When Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced the Saving American History Act of 2020, “a bill that would prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts,” I thought to myself “good.” A 100-page pastiche of cherry-picked history, research of dubious provenance, memoir, poetry, racial grievance, and Marxist theory in a Sunday magazine format—which is what The 1619 Project is—has no place in any school’s history curriculum.
That the goals of The 1619 Project have very little to do with contributing to the trove of historical research about our nation’s founding is obvious from the Project’s stated goal to “reframe the country’s history” and from the imperviousness of the editors to criticisms by dozens of our most respected historians, many on left.
Senator Cotton implicitly refuted those who claim that 1619’s detractors want to present a sugar-coated history. As he explained in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat Gazette,
We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.
He quite rightly said that America should be portrayed “as an imperfect and flawed land, but the greatest and noblest country in the history of mankind.”
Left-wing sites have accused Cotton of censorship and a right-wing version of “cancel culture.”
Worse, his remarks have been taken out of context. Ian Millhiser distorted Cotton’s words, claiming that he said, “enslaving Black people was a ‘necessary evil.’” Project Director Nikole Hannah-Jones ramped it up, tweeting, “If chattel slavery—heritable, generational, permanent, race-based slavery where it was legal to rape, torture, and sell human beings for profit—were a ‘necessary evil’ as @TomCottonAR says, it’s hard to imagine what cannot be justified if it is a means to an end.”
At the American Conservative, Gregor Baszak, claims that even in its full context Cotton’s phrasing is “clumsy” in describing the necessary concessions to the slave-holding states at the Constitutional Convention. He wrote, “Senator Cotton is wrong to seek to ban the 1619 Project from getting taught, at least if it’s part of a healthy and open debate that addresses its perspectives and shortcomings in the classroom.”
The problem is that few teachers have the ability or the time to teach beyond the materials given to them. And the emotionally manipulative 1619 Project is favored by teachers who claim that it “engages” students. The finer points of the Somerset ruling—as Baszak suggests should be taught alongside 1619—cannot compete with emotionally charged passages about “forced-labor camps, which we like to call plantations” and the beating of Army veteran Isaac Woodward that left him blind, as indicated by trigger warnings about the “gruesome material in these pages.”
John K. Wilson, co-editor of the Academe blog and 2019-2020 fellow at the University of California National Center for Free Speech and Civic Engagement, also argued for keeping the curriculum and using it in “’two book’ programs with conflicting ideas.” But I have my doubts about this author of President Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire and Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies.
Having written a book about the most influential fraudulent history, A People’s History of the United States by the late communist professor Howard Zinn, I could have predicted these reactions. Zinn’s book and related materials have been poisoning minds since 1980 and have inspired the Occupy Wall Street (and Antifa, its outgrowth) and Black Lives Matter movements, but any criticisms have been called censorship.
Zinn hoped that his presentation of himself as a moral crusader, “exposing” Columbus as having committed genocide, the Founders as setting up a kleptocracy, Americans as worse fascists than the Nazis, and the Viet Cong as democrats teaching villagers “communication skills,” would keep readers from looking too closely at his historical method.
But as I discovered in writing Debunking Howard Zinn, in order to establish this false narrative, Zinn used disreputable sources (even a Holocaust denier), twisted others’ words to make them mean the opposite, quoted selectively, ignored critical information, and plagiarized—thus violating all the rules of history writing as set forth by the American Historical Association.
When in 2017 Arkansas State representative Kim Hendren, introduced a bill to prohibit the use of Zinn’s book in state-funded classrooms, the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit supplier of lessons founded by one of Zinn’s former Boston University students, framed the attempt as censorship and exploited it for fundraising. They bragged that over 700 Arkansas teachers and librarians had requested copies of his book.
When in 2013 it was revealed that Purdue University President Mitch Daniels when he had been Indiana Governor, in 2010, had asked staffers about the use of Zinn’s book, calling it “’a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation,’” after hearing about its use in a summer teacher workshop supported with federal National Endowment for the Humanities dollars, the outcry from faculty was fast and furious. They signed denunciatory open letters, held a Zinn “read-in,” and established a graduate fellowship in Zinn’s name.
The Zinn Education Project is still collaborating with the NEH and last fall, with the Smithsonian Institution, held two teacher workshops, or “teach-ins.” Emboldened, the Smithsonian then went on to post the notorious Whiteness sheet (recently taken down after public outcry).
Zinn in his “history” made the claim that “there is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States.” Hannah-Jones claims that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.”
But Zinn ignored the racism in the rest of the world—such as in Mauritania where slavery was still legal while Zinn was writing his book and is still practiced to this day. He also ignored the fact that while a vibrant abolitionist movement was agitating to end slavery in the U.S., the Sultan of Morocco in 1842, when asked about abolishing slavery, could not fathom the idea.
Ironically, a month after The 1619 Project was released in August 2019, the Wall Street Journal published a lengthy article titled “When the Slave Traders Were African.” Recently, the BBC featured a similar article by the great granddaughter of a Nigerian slave trader. She writes that he lived in “a place and time when the fittest survived and the bravest excelled. The concept of ‘all men are created equal’ was completely alien to religion and law in his society.”
But Hannah-Jones is silent about the role of African slave traders who sold the African slaves captured by African chiefs, often in battle, to the Europeans. Nor does she mention the relatively large number of African Americans who themselves owned black slaves.
Like Howard Zinn, she implicitly compares the U.S.A. to some mythical utopia, where racism and oppression do not exist.
Senator Cotton called the Project “a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded.”
Like Zinn’s fake history, it is not intended to teach an even-handed, fact-based history.
Curriculum goes through a review process for material that is offensive and not sufficiently inclusive. Presumably, those writing textbooks are professional educators. In 2015, an entire textbook was rewritten as a result of a mother’s online complaint about the use of the word “worker”—once—in a discussion about the Atlantic Slave Trade, i.e., that “millions of workers” were brought from Africa to the southern United States.
A curriculum as flawed as The 1619 Project should no more be allowed in the classroom than should a book that repeats the claims of a Holocaust denier or that calls slavery by something other than its rightful name.
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