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When I grew up in Houston, Texas, I attended segregated public schools. Everything was segregated, including movie theaters, drinking foundations, churches, restaurants, public transit (the sign “colored” divided passengers, with blacks in the back of the bus; if there were more white passengers than black passengers, the sign was moved back and black passengers gave up their seats and stood), and everything else. Even newspaper ads were segregated, by both race and gender. Blacks entered white homes through the back door. Blacks were expected to step off the sidewalk and into the street when passing a white pedestrian.
In my high school American history class, we learned almost nothing about black history. Our textbooks recognized George Washington Carver and his discovery of the many uses of peanuts. That was about it. In eleventh-grade U.S. history, the textbook taught the now-discredited Dunning theory of the Reconstruction Era (William Archibald Dunning was a Columbia University history professor who taught the white Southern view of the period); we were taught that the South after the Civil War was overrun by corrupt black politicians who bankrupted their states and by white carpetbaggers who helped the corrupt blacks. We now know that the Dunning version of history was untrue, and that the post-Reconstruction governments in the Southern states produced a remarkable period of progressive legislation.
In college in the late 1950s, there were no courses in black history. Not until I was in graduate school did I study black history in depth and learn about the systematically vicious, brutal, and demeaning treatment of black Americans by white Americans. I knew it from life experience, but at the same time I did not know it in full, as Hannah-Jones presents it in The 1619 Project.
Her essay in the collection is a powerful and persuasive history of black people in the United States.
History has often been taught simply as facts to be memorized. But history taught well involves not only facts, but discussion about controversies. Historians agree about basic facts, but not about causes and consequences. Historians disagree. Events seldom if ever have a single cause. And they usually have multiple consequences. Students must learn about the disagreements and think critically about what they learned. They may come down on one side or the other, but they should learn to respect those who disagree with them.
Was the American Revolution intended to preserve slavery, as Hannah-Jones asserts? Most seismic events have multiple causes, and their participants have different motives. Some American rebels fought to escape British colonialism; some fought to avoid British taxation; and some fought to stop the abolitionist fervor from reaching their plantations. Is racism part of the DNA of America? If so, the situation is hopeless and the prospects for change are out of reach. Thoughtful people look at the same set of facts and draw different conclusions about their meaning. That’s what makes the study of history interesting.
In the current controversy surrounding The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones offers a pessimistic view of the treatment of black people in America. Her critics think she is too pessimistic. They don’t differ about facts, but about interpretations of facts. I usually find myself responding to questions of interpretation by saying, “It depends.”
Some white Americans say that the proof of black progress is that the nation elected and re-elected a black President; that some blacks (like Oprah and other stars of the entertainment and sports industries) are fabulously successful; that affirmative action has allowed blacks to enter elite universities and executive suites; and that Congress has passed multiple civil rights laws to forbid racial discrimination.
Other white Americans recognize that institutional and personal racism still exists, despite laws on the books, despite the success of Obama and Oprah. They know the statistics about black poverty, segregated schools, maternal health, access to medical care, and other indicators of disadvantage. They see black neighborhoods that are blighted, racially segregated, and lack decent public services. They know the incarceration rates for people of color. They know that state legislatures are passing laws to make it harder for them to vote. They see how few blacks make it into the executive suites.
If I were black, I would admire The 1619 Project and share it with my family and friends. I would be impressed by Nikole Hannah-Jones’ courage, audacity, and scholarship. I would feel that at long last the story of black people was told.
Should The 1619 Project be used in high schools when teaching American history? Absolutely yes. It should be taught alongside the criticisms of its ideas. It is a wonderful teaching tool. It is thought-provoking. It demonstrates how history can challenge conventional thinking. It shows black people as agents, not simply as victims. It shows a seamy and vicious side of American life that was real and important to know. Students should not be ignorant of black history. By using this material, students will learn that our understanding of history is constantly evolving and that the subject is a fascinating battleground of ideas.
Whether they agree with Wilentz or Hannah-Jones, they will be far better educated about American history by reading their disagreements. We must confront and debate our history and move beyond efforts to indoctrinate students with a whitewashing of the past.