The 1619 Project and Trump’s insidious attempt to rewrite history

The President calls a truthful interpretation of history ‘toxic propaganda’, because he doesn’t think history is about telling the truth

Noah Berlatsky
New York
Thursday 17 September 2020 23:04 BST
Students at school
Students at school (AFP via Getty Images)

My son is enrolled in an online AP US History course this year, using the latest edition of that hoary old textbook standby The American Pageant. The course is updated and supposedly up to the minute. But, inevitably, my son reports, it remains helplessly Eurocentric, and Euro-apologetic. The coverage of Indigenous history is skimpy; an addendum on the Iroquois is clearly an afterthought. The text blames disease for Native mass deaths. It does not explain that Columbus set dogs on children, cut off the hands of Native people who did not provide him with gold, and enslaved and raped the defenseless populace — all information that calls into question the text's assertion that "this depopulation was surely not intended by the Spanish."

Such whitewashing of European violence, and sidelining of Indigenous history, isn't surprising. I didn't learn about Columbus' atrocities when I was in school, either.  I first read about it in James Loewen's 1995 book Lies My Teacher Told Me, a study of American history textbooks which explained how they systematically adopt a white perspective and apologize for those in power.

Loewen, as you'd expect, thought apologizing for white violence and genocide was bad. Donald Trump, though, appears to believe that this is what American history should do. In a speech today, he launched into yet another attack on the 1619 Project, a New York Times collection of essays edited by Nikole Hannah Jones which places the Black experience of slavery and violence at the center of US history.

"Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda — an ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together," Trump declared in prepared remarks. In his speech, he said, "A radical movement is attempting to demolish this treasured and precious inheritance. We can't let that happen." He's threatened to cut federal funding to schools that teach the 1619 Project, or that fail to instill their curriculum with sufficient patriotism.

Trump's words here are telling. Some critics, in good faith, have questioned parts of the 1619 Project's analysis. There is no question that the American Constitution was a racist document designed to perpetuate the oppression of Black people. But to what extent was the American Revolution fought specifically to preserve slavery? That's a question of interpretation, and reasonable people can disagree.

Trump is not disagreeing about facts or even about interpretations, though.  Rather, he is arguing that the 1619 Project is dangerous because it is "toxic propaganda” — and because it will "dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together." For Trump, we don't teach history to tell the truth, or to help students understand the country better. Rather, we teach history specifically to advance the nationalist end of unity and bonding.

This unity is of a very particular kind — specifically, it is a unity of exclusion, and ultimately of division. For Trump, the 1619 Project is a threat because it places Black people as the protagonists of American history.

If America is all the people in it, then the story of Black resistance, struggle, and occasional triumph should be a resource for everyone. All people in the US should be inspired by the fierce thirst for freedom of a Harriet Tubman or John Brown or Martin Luther King.

But for Trump and his partisans, it sometimes feels like Black people are not real Americans. Trump said as much when he declared that several Congresswomen of color "go back" to the countries "from which they came", though all were of course American citizens. America is only white people, he seemed to be implying — the founders, the slave owners, Trump himself. And the goal of history is not to tell the truth about anything, but is rather to reassure white people of their own virtue, and justify their supremacy.

American history textbooks have, shamefully, often done that justifying with bland enthusiasm. The erasure of Columbus' genocidal crimes against humanity is grotesque, but it's also typical. Loewen points out in Lies My Teacher Told Me that most textbooks and courses do not explain how white terrorist violence ended the movement for racial equality after the Civil War. Most students never learn that racism in America got better in the 1860s and 70s as Black people gained voting rights — and then got much, much worse as those rights were withdrawn in much of the country. The focus on white people and white solidarity left us ill-prepared for the resurgence of racism, and the rolling back of progress, under Trump. We weren't taught that this had happened before.

Teaching history from the perspective of Black people, or Indigenous people, or other marginalized people, might make students angry about injustice. It might make them want to change the world. That is precisely what Trump does not want.

In white history, Indigenous people die through no fault of anyone, and slavery is a mere blip in our true progress towards freedom. That is history without conflict, and without the possibility of change. It's because we teach this kind of history that so many students are bored by their textbooks, in which they see neither themselves, nor any issues relevant to them today. We need the 1619 Project in our schools precisely to dissolve those civic bonds — civic bonds which, for Trump, are composed entirely of docile obedience to white power.  

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