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What History Professors Really Think About 'The 1619 Project'

by Marybeth Gasman, Forbes Magazine Contributor (excerpted)

Christopher Span “The 1619 Project” is a historical endeavor developed by Pulitzer Prizewinning journalist Nikole Hannah- Jones and published by The New York Times Magazin. It seeks to reframe the nation’s history by placing Black people, and the institution of slavery as well as its impact, at the center of the U.S. historical narrative. “The 1619 Project” was first published in August of 2019 in commemoration of the 400-year anniversary of enslaved Africans landing on the shores of the U.S. in Virginia.

Although lauded by many, the project immediately drew criticism from scholars and politicians. However, the greatest objections emerged when “The 1619 Project” began to be taught in grade school and college history courses with some state governments threatening to revoke funding from schools using it in their classrooms.

A few well-known historians have been critical of “The 1619 Project,” but not because it centers slavery in U.S. history. In a letter to The New York Times they wrote: “None of us have any disagreement with the need for Americans, as they consider their history, to understand that the past is populated by sinners as well as saints, by horrors as well as honors, and that is particularly true of the scarred legacy of slavery.” They are critical because they feel it offers a historically-limited view of slavery and “asserts that every aspect of American life has only one lens for viewing, that of slavery, and its fall-out.”

At the same time, many history professors are using “The 1619 Project” in their classrooms and feel strongly about the importance of its use. Christopher Span, a History of Education professor at the University of Illinois Urbana- Champaign thinks that The 1619 Project should be added to every undergraduate course surveying American history. He sees it as essential and notes that “it centralizes the longstanding role race, racism, and slavery played in the making of this nation and illustrates how their tenets predate those of freedom and democracy by at least one year.”

Span teaches “The 1619 Project” in both his undergraduate and graduate courses. For Span, “the history of African Americans is the history of America” and educating Americans to appreciate and understand this history “affords opportunities for healing and reconciliation.”