By D. Allan Kerr
The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project initially claimed the preservation of slavery was one of the Founding Fathers’ key motivating factors during the American Revolution.
I emphatically disagree with this conclusion, and in fact the Times later posted a clarification stating slavery was merely a motivation for “some of the colonists,” not all of them.
But the project did raise a lot of valid points, including the irony (if not downright hypocrisy) of these leaders embracing the notion “all men are created equal” even while they held others in bondage.
In September 2020, Donald Trump announced the creation of a 1776 Commission as a direct response to the Times essays and other efforts to focus on some of the less flattering aspects of America’s history.
The goal of this commission was to promote “patriotic education,” a term which in itself carries disturbing echoes.
Both the 1776 Commission report and the 1619 Project were criticized for inaccuracy and bias. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz said the 1776 report “reduces history to hero worship,” but also added his voice to a team of historians “dismayed at some of the factual errors in the (1619) project and the closed process behind it.”
But while both reports, coming from diametrically-opposed viewpoints, got some things right and some things wrong, neither should be dismissed in their entirety.
Instead, the time has come to take the best elements of both and make sure American kids finally have a full understanding of our history based on reality, not fable.
We need to stop thinking of our most influential historical figures – and our Founding Fathers in particular – as these infallible marble figures we admire in museums and memorials.
These were flawed, flesh-and-blood human beings who, yes, created the greatest democratic experiment in world history, but also gossiped, fornicated, belched, and on occasion had to take a poop.
Elevating these men into gods perpetuates this notion America is an unblemished society which can do no wrong – a pretty arrogant and stupid notion.
The greatness of America lies in its bold, hard-charging, never-ending effort to become the “more perfect union” envisioned by these imperfect men of genius and adventure.
As the brilliant young poet Amanda Gorman said during the January inauguration of Joe Biden, even at our lowest point America is “a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.”
To me, few men have ever embodied the perfect imperfection of our founders better than Thomas Jefferson.
The future president credited with authoring the Declaration of Independence also wrote some of the era’s most eloquent denunciations of slavery.
He referred to the bondage of others as a “hideous blot” and a “moral depravity,” and consistently proposed legislation to do away with it.
“I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way,” he once wrote.
But Jefferson also owned hundreds of his fellow beings during his lifetime, and historians believe he fathered some of them with his slave Sally Hemings, who he reportedly kept as a concubine.
His own personal, tortured relationship with the institution of slavery is reflective of the young country he helped create.
Can’t we continue to celebrate Jefferson as a great patriot and thinker and leader while also taking into account the faults which make him human?
I mean, damn, are we really such a dainty people that we can’t handle the truth?
Right-wing Republicans in Congress want to slash federal funding to schools incorporating the 1619 Project into their curriculum, saying it’s divisive.
Right here in New Hampshire, some Republican legislators actually want to ban schools from discussing the topic of systemic racism.
It seems bizarre to even have to say this to conservative lawmakers, but I’m not sure government should be in the business of determining what can be taught in our local classrooms.
(It’s also funny to hear these complaints about efforts to “rewrite history” from the same people who claim Biden lost an election he won by seven million votes.)
Not surprisingly, I haven’t heard many from the right characterize the 1776 report as divisive, even though that document dedicates a section to denouncing progressivism and another attacking “identity politics.”
For a document intended to celebrate our history, it seems to read more like a political creed.
Again, I don’t agree with some of the claims made by the writers of the 1619 Project, but they also bring up important points which students should understand if they’re going to learn about our history.
“Profits from black people’s stolen labor helped the young nation pay off its war debts and financed some of our most prestigious universities,” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the chief architect of the project, wrote in one of the essays.
Ironically, some of the same people who defend the existence of Confederate statues because they don’t want to lose their history don’t seem to understand why other groups want to explore their own part of the Great American story.
The traditional teaching of history in public education up to now has clearly been skewed toward the white European viewpoint.
I grew up learning all about – and being fascinated by – the Last Stand of Gen. George Custer and his 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, where nearly 300 soldiers were killed by Native Americans (a whole other history worth exploring).
But I was well into my forties before I read about the massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where 100 years ago this May an angry white mob destroyed an affluent African-American community and killed as many as 300 black citizens.
The danger in whitewashing history, as we saw in Nazi Germany last century, is that it can convince people they are indeed a superior race to whom others should bend the knee.
We don’t have to be a perfect country to be a great one, and we should be able to handle the study of our sins as well as our successes.
(March 17, 2021)
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