Originally published in the February 2022 issue of First Things.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story
by Nikole Hannah-Jones
One World, 624pp., $38
In 1930, Lorenzo Greene traveled around the United States selling books about black history on behalf of his boss, Carter G. Woodson, the man who invented Black History Week (later Month), and his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Greene had a degree from Columbia University and “could rattle off Negro history like one could the multiplication table,” according to one customer. He kept a diary of his journey, which was published in 1996. It is a fascinating record of the reception he encountered hawking black history textbooks from Atlanta to Philadelphia to Chicago. This visit took place in Riverton, New Jersey, in January 1931:
There were some 350 to 400 children present—the majority of them white. I told them some of the many achievements of the Negro, not in isolated fashion but in relation to similar contributions of other races and nationalities. I merely placed the Negro in the picture with all other groups. Everyone seemed to be pleased . . . The white superintendent and the principal, Mr. Bryan, took me to their office and had me relate much more to them than I had told the children. . . . They took two sets of books.
After his presentations, he wrote, black students “feel proud to have these contributions made known to them. . . . White students, too, enjoy it, as I know from my experience, not only in New York but also in the South.”
This is not at all the picture Nikole Hannah-Jones paints. In her preface to The 1619 Project, she describes the attitude of white America to the teaching of black history as dismissive or even hostile. African Americans “were largely absent from the histories I read” as a public school student in Iowa, she writes. “The vision of the past I absorbed from school textbooks, television, and the local history museums depicted a world, perhaps a wishful one, where Black people did not really exist.” The need to remedy this absence is the motivation for The 1619 Project and its constellation of supplemental materials, including sample curricula and reading guides.
To support her claim that black history is still untaught today, Hannah-Jones cites a 2018 study from the Southern Poverty Law Center showing that only 8 percent of high school seniors named slavery as the main cause of the civil war. That study is dubious for several reasons, in addition to its provenance in a highly politicized NGO. It was an online survey of only a thousand students, and the plurality (48 percent) answered that the Civil War was caused by “tax protests,” which, needless to say, is not the line they would have read in an old United Daughters of the Confederacy textbook.
A better study was done in 2008, in which high-school seniors in all fifty states were asked to write down the ten most famous Americans in history who were never president. The three most popular answers were Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman. Christopher Caldwell writes in his recent book The Age of Entitlement, drawing on his experience as a parent, “Race is the part of the human experience in which American schoolchildren are most painstakingly instructed.” That more closely reflects my own experience attending public school in North Carolina in the 1990s. Somewhere in our attic is the speech I wrote for a class project on Menelik II, boasting that Ethiopia would never be colonized by Europeans.