When discussing The 1619 Project—a series of essays that argue the history of America’s founding was a racist endeavor to preserve and perpetuate slavery—it’s important to realize that it is fundamentally a work of journalism, not actual history. Doing what they do best, some writers for The New York Times put together a leftist narrative based on partial truths, dubious scholarship, and outright fabrications that they packaged as something new and significant.
As such, it is mostly immune to criticism or correction. Like most fake news, the accounts were read, accepted, and processed before those with actual knowledge could respond with the truth. Numerous historians eventually came out against the 1619 Project, even one who was consulted for the project itself, and all were either ignored or at best placated with cosmetic changes to some of the project’s advertisements.
The project’s controversial subject matter also made potential criticism problematic. Who is willing to subject himself to the charges of racism and white supremacy that would inevitably follow when any point is made about slavery and racism in American history? Even for experts on the topic, this could be treacherous.
Knowing all this, Mary Grabar bravely enters the fray to deliver an authoritative and thorough rebuttal, Debunking The 1619 Project. Unlike the target of her critique, Grabar’s argument is meticulously sourced and delicately argued to show the many nuances of these issues. In other words, she is a serious scholar schooling unserious hacks.
History vs. Nikole Hannah-Jones
Grabar’s book mostly centers on the main claims of the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, namely (1) Jefferson was a racist hypocrite who sexually abused his slaves, (2) the country’s founding served to protect and perpetuate slavery, (3) American slavery was especially bad and unique in history, and (4) Lincoln was also a racist hypocrite who wanted to ship emancipated slaves to Africa.
Before she starts with the debunking, Grabar first describes the significance of the 1619 Project. She frames her description within the context of the summer riots of 2020 triggered by George Floyd’s death—later renamed the “1619 Riots,” a label embraced by Hannah-Jones herself. This is no mere academic squabble, but a real debate for the soul of the country. On one side of the debate is an inspiring story of liberation and social progress; on the other side is cruel series of broken promises and racial injustice taking different forms.
Grabar notes the unusually slick packaging and aggressive marketing of the 1619 Project. It had sensationalist claims (“it is finally time to tell our story truthfully”) and even a “trigger warning” (“There is gruesome material in these pages, material that readers will find disturbing”). It was presented as a bombshell exposé of an event that happened four centuries ago.
She also profiles the leader of the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones, who is not a historian, but an activist journalist heavily invested in instituting reparations for racial oppression and opposing President Trump. She is in the “top tier of ‘anti-racism’ speakers” and has received accolades from various universities and fashion magazines alike. Grabar explains how “the fact that her work is being taken very seriously by our educational establishment … in spite of its huge flaws” speaks more to diminishing credibility of today’s academic institutions than Hannah-Jones’s ostensible insights.
After this exposition, Grabar tackles the claims of the 1619 Project, starting with their portrayal of Thomas Jefferson. As she documents, there have been repeated efforts to smear Jefferson as a cruel racist slaveholder who had relations with his slaves, so there’s nothing particularly new with Hannah-Jones doing the same.
However, when Grabar goes into the evidence that supports these claims, the great bulk of them are works by Marxist activists who base their arguments out of biased conjecture. This is especially the case with Jefferson’s popularly alleged affair with his slave Sally Hemmings, which itself is based on a slanderous work by Jefferson’s political enemy James T. Callender.
The same applies to Hannah-Jones’s insistence that Jefferson supported slavery and sought its continuation by declaring independence from England. The opposite was true. Jefferson sought the abolition of slavery and did everything in his power to bring this about. Grabar shows that if Jefferson took the actions his detractors insisted he should have taken, he would have not had the authority or ability to stop the slave trade or lay the constitutional groundwork for abolishing slavery.
This argument sets off her much larger discussion of American slavery itself. Grabar devotes a large portion of her book to this topic, going into detail about the conditions of slavery in the different centuries and in different places. She establishes a few key points: (1) slavery did not start with European colonists, (2) slavery in the seventeenth century was not the same as slavery in the nineteenth century, (3) slave owners and slave traders were both black and white, and (4) abolishing slavery altogether was extremely difficult at any time.
Although these points are critical to her argument, Grabar’s analysis tends to lose focus at this juncture. What could have been a concise rebuttal to a simplistic claim becomes a kind of history in itself. Grabar makes frequent forays into history, discussing conditions of slavery in ancient times, or the practices of various tribes that precipitated the slave trade, or the many lacunae in scholarship on black slaveowners that, while interesting, go far beyond what’s necessary to debunk the arguments of The 1619 Project.
Afterward, Grabar returns to Jefferson and the dilemma of trying to eliminate slavery. This brings up a discussion about sending freed slaves to go colonize other lands, an idea evidently supported by both white and black Americans at the time. The failure of these movements—many black colonists ended up returning to the United States—highlights the uncomfortable fact that despite America being what Hannah-Jones calls a “slavocracy,” it was often far better than any other place in the world.
Nevertheless, Hannah-Jones uses the colonization movement for her attack on Abraham Lincoln, who once met with black leaders and openly entertained the idea. Ignoring Lincoln’s colossal efforts to emancipate slaves with the help of other sympathetic white Americans, Hannah-Jones casts them all as self-interested racists who effectively did little. Grabar rebuts this by recounting the words and experiences of the most famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass who directly contradicts the central claims of The 1619 Project that the American Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and all the Founding Fathers were racist.
Ammunition For Future Debates
For all this though, it’s only in her concluding chapter that Grabar starts landing some much-needed punches. Having gone through Hannah-Jones’s mess of historical facts and specious reasoning, she asserts in her final pages “it would be difficult to find someone more ill-qualified and ill-suited to write a curriculum for schoolchildren” and “The 1619 Project is not really history. It is propaganda that casts white America as statically and uniformly racist through four hundred years of history.”
Although from a scholarly standpoint Grabar’s decision to let the evidence do its work first before condemning The 1619 Project makes sense, from a rhetorical standpoint, it weakens her argument. Unless the reader has a sincere appreciation of history and American ideals, he might not want to put in the time and commitment to read the whole book. Although it’s depressing to contemplate, the fact is that some liberally inclined or misinformed reader may just side with the essays of The 1619 Project because they’re easier to read and understand.
But then again, Grabar is not a polemicist. She is an historian and she does her job well. She is able to weave together so many strands of evidence and present the facets and dilemmas in clear, relatable terms. She is a first-rate researcher and teacher, and unlike her opponents, she will leave her readers better informed and more appreciative of their country’s history.
This may have been Grabar’s intention—not necessarily to fight back directly against the writers of the 1619 Project, but to provide ammunition to those who do engage in such debates. Armed with Debunking The 1619 Project, they can successfully expose the charlatans who stoke racial tensions and push false narratives to enrich themselves and assume moral superiority.
After all, this won’t be the work of one person, even an expert like Grabar, but of many people who love their country. They simply need to read Grabar’s book and get to work on teaching Americans their history again.