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Forgetting vs. Overcoming: Abuses of History and the 1619 Project

The 1619 Project is, strangely, a history project that encourages forgetting as much as it remembers.

· 15 min read
Forgetting vs. Overcoming: Abuses of History and the 1619 Project
A still from the 1619 Project trailer on Hulu.

“[I]t is impossible to shake off this chain” of a stained history, said Friedrich Nietzsche in his 1874 meditation On the Use and Abuse of History for Life. But we don’t need to shake off history, he added. We need to overcome it.

1619 is the year the first slave ships arrived in Virginia. In January, Hulu released The 1619 Project, a six-part docuseries based on the book of the same name currently used in some 4,500 classrooms in the US. The written version of The 1619 Project is a revisionist history of America published by the New York Times, first as a magazine supplement in August 2019 and then as a book in 2021, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. The first edition contained numerous glaring factual errors and dubious claims, which drew widespread criticism from scores of leading historians. The second edition has only partly corrected these, and many of its unqualified controversial claims remain. But what is sometimes lost in the debate—necessary as it is—over the veracity of its specific facts is the project’s fundamentally misguided use (or abuse, as Nietzsche put it) of history.

In the Hulu docuseries, the 1619 Project’s founder Nikole Hannah-Jones states that the project’s goal is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” But what is most important is what goes unsaid: that the video, like the book, is a work of strict and meticulous historical redaction. I taught in China several years ago, and reading or watching The 1619 Project is a lot like reading or watching the news in China: every line, every phrase, has been run through a filter, in this case to scrub out all traces of black-white unity, cooperation, and common goals from America’s history, all in order to leave the audience with a deeply warped caricature of America as having only known racial disunity and conflict. The facts of history defy this narrative; thus, the only way The 1619 Project manages to spin it is by abusing history.

National identity by reductionism

In the years just after Germany unified and became a nation in 1871, Nietzsche saw his fellow Germans combing through their fragmented past, venerating some aspects and discarding others. They were searching for elements that could be used to promote nationalism by creating a new common German identity, such as the operas of Richard Wagner and the heroes of the Franco-Prussian War. This made Nietzsche ask: What are the right and wrong ways to use history? Among his many answers to this question, Nietzsche wrote that it was dangerous to use the past to manufacture a narrative about a nation’s present identity. Germany was formed by combining many duchies, principalities, free cities, kingdoms, and other states, and Nietzsche thought that a Germanness cobbled together from selected bits of such diverse pasts could be oversimplified, obsolete, biased, and reductionist, ignoring whatever Germans didn’t want to hear.

The 1619 Project originated from a critique similar to Nietzsche’s: Hannah-Jones said she aimed to correct reductionist narratives taught in some American schools, which avoid confronting—and sometimes whitewash—the horrors of slavery. In theory, it was a worthy goal. But in practice, her project commits the very same error of reductionism she condemns, except now swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction by avoiding confronting America’s transformation and progress on race.

The general problem of historical reductionism plagues a whole line of 19th-century German Enlightenment philosophers of history, from Kant to Hegel to Marx. Like the 1619 Project, they all have tunnel vision, using interesting facts and insights in the service of theories that try to reduce the causes of history to the teleological progress of a single thing, while ignoring the infinite variety of other causes at work. And they all engage in impressive but misguided intellectual acrobatics as they try to force the facts to explain that one thing. For Marx (and his modern acolytes, including Howard Zinn), that one thing was the history of economic class struggle; for Kant, it was the history of progress toward the universalization of enlightenment and republicanism; and for Hegel, it was the history of the progress of the consciousness of freedom.

The 1619 Project is an exercise in the same sort of reductionism that was common in the German Enlightenment. The “one thing” to which it tries to reduce American history is a unidimensional struggle between white oppression and black victimhood and resistance, from 1619 right up to today. Hannah-Jones has tried to explain the project’s approach, telling Chris Wallace in a CNN+ interview that the book is just providing missing information from the whitewashed narrative of US history that she was taught in school. Yet her words in the opening chapter of the book say the opposite: that she aims to make slavery and racism the “defining” narrative of American history. It’s a cosmic leap from providing missing information about America to defining it.

To dispel a common myth, the primary issue with the 1619 Project is not that it teaches facts of history that people don’t want to hear. There are probably people somewhere in America who don’t want their kids to hear the gory details of slavery, but the real issue is just the opposite: that the 1619 Project systematically occludes the vast array of facts that contradict its thesis that America is defined by racism and slavery. The project is at its best in the rare moments when it puts aside its identity-driven crusade and simply lets the facts speak for themselves. Perhaps the best instance of this is the refreshingly objective and reasoned essay “Sugar” by Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad. He tells the story of how blacks and sugar have been connected for over 1,200 years, from slavery on Arab sugar plantations around the Mediterranean in the eighth century up to the diabetes and obesity epidemics that processed sugar has contributed to in the black community today.

Muhammad’s essay excels because rather than being reductionist it is holistic. It follows the facts where they lead, rather than bending the facts to take him where he wants to go. It presents many horrific facts about slavery in America, but it is one of very few instances where the 1619 Project acknowledges that slavery in America was part of a larger pattern that started between Europeans and Africans hundreds of years before Jamestown was founded and included most of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, with the largest slave trade going to Brazil, which did not ban slavery until 1888. And instead of trying to force every historical event to be a showcase of racism and white supremacy, Muhammad shows how a multitude of factors like economics, climate, geography, demographics, nutrition, and politics play a role in the history of sugar and slavery and intersect. If the 1619 Project as a whole took an approach more like Muhammad’s, it would be far less controversial.

The embrace of complexity in “Sugar” contrasts with the reductionism of “Progress,” a new essay in the second edition by Ibram X. Kendi, author of the popular book How to Be an Antiracist. Kendi’s arguments are based on a series of binary false choices. First, Kendi presents a false choice between blaming “Black cultures and behaviors” or blaming the “snowballing racism behind black people today,” as if blaming a race or racism were the only options. Second, he reduces the history of the progress of black America to a struggle between racism and anti-racism, then says racism is winning, with no causal evidence. Third, Kendi presents Americans with the false choice of being racist or anti-racist, wherein being anti-racist means one must believe that ongoing racism today is the primary cause of racial disparities in areas like unemployment, income, and incarceration. And fourth, he argues that we cannot say the Civil Rights movement has made progress because racism has progressed even more. But he provides no criteria for judging or comparing the progress of racism versus that of black America. Tragically, by downplaying the real progress black Americans have made, Kendi discourages readers from studying the lessons of past successes, which could be the seeds of more progress.

The unrelenting race-based reductionism of the 1619 Project is no small problem. College history professor Duke Pesta gave his students preliminary quizzes over 11 years to test their knowledge of American history. He found that most thought slavery was almost entirely an American phenomenon, and they could say virtually nothing about slavery outside America. Having taught secondary US history myself, including in a majority-black school, I can confirm that the 1619 Project only worsens this problem. It proceeds as if American students somehow know all the “regular” history already and can handle this “new perspective,” even if it is slanted. But the reality is just the opposite. American students are woefully deficient in their knowledge of history. And moreover, they often are not told that the 1619 Project is a very slanted perspective. Instead, they are taught that the regular textbooks are the products of white supremacist systems of oppression, whereas the 1619 Project represents “real history.”

I have stood in front of a class of black 12th graders and showed PowerPoint slides of lynch mobs and black Civil War soldiers. We read through the textbook captions under pictures of enslaved people, chained to the decks of slave ships and with lash scars across their backs. We have to show the facts of history. What we can’t do is spin the facts to suit an agenda, and that is what the 1619 Project is all about. While a large part of the book is fiction, poetry, and short stories inspired by historical events and themes about slavery and racism, Hannah-Jones’s essays form much of its historical narrative. She is a journalist, not a trained historian, and she has said that she conceived the entire project as a work of journalism. Her essays are relentlessly sensationalist as she strives to impress readers with shocking facts. But she also repeatedly ignores the facts that contradict her preconceived conclusions. This approach closes what are really open questions and robs readers of the opportunity to suspend judgement and weigh contradictory information, thereby diminishing the book’s value as a teaching tool.

And this one-sided reductionism leads the 1619 Project to paint a wildly distorted picture of an America devoid of the very signature quality that Tocqueville noted in 1835: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Strangely, from reading the 1619 Project, one would think America’s signature quality was an inability to repair her faults. In fact, while the two-pound tome is filled with portrayals of racism, it says not a word about atonement, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Several of its essayists, including Kendi, point out that many whites and some blacks thought that the two races could not coexist in the same country after the Civil War. Yet from reading the 1619 Project, one would think blacks and whites cannot coexist today, even as five percent of blacks in America are married to whites. It leaves the impression that Barack Obama must have been completely delusional to say, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there’s the United States of America.”

The 1619 Project purports to correct “a history that never happened.” But it offers a new history that never happened by systematically excluding any traces of black-white unity, cooperation, and common goals from America’s history, including in the abolition movement, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, or even today. In a book 539 pages long about slavery and racism, not a single white abolitionist is mentioned as having done anything that led to abolition. It discusses black abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth without mentioning Douglass’s 40-year friendships with white abolitionists Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Amy Post, whose names appear nowhere in the book. Similarly, the 1619 Project mentions the 40,000 black soldiers who fought and died in the Civil War to end slavery, but it ignores the 320,000 white Union soldiers who did the same. And it omits that 60,000 whites joined 190,000 blacks in the 1963 March on Washington.

By scrubbing racial reconciliation out of US history, the 1619 Project misrepresents myriad other forces at work besides race. For example, Anthea Butler’s essay “Church” paints the antebellum fight to abolish slavery as solely the domain of black Christianity, saying that white Protestant Christianity was “put to different ends.” In fact, white Christian groups including the Quakers, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Amish were instrumental to abolition. So were white Christians in the evangelical antislavery movement in the Second Great Awakening, like the “come-outers,” the “tens of thousands of abolitionists [who] left their former denominations [in the 1840s and 1850s] and founded new churches based on uncompromised antislavery principles,” as historian John McKivigan puts it.

Systematically removing the role of white Christians from the history of abolition is one way in which the 1619 Project manages to give readers—largely kids who know little else—the impression that blacks and whites have never been anything but enemies, and never shared any common principles, goals, or successes. But the shared success of abolition exemplifies another American trait the book ignores, the trait that Nietzsche thought was essential to all great nations: plastic force.

America’s plastic force and new pasts

On one hand, Nietzsche actually thought studying history can sometimes get in the way of living. He believed that living required a certain degree of “forgetting” and being “unhistorical.” This allows us to move beyond the past: “The person who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness or fear, will never know what happiness is.” If we cannot forget at all, wrote Nietzsche, all we see are the forces of history at work, and we do not recognize our own efficacy and cannot take action.

On the other hand, Nietzsche did believe studying history was important. And he thought there is a time for critiquing history, for “dragging the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it.” But he was careful to say we should do this for the right reason, which is not to point fingers at our own past and distance ourselves, making it the “other.” Those “judging and destroying a past,” said Nietzsche, “are always dangerous and in danger. For since we are now the products of earlier generations, we are also the products of their errors, passions, and even crimes. … When we condemn the errors and think we have escaped them, then we have not overcome the fact that we are derived from them.”

This last line reveals what Nietzsche believed was the right reason to study history: to learn how to overcome it, to move past it, how to use history “for life.” We may be chained to the past, he says, but this does not mean the past dictates the present or our identity. We can create a new past that will not replace but take precedence over the old, which we hope “withers”:

At best, it becomes … a conflict between our innate, inherited nature and our knowledge, between a stern, new discipline and an ancient tradition; and we plant a new way of life, a new instinct, a second nature, that withers the first. It is an attempt to gain a past a posteriori from which we might originate, in opposition to that from which we do originate. This is always a dangerous attempt, because it is so difficult to find the limit to the denial of the past, and because second natures are usually weaker than first.

America’s capacity to change has made it world-renowned as a creator of new beginnings, which have given new pasts to future generations. In fact, Nietzsche believed some people and cultures are far more able to create new beginnings to overcome history than others, and, for them, this makes forgetting history less necessary. How much history people can handle, he says, depends on their level of “plastic force,” which he defines as the ability to absorb and glean from dynamic outside influences and use them to grow and create something new:

In order to determine this degree of history and, through that, the borderline at which the past must be forgotten if it is not to become the gravedigger of the present, we have to know precisely how great the plastic force of a person, a people, or a culture is. I mean that force of growing in a different way out of oneself, of reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign, of healing wounds, compensating for what has been lost, rebuilding shattered forms out of one’s self. There are people who possess so little of this force that they bleed to death incurably from a single experience, a single pain, often even from a single tender injustice, as from a really small bloody scratch. On the other hand, there are people whom the wildest and most horrific accidents in life and even actions of their own wickedness injure so little that right in the middle of these experiences or shortly after they bring the issue to a reasonable state of well-being with a sort of quiet conscience.

Applying Nietzsche’s definition, America has shown astronomical plastic force for centuries. In creating its Constitution, it synthesized political ideas from the highlight reel of history to create something new—a political masterpiece now emulated by countries around the world. Demographically, America has incorporated massive waves of immigrants, creating from them something new— “Americans”—and making use of their talents. Through immigration, America transformed itself from an almost entirely white, Protestant country into a multicultural melting pot.

And from the founding of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society in 1775 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, the founding of historically black colleges and universities, the popularity of black music and arts in the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s and up to today, the integration of the US military in 1948, the Civil Rights Movement, desegregation, and integration of schools in the 1950s and 1960s, the election—twice—of the only black president ever in a majority-white country, over 50 years of affirmative action and counting, and the ubiquity of blacks in American popular culture today, the story of America’s radical transformation on racial issues is, to use Nietzsche’s words, a story of plastic force, healing wounds, and rebuilding shattered forms.

Is there more to do? Of course. But these transformations are proof that, despite what Nietzsche would call the “errors, passions, and even crimes” of America’s history, its plastic force has somehow generated something new and good. The very fact that the 1619 Project has been popular with white audiences defies its authors’ narrative that anti-black racism defines America. The authors’ success is as much a part of America’s history as slavery and racism. What other country has demonstrated such plastic force?

A forgetting project

It is important to clarify that by creating a new past, Nietzsche does not mean simply rewriting or telling a fictional version of the past. He means doing things differently in the present that take precedence over the past, incorporating the past to create new and better ways that become a better past for future generations to look back to. For example, West Germany created a new past which Germans today look back to when it joined NATO in 1955 and the European Economic Community in 1957. But this did not require Germans to doctor the history books to downplay or forget the Holocaust. In fact, German schools today tackle the Holocaust head on. This shows Germany’s plastic force, its creative strength to forge new courses of action out of the past, “growing in a different way out of oneself” and “reshaping and incorporating the past and the foreign.”

The 1619 Project lacks the plastic force to incorporate America’s long history of progress on racial unity and reconciliation into the present. This progress does not compute in the project’s underlying assumption that America equals racism. Even the project’s more scholarly essays omit countless reasons for hope, all the examples of Americans of different races seeing far past race and refusing to give up on each other over the centuries.

And so, in Nietzsche’s terms, the 1619 Project is, strangely, a history project that encourages forgetting as much as it remembers, even forgetting what is right in front of us: that since segregation ended 60 years ago, countless blacks and whites have now long shared neighborhoods and schools and sports leagues and churches. It forgets that they fought and died together—for each other—in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, that they elected a black president together, and that in classrooms and books and movies, they have faced up to their own history together, without forgetting. America is obviously far from perfect. What country is? But all races in America—not just blacks and whites, but Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asians—together have exercised their plastic force and reshaped the country, creating second natures for future generations to originate from.

Thus only the “unhistorical,” as Nietzsche put it, would say that America’s first natures from 1619 have never withered at all, as the 1619 Project does. Of course racism exists in America today, as it does everywhere in the world. But it is nothing like the racism of the 1950s, much less the 1850s or the racism of 1619. Moreover, it is obvious to anyone even remotely in touch with American popular culture that today condemning racial division and overcoming it form a central part of its identity. Anti-racist themes have run through mainstream American art and literature for over 150 years, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin—the bestselling American novel of the 19th century—to novels commonly required in school today, like To Kill a Mockingbird, Tony-award winning plays like A Raisin in the Sun, and Oscar-winning movies like Green Book. And ironically, the current widespread popularity of the “anti-racist” movement—of which the 1619 Project itself is a part—disproves the claim that racism is essential to America’s identity.

Historian John Lukacs said history is “remembered past.” The 1619 Project states that its purpose is to remember the history of slavery and racism that American schools have sometimes tried to forget. But mostly it teaches students the wrong way to go about remembering. It abuses remembering to promote forgetting America’s history of reconciliation and unity on race, so as to frame the nation’s identity as irredeemably stained and systemically, irreparably flawed. One must ask, for what purpose? Is it to justify remaking the country by ushering in a radical agenda? “We Shall Overcome,” was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. And, as Nietzsche would put it, the way to build a nation is not to use the contradictions of its history to define it, but to overcome them.

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