Memory  /  Narrative

How the 1619 Project Took Over 2020

It’s a hashtag, a talking point, a Trump rally riff. The inside story of a New York Times project that launched a year-long culture war.

... necessary evil upon which the union was built,” setting off a day-long news cycle in which he insisted his words were taken out of context and was pilloried by Twitter critics, including, yes, Hannah-Jones. And then, a couple weeks ago, Hannah-Jones deleted almost her entire Twitter feed.

... necessary evil upon which the union was built,” setting off a day-long news cycle in which he insisted his words were taken out of context and was pilloried by Twitter critics, including, yes, Hannah-Jones. And then, a couple weeks ago, Hannah-Jones deleted almost her entire Twitter feed.

The 1619 Project was no longer just a team of journalists’ attempt to grapple with uncomfortable history. By the time Trump had attacked it, it had become a historic controversy in its own right, subject to scholarly dispute and debate and small-bore analysis.

It didn’t help matters much when it began to appear that the Times was backing away from some of the project’s bolder claims.

It started when Hannah-Jones took to Twitter to scold conservatives for misrepresenting the 1619 Project — which, she insisted “does not argue that 1619 is our true founding.”

But . . . hadn’t she claimed exactly that?

A writer for the Atlantic launched a massive Twitter thread noting all the times when Hannah-Jones had said, in essence, that 1619 was the nation’s true founding. That’s what prompted her social media self-purge, she told The Post, so her tweets could not be “weaponized.” Meanwhile, the libertarian journal Quillette noticed that the Times had removed a phrase from the 1619 Project website describing the date as “our true founding.” But no clarification was issued, leading critics to suggest the Times was trying to wipe clean its history without owning up to its mistakes.

Silverstein explained that the altered words were from display text penned by a digital editor that they were “continually having to write and revise” for different platforms “to hone how we are rhetorically describing the project.”

He also acknowledged amending some of the prose in his own editor’s note: It had not initially appeared online, he said, and when they added it to the site in December, “we made a few small changes to improve it” — not to backpedal, but to thin out rhetoric that seemed in hindsight like “too much flourish.” The paper’s standards department agreed that no acknowledgment of the changes was necessary.

Hannah-Jones, meanwhile, protested that critics were taking her own flourishes too literally — why could she not speak metaphorically of 1619, in the same way that Barack Obama had eulogized John Lewis, the late congressman, as a “founding father”?

“Those who’ve wanted to act as if tweets/discussions about the project hold more weight than the actual words of the project cannot be taken in good faith,” she tweeted. “Those who point to edits of digital blurbs but ignore the unchanged text of the actual project cannot be taken in good faith.”

Last week, the National Association of Scholars doubled down by calling on the Pulitzer board to revoke Hannah-Jones’s prize, taking particular aim at “surreptitious efforts” to alter it post-publication. Then on Friday evening came the most stunning slam of all:

“For all its virtues, buzz, spinoffs and a Pulitzer Prize . . .” wrote the columnist Bret Stephens, “the 1619 Project has failed.”

What made this attack different? Stephens is a Pulitzer-winning columnist for the New York Times opinion section, where he published the piece.

He defended the project against critics who claimed it rejected American values. But he suggested its small errors had accumulated via the authors’ “monocausality” — an insistence on seeing everything through the lens of slavery. And he questioned Hannah-Jones’s elevation of 1619 even as a ...