The New 1619 Project Book Tells the Same Old Story

David Acevedo

CounterCurrent: Week of 11/28

Thanksgiving is behind us, and we’ve all had a few days to recover from our tryptophan-induced food comas (even after the leftovers). Back to reality we go, and with it the vicissitudes of the American education news cycle. “Where to next?” you may be wondering. The answer might surprise you: Two years in the past, or 402 years, depending on how you’re counting.

That’s right. As of November 16, the New York Times’ 1619 Project is back with a vengeance. Depending on who you are, this news will either elicit a standing ovation or a collective groan—with increasingly little room in-between. 

What was originally published as a special issue of the New York Times Magazine in August 2019—one dedicated to “[reframing] the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”—has now been expanded into a 624-page book of essays, fiction, and photographs titled The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. The book bears the name of 1619 Project founder Nikole Hannah-Jones, who since the Project was launched two years ago, transformed from a successful, up-and-coming journalist to an indisputable patron saint of the American far-left.

Of course, the 1619 Project was never truly “gone” in the first place. Shortly after its initial publication, it was met with a sustained response from an intellectually diverse chorus of critics. On the individual level, this included well-established historians such as Gordon Wood, James Oakes, and Victoria Bynum, who rightly pointed out the many obvious falsehoods contained within the Project. On the institutional level, opposition to the 1619 Project included the Woodson Center’s 1776 Unites and the National Association of Scholars’ own 1620 Project, which argues that 1620 Plymouth, not 1619 Jamestown, is a historically accurate starting point for American history and values. NAS President Peter Wood then followed up the 1620 Project with his acclaimed book 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project.

Nevertheless, she persisted,” as they say. Unperturbed by the critics, Hannah-Jones enjoyed massive professional success in the wake of the 1619 Project, scoring a Pulitzer Prize in 2020, dozens of prestigious speaking engagements, and a coveted faculty position at Howard University. What’s more, the Times launched an extensive educational partnership with the Pulitzer Center as soon as the Project was published, which has helped enshrine 1619 falsehoods in countless K-12 schools. This has since expanded into the 21-state 1619 Project Education Network.

Now, with their new book, Hannah-Jones and the Times are back for more. Have they corrected the many proven historical errors that plague the original Project? The short answer is “no.” The longer answer comes from Peter Wood, who in this week’s featured article introduces the new book, reviews the post-1619 firestorm that consumed much of 2019-20, and critiques NYT editor Jake Silverstein’s accompanying essay, “The 1619 Project and the Long Battle Over U.S. History.” The article, published three days before the book was released, is what Dr. Wood describes as “a preemptive bombardment in anticipation of what critics would say when they encountered Hannah-Jones’ untempered determination to stick with known falsehoods rather than admit the facts.” 

In essence, Silverstein obfuscates the NYT’s unrepentant historical malfeasance by running the same play he did in December 2019, when he wrote that “[h]istorical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices.” But the supposed “new scholarship” of the 1619 Project is little more than fanciful story-telling—certainly not serious historical research. As Dr. Wood writes,

Telling stories is not necessarily a bad thing. Done well, such story-telling is called literature, and it is an important part of culture. But we rightly distinguish between the history and fiction sections in our libraries and bookstores.

Silverstein’s new essay comes down to a claim that “historiography” gives Hannah-Jones permission to ignore that distinction. He observes that upon its publication the original 1619 Project was very popular with readers; that Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution; and that “[t]he racial disparities in Covid infections and deaths” tended to confirm the project’s thesis about “ongoing inequalities,” as did the George Floyd “demonstrations.” This is as much to say that the 1619 Project is its own justification because it has proven popular and influential.

Does our understanding of history change over time? Certainly. But, as Dr. Wood emphasizes, interpretations require facts. The 1619 Project has indulged in blatant lies and subtle half-truths from the start, and neither Hannah-Jones nor the Times have done much of anything to correct them. Unfortunately, A New Origin Story tells the same old story of the original Project, a story that emcompasses contemporary American academia as a whole: seeking the truth is secondary to promoting your ideology, and when truth gets in the way, you change it. 

Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage on the book and the fierce debate it will undoubtedly trigger.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications & Research Associate David Acevedo. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: Marco Lenti, Public Domain

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