Since we all learned American history in school, certain “facts” are just universally understood, right? For example, remember the colonists who fought against England in 1776? They secured “inalienable rights” for everyone in the country, based on their Declaration of Independence statement that “all men are endowed” with those rights, didn’t they? And the “founding fathers,” who established the country, were enslavers of African people, but they were “ benevolent,” right? Some were even magnanimous enough to offer enslaved people freedom upon the owner’s death, which was treating them almost like family, wasn’t it?
The truth is that these “facts” are not factual. Sure, they are part of a narrative that always puts America, and white Americans, in the role of historic hero. However, accuracy doesn’t seem to have a role in it at all. Yet it is precisely this sort of “history” that President Trump seeks to reinforce with his “patriotic education” initiative, his response to the 1619 Project. Referring to his idea as a “pro-American curriculum,” he announced his intention to create a commission to develop it, despite the fact that the federal government has no jurisdiction over curricula.
So, what is it about the 1619 Project that he objects to so strongly? Published last year in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project was the brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, who led a team of writers and researchers in posing the overall question of “what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” With that year being the one in which the first Africans were brought to this land for the purpose of enslavement, Hannah-Jones and the other writers drew a straight line between the institution of slavery in the United States and current issues of race and racism in the country socially, economically and in healthcare. The firestorm ignited still hasn’t cooled, with proponents embracing the work enthusiastically while opponents decry it as anti-American.
The fact that this transformative work now forms the basis for a curriculum being used in many schools, in conjunction with traditional history curricula, only adds fuel to the fire for the opponents. Of course, that’s where President Trump’s “patriotic education” comes in. Labeling the 1619 Project “a radical movement,” in a fit of pique he said, “Teaching this horrible doctrine to our children is a form of child abuse, the truest sense.”
Such ridiculous commentary is exactly why the 1619 Project is necessary. Sure, we’ve heard a singular version of history since childhood, the repetition of it making it seem believable. So when those beliefs are challenged, even with factual information, an uproar ensues as the dominant perspective comes into question. On the other hand, those traditionally placed on the periphery of history—specifically African Americans and other people of color—express appreciation for the broadened perspective that brings us into focus. It’s a dilemma that places educators in the middle.
A real depiction of history is not always pretty. Educators know that. Indeed, real educators have no problem teaching that. An accurate portrayal of history reveals the tragedies along with the triumphs, the heroic deeds as well as the atrocities. Patriotism knows the whole truth and is not diminished by it. So, the truth that African Americans are integral to this country is a fact that begs inclusion. Having fought in every war—that much-vaunted revolution in 1776 included—as well as having built so much of the country and contributed in arenas from science and literature to politics and business, the virtual exclusion of African Americans from history books is reprehensible. In fact, beyond a cursory examination of slavery and civil rights, American students would be hard pressed to find any mention of African Americans. The 1619 Project changes that.
Not a replacement for the standard curriculum but rather an addition to it, this work draws the wrath of Trump and his ilk for one simple reason: Racism is so American that when it is protested, people think the protest is against America. It’s not. And replacing this balanced presentation of history with one that once again removes people of color is not “patriotic education”; it’s blatant miseducation.