Nikole Hannah-Jones has a new defender of her 1619 Project, the hundred-page mishmash of essays, surreal “literary” contemplations on historical “moments,” and profiles, published as a special issue of the August 18, 2019, New York Times Magazine to “reframe” the American founding in 1619 as a “slavocracy”—pushed with prepackaged lessons to over 4,500 schools, as history—until lawmakers in some states started taking actions.
He does not merely echo Hannah-Jones’s claims about white nationalism and January 6, as David Blight and Ron Chernow did on MSNBC. He is doing battle for the damsel who cries she is being attacked by “right-wingers,” white people who want to “censor” her truthful history because it makes their children “uncomfortable” as they are forced to read (falsehoods) about how their European ancestors kidnapped families from the interior of Africa and how Thomas Jefferson ran “forced-labor camps” for the enslaved whom he viewed as “subhuman,” the “one-fifth of the population within the 13 colonies struggl[ing] under a brutal system of slavery unlike anything that had existed in the world before.”
To Hannah-Jones, only a racist would object to their third-grader reading, about post-Civil War America, “In response to black demands for [their] rights, white Americans strung them from trees, beat them and dumped their bodies in muddy rivers, assassinated them in their front yards, firebombed them on buses, mauled them with dogs, peeled back their skin with fire hoses and murdered their children with explosives set off inside a church.”
This historian has been tweeting images of very old newspaper articles—from the eighteenth century—day by day. And he has vowed to do it till day 76. This is Woody Holton who is fighting Gordon Wood who had the temerity to, with four of his colleagues, write an open letter to the New York Times objecting to the statement by Hannah-Jones: “Conveniently left out of our founding mythology is the fact that one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”
Hannah-Jones, busy speechifying about race, accepting awards, and demanding and then rejecting tenure, never addresses points of fact. The chore of replying went to Magazine editor Jake Silverstein, who cited the 1772 Somerset decision, which declared slavery in England unlawful, and Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775 offering freedom to slaves joining the British Army. Silverstein added, without notice, the words “some of,” i.e., “one of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence. . . .” This rescue was orchestrated with the help of consultant, historian Leslie Harris, who dropped her outrage over having her initial objections ignored. She, like oft-critic Sean Wilentz, feels that it is more important to defend Hannah-Jones’s placement of slavery at the “center” of this nation’s history than to agree on points of fact with “right-wingers.”
But none have gone as far as Woody Holton. Holton, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, writes “bottom-up” histories of the common people, in the tradition of Howard Zinn. Except that Holton has footnotes, and he tweets images.
On October 23, he participated in a debate with Gordon Wood that was to focus on their new books on the American Revolution. Wood started off by praising Holton as a “superb” narrator of military battles and compiler of “extensive” research. He criticized Holton for a lack of proportion (only one out of his 36 chapters focuses on the Constitution) and context, and using present-day standards to make judgments on the past. Wood cited one of Holton’s Zinn-like accusations about the denial of the vote to slaves, women, and men who did not meet property qualifications. “Where in the world at that time,” Wood asked, did these people vote? In fact, Americans had “the largest electorate in the world,” with two-thirds of all adult white men voting, while in England only about one in six voted.
But Holton has gathered quotations galore to support the contention that colonists were worried about the proclamation threatening their right to own slaves. As the ever-vigilant World Socialist Web Site (upholding Trotsky’s class struggle narrative over race struggle) pointed out, Holton was forced by Wood’s points to go further south in the colonies to slave-heavy South Carolina, but then was flummoxed by a caller’s question about why those in the Caribbean, where slavery was even stronger, did not join the Revolution. So, when moderator Massachusetts Historical Society president Catherine Allgor gave the cue, noting Hannah-Jones’s recent disinvitation from the Middlesex School in Concord, Holton attacked Wood for his letter.
Holton charged Wood with being “a founding father,” of the group of letter writers, and leading “a massive campaign of censorship” of Hannah-Jones, who “like a good scholar” he claimed had corrected the error. He demanded that Wood immediately “write another open letter to Sen. Cotton and to Gov. DeSantis, and to all the other demagogues who are using your letter to ban the 1619 project, to say, ‘I am Gordon Wood, and damnit, I am not in favor of censorship.’”
With “dozens of printouts of primary sources on hand,” as William Hogeland reported in Slate Magazine, Holton seemed to be trying “to get Wood to accept personal responsibility for having deployed a category of criticism that has placed both the 1619 Project and Hannah-Jones herself in danger.” And he demanded that Wood also offer the “concession that preserving slavery motivated the Revolution.”
Hannah-Jones, who has been proudly exhibiting Holton’s screen shots, saw this as further confirmation of her own intellectual infallibility. On November 2, she rebuked the Daily Mail for the headline, “Nikole Hannah-Jones ADMITS new book [expanded hardcover edition due November 16] reworks reporting about the American Revolution.” “Wrong as usual, Daily Mail,” she tweeted. “We added the clarification—adding the words ‘some of’ in front of colonists—a year and a half ago. . . .”
But the two-word addition hardly corrects what follows, such as, “By 1776, Britain had grown deeply conflicted over its role in the barbaric institution that had reshaped the Western hemisphere.” (Actually, Britain was nearing her status as top slave trader internationally, and it was the colonists’ abolitionist movement that influenced Britain’s.) The two-word qualification hardly addresses Hannah-Jones’s claim that the abolition of slavery would have “upended the economy of the colonies, in both the North and the South” (ignoring other kinds of labor, such as indentured and wage) or that the “dizzying profits generated by chattel slavery” is what “empowered” Jefferson and the Founders to break from Britain. Furthermore, her claim that the founders would not have declared independence “if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue” remains.
It was an ugly scene as the 62-year-old Holton attempted to force the 87-year-old Wood to make a retraction, in the name of free speech.
But Holton’s own historiography is barely more sophisticated than Hannah-Jones’s, as he revealed in a July Washington Post essay. In discussing the letter the free black scientist Benjamin Banneker had written to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in 1791, Holton, like The 1619 Project (in the supplementary Broadsheet), presented Banneker falsely, as “upbraiding” Jefferson, in reminding him of his words in the Declaration of Independence, accusing him of “detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.”
Banneker’s letter, which runs to fourteen paragraphs, actually was strongly influenced, if not written, by the group of white scientist-abolitionists, including Benjamin Rush, who had welcomed Banneker into their group. The letter said nothing personal about Jefferson, who had agreed to appoint Banneker to Pierre L’Enfant’s team surveying the District of Columbia. Banneker’s interest was science, especially astronomy. The letter accompanied a manuscript version of Banneker’s Almanac. Jefferson treated Banneker with his customary respect and did Banneker the great honor of forwarding his almanac to the Marquis de Cordorcet.
The quotation that Holton plucks out comes in paragraph ten, which, like the rest of the letter uses the plural form when discussing abolitionism in the context of the Declaration. Clearly, Banneker refers to the founders, plural:
Here Sir, was a time in which your tender feelings for your selves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great valuation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings to which you were entitled by nature.
It was “pitiable . . . to reflect,” Banneker continued, “that altho you were so fully convinced of” . . . [“the Father of mankind’s”] “equal and impartial distribution of those rights and privileges . . ., that you should at the Same time counteract his mercies, in detaining . . . so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity . . ., [and] be found guilty of that most criminal act [slavery], which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves. (emphasis added)
Yes, context does matter. No amount of Tweeted images will validate The 1619 Project. It is not “censorship” to remove such error-ridden and hateful materials as The 1619 Project from the classroom.
Mary Grabar is the author most recently of Debunking The 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America.
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