation business.

One, the journalist drops in like a parachutist for a few days or weeks scouting out the terrain to write his article/s. The surgeon studies the heart and how it works in the human being for ten or fifteen years, including medical school and a long post-medical school residency and when she works on her patient, she indeed knows the field like few other professionals in any field.  

Unlike medicine, History is open to anyone who can read or listen, kind of like the journalist. And just about anyone who can put a sentence together and string them into some paragraphs or pages can write “history.”

More like surgical training, however, the historian will spend five or six years in graduate school, then perhaps do a post-graduate teaching or research position, and if he publishes a bit in professional journals, may get a job teaching at University or College X or Y. Like the surgeon who continues to learn as she works on hearts and the complex apparatus of a human body, in trouble from illness or disease, the historian probes deeper and deeper into archives, libraries, and sources to write his first books. He learns to be critical, to cobble together an account of some historical event that conforms to the documentary literature he has discovered in his research. There are lots of different sub-specialties of the surgeon, as there are of the professional historian.

Today critical race theory, based on the experience of Africans in the English colonies of North America as slaves first and then freedmen after the Civil War, attracts his attention. Any good practitioner of history likes to work both with the hypothetical questions as well as the documents. A hypothetical question might be: what is the true nature of American civilization over the centuries? A documentary question could be what friends did Abraham Lincoln make over his life that can help us understand him? And as his research proceeds on his newest project, a biography of Abraham Lincoln, he will probe deeply into not only the documentary sources (letters, etc.) but he will also begin to develop an overall theory or hypothesis to his accumulating work. Or he may just dump his biography of Lincoln when an older and wiser historian tells him: “What! We don’t need another biography of Lincoln!”

President Lincoln, Slavery, and the Emancipation Proclamation

President Abraham Lincoln with African Americans outside the White House, circa 1863 (https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-lincoln-slavery-and-emancipation)

As one grows in the profession of history, one tends to look for generalities to describe any phenomenon, like, for example, the expansion of capitalism in America, or the role of women in the making of the Constitution (his wife suggested that one), or how Americans have dealt with the thorny social and economic issue of the African slave experience since the first Africans were brought to Virginia in 1619 for example.

Or he may be tempted to narrow his research a bit to how was the African slave experience in the English colonies/U. S. similar to or different from Cuba or Brazil for example? They also received millions of African slaves since the first Africans were brought—not to Virginia—but to the islands of the Caribbean, like Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, or Cuba, by Spanish and Portuguese slave traders in the first half of the sixteenth century.  

As he works his way into what role African slavery played in the making of the United States, he realizes it is a tough question, since the same phenomenon—African slaves in the plantation economies of Cuba and Brazil—did not produce the same angst (he learned that word from the psychologists) it has been producing in today’s America.

In fact, today Americans seem absorbed with the experience of Blacks in American society, ignoring, the historian thought to himself, important elements like liberty and freedom in the making of American politics, society, industry, and general culture. Some U. S. historians even elevate race in a theory called Critical Race Theory to be THE dominant factor in American life.

Is this true, good history? Is the CRT a political argument, or based on sound data? And to establish the credibility of the CRT, its proponents—historians AND journalists—had to elevate the arrival of the first Africans on the coast of Virginia in 1619 to be THE most important moment in the making of our Republic.

First articles and now books are splattering the reading and video forums across the country. Something is amiss here. Distinguished historians—see next week’s column—deny the truth and the documentation that support both CRT and project 1619. And so, like any good historian, we will see test the hypothesis: is race the determining factor in what made America?

Published as “A historian’s view of critical race theory and the 1619 project,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday July 17, 2021