The New York Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones has been awarded the prestigious 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her infamous 1619 Project. It was a massive spread published in the Times’s Sunday magazine, August 2019. It sought to radically reframe the country’s history by replacing 1776 as our nation’s founding with 1619, the year African slaves were brought to our shores at Jamestown. Hannah-Jones claims our nation fought the Revolutionary War for the express purpose of protecting the slave economy and for no other purpose. She put it in absolute terms: “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
Now, it is vitally important for all Americans to remember and deeply mourn the place that the brutal and dehumanizing enslavement of black Africans has played in our nation’s growth, a horrific stain forever on our nation’s soul. But it serves no good purpose, and creates great harm, when people intentionally present history so incorrectly. It is worse still when they are ceremoniously rewarded for it.
Of all people, The World Socialist Website (WSWS), called great attention to this dramatic “falsification of history” as they put it. They asked a number of leading academic historians of this era for their thoughts on the matter. Each of them was quite direct in their displeasure.
Professor Gordon Wood, professor emeritus at Brown University and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Radicalism of the American Revolution says simply, “it is so wrong in so many ways.” It was beyond his imagination that “None of the leading scholars of the whole period from the Revolution to the Civil War, as far I know, have been consulted” on this effort.
That Hannah-Jones left out one very important, unique, and vibrant part of colonial and early American history stuns Professor Wood,
“The idea that the Revolution occurred as a means of protecting slavery—I just don’t think there is much evidence for it, and in fact the contrary is more true to what happened. The Revolution unleashed antislavery sentiments that led to the first abolition movements in the history of the world.”
He adds, “And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.”
Here is a short video interview of Wood by the WSWS,
James McPherson, professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, shared the same shock at just how wrong Hannah-Jones got her history,
“From the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history.”
McPherson agrees with Wood that one of the project’s biggest failures was recognizing a fact that the average 8th grader well understands, that “in the United States too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement.” Adding “opposition to slavery, and opposition to racism, has also been an important theme in American history.”
The WSWS also interviewed Oxford Univerisity’s Richard Carwardine, author of the Lincoln-award winning biography Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. Carwardine is forthright as well,
“[T]he idea that the central, fundamental story of the United States is one of white racism and that black protest and rejection of white superiority has been the essential, indispensable driving force for change—which I take to be the central message of that lead essay—seems to me to be a preposterous and one-dimensional reading of the American past.”
Professors Wood and McPherson joined a handful of elite scholars in penning a letter of complaint to the editor of the New York Times Magazine expressing “strong reservations about important aspects of the 1619 Project” stating they “are dismayed at some of the factual errors in the project and the closed process behind it.” They continue:
“These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or ‘framing.’ They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism. They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”
The signatories illustrate the Project’s central falsification:
“[The 1619 Project] asserts that the founders declared the colonies’ independence of Britain ‘in order to ensure slavery would continue.’ This is not true. If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”
Coming to Grade Schools Near You
Another group of leading historians of the era, twelve this time, also wrote a strongly worded letter of rebuke explaining, “We are also dismayed by the problematic treatment of major issues and personalities of the Founding and Civil War eras.” Adding, “We are also troubled that these materials are now to become the basis of school curriculums, with the imprimatur of the New York Times.”
Professor Wood shares this concern of as well, that our nation’s children are being subjected to this historical and academic malpractice,
“It’s too bad that it’s going out into the schools with the authority of the New York Times behind it. That’s sad because it will color the views of all these youngsters who will receive the message of the 1619 Project.”
The signatories for the first letter conclude their displeasure with this plea,
“We ask that The Times, according to its own high standards of accuracy and truth, issue prominent corrections of all the errors and distortions presented in The 1619 Project. We also ask for the removal of these mistakes from any materials destined for use in schools…”
The Times Magazine told these scholars they refuse to make the corrections. Unfortunately, it is not surprising that The New York Times would publish such an incorrect and irresponsible piece of work like this. But for the Pulitzer Foundation to reward it with their prestigious recognition is beyond both imagination and reason.