Memory  /  Argument

The NYT’s Jake Silverstein Concocts “a New Origin Story” for the 1619 Project

The project's editor falsifies the history of American history-writing, openly embracing the privileging of “narrative” over “actual fact.”

Silverstein falsifies historiography

From the beginning, the 1619 Project has wobbled on a bogus claim: that the history of slavery and racial oppression has been hidden by “white historians” as Hannah-Jones put it in one of her many Twitter tirades. “It’s finally time to tell the truth,” the Times declared in its marketing campaign for the project.

The claim was untenable. Generations of historians have parsed through seemingly every aspect of “the peculiar institution.” Slavery has generated far more study than the emergence of wage labor before the Civil War, by way of comparison, and it has drawn the attention of many of the most talented American historians.

None of this work left the slightest trace on the 1619 Project. Having previously excluded it, Silverstein now has to pretend as though it was there all along. So, the bulk of his essay is given over to a potted presentation of the history of American historiography. His aim is to place the 1619 Project as the inheritor of all that is noble in history writing—even the “apotheosis” of what he calls “the long struggle over US history.”

Yet neither can the 1619 Project abandon its position that African American history is only truly knowable by blacks. So, Silverstein quotes approvingly from Professor Martha S. Jones, of Johns Hopkins University, who believes that black historians have a superior understanding of the past. “History is a science, a social science, but it’s also politics,” Jones is quoted as saying. “And Black historians have always known that. They always know the stakes [emphasis added].”

It must be bluntly stated that this sort of quasi-biological determinism—that “races” somehow have greater capacity to understand “their own history” than other “races”—shares a fundamental precept with the Nazi conception of history writing, in which only gentile Germans, not Jews, could truly fathom German history. It does not seem to occur to Prof. Jones, Silverstein or Hannah-Jones that the racial claim to true knowledge of history negates their own position. If only black historians can truly know what is at stake in “black history,” it must follow that only whites must be able to know “white history.” It follows that black historians should not concern themselves with episodes of history in which the actors were predominantly white—for example, the political history of the American Revolution or Civil War. This viewpoint is obviously reactionary to its marrow. Yet it conditioned the Times’ attempt to choose “almost every contributor” for the 1619 Project based on black identity, as the newspaper wrote upon the project’s rollout. The racial composition of the contributors was “a nonnegotiable aspect of the project that helps underscore its thesis, Ms. Hannah-Jones said.”