Jenn Smith | Recess: Anchored by hidden truths, 'The 1619 Project' challenges history

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Editor's note: This column reflects on "The 1619 Project" published by The New York Times. Reviewing this project before reading this column is recommended.

By Jenn Smith

The Berkshire Eagle

WILLIAMSTOWN — For the second time in February, I found myself spending an evening within a packed auditorium to hear a discussion about race, inequity and education on the Williams College campus.

While previous speaker Anthony Jack discussed the effects of poverty on students entering the higher education arena, New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones took the stage last Wednesday at the '62 Center for Theatre and Dance to challenge what we've been taught, or not taught, about the origin story of black history in America.

It's a story that spurred the Times to launch last August, with Hannah-Jones at the helm, "The 1619 Project," on the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, the arrival of the first slave ship on our shores. The project remains an ongoing initiative to "reframe the country's black history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative."

The 1619 Project includes multiple narratives in the initial magazine publication — "essays on different aspects of contemporary American life, from mass incarceration to rush-hour traffic, that have their roots in slavery and its aftermath" — and continues to live, online in a multimedia format, as well as in conversations and confrontations Hannah-Jones and other contributors are having in the project's wake with fans and critics alike.

"By acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for a more just future," writes The New York Times Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jake Silverstein, in a Dec. 20 explanation of the project's purpose.

Before imparting her research, Hannah-Jones made clear her intentions of her presentation.

"You will not be inspired tonight. That's not what I do. You will likely feel very uncomfortable at times during my talk, because that's what I do. I think the history that we have not grappled with and the legacy of slavery we have not grappled with is the center of my work. And if people leave feeling high-spirited after I've given my talk then I feel like I've failed at what I've come to do," she said.

Grappling with these truths of our nation's history, history that's so often been told through a homogeneous lens, and through whitewashed textbooks, means to challenge centuries of narratives used in classrooms and around kitchen tables.

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Times writer Dana Goldstein and designer Adriana Ramic further illustrated the inequities in history lessons by publishing a Jan. 12 analysis of popular social studies textbooks used in California and Texas. Their findings included how even contemporary texts from the same publisher, with the same authors, become tailored to the politics and partisanship of different states.

Writes Goldstein: "Southern whites resisted Reconstruction, according to a McGraw-Hill textbook, because they 'did not want African-Americans to have more rights.' But the Texas edition offers an additional reason: Reforms cost money, and that meant higher taxes."

In stunned-silent auditorium, Hannah-Jones spent nearly two hours giving me, and likely many others, a history lesson that nearly 12 years of public education did not accomplish: reminding us how many of our Founding Fathers and nation's first leaders were slaveholders; how women's suffrage did not include the rights of all women; how the American gay rights movement echoes language and actions established in black civil rights movements. I don't think I ever read a chapter on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 because I'm pretty sure it didn't exist in any of my textbooks.

At the start of her talk, Hannah-Jones noted that it's not only textbooks that are lacking. It's the opportunities to learn about the diaspora of historical perspectives in general.

"I see you guys do not have a black studies or Africana degree here, but I hope that sometime in the future you will rectify that. I certainly would not be here standing before you today and be able to do this project had I not majored [in both]," she said.

So what do we do about all this?

In response to a student in the audience who asked about this in the context of what's taught in schools, Hannah-Jones was frank.

"I create and provide the information and hope that that information can transform. ... I consider myself a realist and I don't expect most of these institutions will truly ever do what it is they need to do, and they certainly will not if they don't have people pushing them for that to happen," she said.

Hannah-Jones then asked the young woman for her solution.

The student suggested teaching The 1619 Project and other texts and narratives that round out the traditionally taught frameworks.

"I think we need to reeducate the people who are teaching us, who are missing a big chunk of history and passing that knowledge on to others," she said.


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