Fierce argument has recently broken out over whether and how to teach secondary school students about race relations—or CRT, for critical race theory. Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I live, White parents at a number of school board meetings have expressed worries that their children will be made to feel guilty for the past racist practices of earlier Americans. These parents have demanded to know what is being taught. Administrators trying to protect coverage of racial prejudice within the school curriculum have sometimes abruptly cut off discussion. In one school district, months-long conflict reached a point in mid-November at which a federal district judge granted a preliminary injunction against the school board for curtailing free speech at its meetings.
Predictably, these battles have degenerated into slogans hurled from the right and left: “indoctrination” vs. “historical reckoning.” But compromise is possible on this important subject if educators and parents can be persuaded to draw a distinction between the disciplines of history and political thought, both of which deserve respect within the secondary school curriculum.
Debates about CRT often suffer from a failure to specify exactly which texts—or videos, or field trips—proponents and opponents are talking about. A good place to start is the lead essay in the 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Originally published in the New York Times in 2019 and now part of a larger anthology, this essay has probably reached the widest audience and prompted the greatest controversy among the new writings about race in American history. Engagingly written and only about twenty-five pages long, it could readily be assigned in high school classes.
But in which classes should it be assigned?
Soon after the essay first appeared, criticisms by leading U.S. historians flagged many misleading statements of fact and unbalanced judgments in its account of American history. As someone who taught the introductory course in U.S. history to college students for over thirty years, I can attest that it doesn’t take a specialist to recognize the essay’s shortcomings as history.
The essay mistakenly implies that the American colonists fought for independence from Britain in order to protect the institution of slavery from British abolitionists. In reality, the primary motivation behind the Revolution was the colonists’ perception that increases in British taxation, imposed without the consent of the colonial assemblies, signified an entering wedge of British tyranny. Similarly, the essay treats the Constitution at its writing as simply a pro-slavery document; instead, it was deeply ambiguous, even contradictory on the subject of slavery, not surprising in a practical plan of government that aimed to hold together in a single union states that were completely reliant on the institution of slavery and other states that were already doing away with it.
Hannah-Jones’ essay also misstates the principal cause of the Civil War, which was initially fought by the North not simply to prevent the South from seceding but equally to stop the spread of slavery to new territories in the West (the reason why the South seceded in the first place). In her essay, Lincoln emerges as more racially prejudiced than in fact he was. Hannah-Jones also minimizes the role played by White supporters of racial equality throughout U.S. history and oversimplifies the American record on suffrage and immigration. Such lapses as these are enough to disqualify the use of the 1619 essay as a text in the average eleventh-grade U.S. history course.
But if we see Hannah-Jones’ essay as a piece of political literature, we get a much more positive picture. It is worth recalling that the author is a journalist, not a historian. Her essay uses powerful figures of speech to advance an important argument: that the United States owes much of its success, not simply as a nation but as a democracy, to the unrecognized labor, suffering, creativity, and perseverance of its African-American population.
Hannah-Jones uses the metaphor of 1619, the year in which the first African slaves were brought to the English colonies that would eventually become the United States, as an alternative to 1776 as a point of origin for some of our nation’s leading characteristics—both bad ones, like racial prejudice, and good ones, like cultural expressiveness. She employs hyperbole in referring to plantations as forced-labor camps in order to evoke the coercion and terror that so often confronted the lives of slaves.
She movingly begins her essay with reflections on her father, who served in the U.S. Army and kept an American flag raised in the family’s front yard in Waterloo, Iowa, despite having endured the indignities of residential segregation, job discrimination, and police harassment. She ends the essay, again, with the image of the American flag, this time claimed for herself, as she declares Black people to be the most devoted patriots to America’s twin ideals of liberty and equality that the country has ever produced.
At its best, Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay recalls the strengths of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (2015). All three works are impassioned, angry pleas for recognition and justice. All three are deeply personal accounts, moving back and forth between biography and sociology or history. All three reject despair and conclude, despite their anger, by embracing America. Like the two earlier works, Hannah-Jones’ essay deserves a place in the curriculum of a twelfth-grade class on civics or government, where it could be fruitfully paired with the more moderate voices of Black thinkers like John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, or Shelby Steele to offer students a window into the urgent political debates now energizing the Black community and America as a whole.
Now is not the time—there is never such a time—to exclude thoughtful, impassioned political voices, even radical ones, from any discussion of race relations in American history and current life, as our most anxious parents of school-age children (and a few state legislatures) are inclined to do. But neither is it proper for any one political viewpoint to dominate the teaching of racial issues to such a degree as to crowd out all opposing views, much less to sacrifice the disciplinary standards of history along the way, as our most morally driven school personnel seem prepared to do. The aspirations and fears of both sides in these conflicts can be accommodated through compromise, by separating the teaching of history from the teaching of political thought and going forward with both.
Tony Fels is professor emeritus of history at the University of San Francisco and author of Switching Sides: How a Generation of Historians Lost Sympathy for the Victims of the Salem Witch Hunt (2018).
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