City University of New York (CUNY) historian James Oakes was one of the early critics of the 1619 Project. He was part of the group of historians that agreed to an interview with historian Tom Mackaman at the World Socialist Web Site. In December, Oakes offered a fuller critique of the project in a piece at Catalyst.
Here is a taste:
Not surprisingly, the 1619 Project was riddled with egregious factual errors. Yet, in some ways, the most startling thing about the project was the utter unoriginality of its claim to have discovered the historical significance of the year 1619. To anyone who earned a PhD in US history after 1965, this claim was almost risible.
In 2001, Reid Mitchell, the author of pioneering studies of Civil War soldiers, published a brief history of the American Civil War. “If we choose,” Mitchell began, “we can trace the origins of the secession crisis to one of the most famous years in colonial history, 1619.” Scholars reading that sentence would have raised no objection. We all knew that 1619 was the year the first enslaved Africans were brought to the British colonies of North America. And since we all knew that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, Mitchell’s sentence made perfect sense. Moreover, because Reid was a graduate school buddy of mine, I had a pretty good sense of where he was coming from.
The very first seminar I had at UC Berkeley, in the fall of 1974, was taught by Winthrop Jordan, who had published a monumental history of racial ideology in early America. That book, White Over Black, had in a sense settled what we called the Handlin-Degler debate over the meaning of 1619. In 1950, Oscar and Mary Handlin published a major essay arguing that the first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 were initially incorporated into the existing labor system and only gradually differentiated from indentured servants. The implication of their essay was that there was nothing inevitable about the transition to slavery in early Virginia. In 1959, however, Carl N. Degler argued that prejudice against black people was present from the beginning. He highlighted evidence indicating that differential treatment of blacks and whites began earlier than the Handlins had suggested. The message of Degler’s piece was that the writing was already on the wall in 1619. To some extent, both positions were correct, Jordan answered. The importation of the first Africans was undoubtedly driven by the demand for labor, and it did take time for slavery to develop, as the Handlins had suggested. But Jordan also documented prejudices about blackness that were already evident when the English colonized Virginia. In 1619, however, those prejudices were inchoate, as was the labor system itself. From those ambiguous beginnings, Jordan concluded, racism and slavery would develop hand in hand, over time, into a full-blown system of racial slavery.
Jordan’s book moved beyond the Handlin-Degler debate, but it did not stem the flow of books and articles exploring the significance of 1619. Senior scholars — Wesley Frank Craven, Edmund Morgan, Alden Vaughan — would weigh in, but so would innovative younger historians: Kathleen M. Brown, Anthony Parent, and others.6 By the 1980s, historians recognized that the Atlantic slave trade had long predated 1619 and that racial ideology had deeper and more complicated roots in European history. The development of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database provided new information about the origins of those first twenty Africans. But scholars also moved on to other debates over slavery and its wider significance in European, Atlantic, and American history. Indeed, the 1970s were something of a golden age for slavery studies, as scholars debated — often quite ferociously — the paradoxical relationship between American slavery and American freedom, the capitalist vs. paternalist cast of Southern slave society, the vitality vs. the weakness of the slave economy, the robust culture of the “slave community” in the Old South, and the reasons for the astonishing emergence of antislavery politics in the Age of Revolution. It is safe to say that, for the past fifty years, no serious American historian doubted that 1619 was a significant date and that slavery and racism were central problems in the nation’s history.
What are we to make, then, of the opening sentence of Jake Silverstein’s introduction to the 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine? He writes that 1619 “is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history.”7 It would be one thing if Silverstein simply promised to introduce readers to the diverse body of literature produced by generations of scholars who have meticulously combed through the records of early Virginia to unearth the story that began in 1619. Instead, readers got Silverstein’s breathless suggestion that the Times was courageously introducing us to something we never knew about and had therefore underestimated. And if it was insulting to scholars, what did it say about the thousands of students who, for decades, listened to our lectures expounding on the meaning of 1619, or who read about 1619 in their US history books? According to the Pew Research Center, 93 percent of Times readers have finished college. What were they taught?
If the 1619 Project was not actually introducing Americans to an aspect of their history they were never taught in school, why the controversy? If all the Times was doing was restating what we already knew, why the complaints? What was it about the way the Times presented that history that caused so much strife? There were the egregious factual errors, of course, but it’s more than that. It’s the ideological and political framework of the project that led its editors to those inaccuracies and distortions. The 1619 Project is, to begin with, written from a black nationalist perspective that systemically erases all evidence that white Americans were ever important allies of the black freedom struggle. Second, it is written with an eye toward justifying reparations, leading to the dubious proposition that all white people are and have always been the beneficiaries of slavery and racism. This second proposition is based in turn on a third, that slavery “fueled” America’s exceptional economic development.
When the American Revolution established that principle as the ideological basis for American nationhood, a century of antislavery sentiment suddenly generated the world’s first major moves toward abolition in those same Northern colonies. By the time the delegates arrived at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, the split between the Northern and Southern states was already clear.
But as increasingly commercialized agriculture spread across the Northern frontier, the paradox of capitalism and slavery became more obvious, and more unsustainable, than ever. The unprecedented wealth of the North once again stimulated the demand for the products of slave labor, above all cotton. At the same time, however, the basis of Northern wealth — “free soil” extracted from dispossessed native peoples — became the foundation for rising Northern hostility to slavery. The defining feature of this “third slavery” was the simultaneous growth of slavery and freedom and the ultimately irreconcilable contradiction between proslavery politics in the South and antislavery politics in the North. Of the manifold failings of the 1619 Project, this may be the greatest: it all but erases the fact that, for the first seventy years of its existence, the United States was roiled by intense, escalating conflict over slavery, a conflict that was only resolved by a brutal civil war.
The problem of slavery is not that it was a forerunner of modern capitalism. It wasn’t. The problem is not that slavery “fueled” the economic growth of the North. It didn’t. The problem, all along, was capitalism itself. And once the problem of slavery was resolved by the Civil War and emancipation, there remained, and still remains, the problem of capitalism.
Read the entire piece here.
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