Originally published in the Index-Journal, Feb 26, 2022
As an avid reader of history, I’ve grown to appreciate the complex and sometimes messy story of our country. So when historical treatises like Critical Race Theory and the “1619 Project” motivated some parents and politicians to decry them as anti-American creeds, my curiosity was piqued. Rep. John McCravy called the “1619 Project” fake history. Kenneth Mufuka, in last week’s Guest View, said it professes “American society irredeemable.” The Heritage Foundation, the source of much of this vitriol, claims its theme is that “young people must learn to despise their nation.”
So I dove into every chapter of the “1619 Project” (freely available as a pdf download, by the way) expecting some hate-raging diatribe that was going to attack me, a white male, for all of the problems African Americans face today. What did I find instead? One of the most thought-provoking collections of deeply researched articles, poetic essays and opinion pieces that truly gave me a few new perspectives on American history. Some of what I read, I already knew. Others were eye-opening, such as how the insane layout of Atlanta’s highways (horrific traffic I always dread) has its roots in a conscious effort in the 1950s to protect white communities from Black communities.
There were also many heart-wrenching moments from a brutal history. But did I feel guilty, responsible or ashamed? No. I felt saddened by the depths of cruelty people are capable of inflicting on each other.
But if you’ve been led to believe that the “1619 Project” is merely a litany of injustices over the centuries to make Black readers feel helpless or to insinuate that the color of one’s skin will forever dictate ability to succeed, then look to the glorious essay about Howard University and the photo spread of young, brilliant minds who have recently graduated. Such a strong message of earned success!
Why the controversy, then? I think it’s because most detractors never got past the first page where the author challenges you to consider the perspective of the founding of America not to be in 1776 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but rather in August 1619 when Jamestown colonists brought several dozen slaves to these shores.
We’re taught that the Founding Fathers created our country with the stroke of a pen, instilling sacred principles into our Constitution making our nation unique in history. But all of those principles and papers would have been for naught without the disposable labor of 12 million slaves, allowing the United States to be suddenly recognized as a heavyweight player among international financial markets.
History is not a chapter book where you can be done with a topic at the turn of a page. Do we have segregated water fountains today? No. But neither can we state that we’re done with institutional racism.
“Institutional racism” doesn’t mean “everyone’s racist.” Still, foundational systems exist that attack the principle that everyone can succeed with hard work. Look to mortgage discrimination causing Black families to struggle harder for intergenerational wealth. Look to polling locations in Georgia in 2020 with average wait times for Black voters eight times that for white voters. Look to Tennessee and their anti-CRT legislation where parents under the guidance of “Moms for Liberty” filed complaints about “anti-American” material being used in the classroom. The offending item? A book about Martin Luther King Jr.
To say “I don’t see color” is as ridiculous as “I don’t see pants.” Of course we see color. But we need to be aware that prejudices and disparities still do exist. Understanding the root causes as found in factual history will get us to the Promised Land we seek. Banning books and forbidding topics of instruction sure as heck won’t get us there.