On Thanksgiving Day, I trekked up the highest hill in Brooklyn, the peak of which happens to be the site of a Civil War memorial in Green-Wood Cemetery. Two things struck me about the inscription on the Civil War Soldiers’ Monument, which was erected in 1869. The first was that an astounding 148,000 residents of New York City (17 percent of the city’s 1860 population) served in the Union’s military forces during the Civil War. The second was the statement that they did so to defend the Union and preserve the Constitution. The inscription contains not a word about slavery or emancipation, let alone black military service.
I really did not want to devote this column to the recent dispute between the New York Times and the handful of prominent historians who have offered sharp criticism of that publication’s purportedly revisionist narrative of the American story—the 1619 Project—that puts racism and the struggle for black liberation at the core of the national experience. But of course, it was all anyone asked me about at the AHA’s Annual Meeting during the first week of January, so I feel I must.
By now, most historians are familiar with the basic contours of this public scuffle between journalists and members of our profession. In mid-August, with much fanfare, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the 1619 Project. Spearheaded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the project is designed, in Times editor Jake Silverstein’s words, to impart the idea that “the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world,” was not 1776, but rather “late August of 1619,” when the first enslaved Africans arrived on the shore of what would eventually become the Commonwealth of Virginia. Naturally—and entirely appropriately—this was as much a media event as a considered historiographic intervention. The “reframing” of the country’s “origins” was a rhetorical move, one that impressed upon a wider public an interpretive framework that many historians probably already accept—namely, that slavery and racism lie at the root of “nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional.” The aim, Silverstein observed, was to “place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”1 If some historians might quibble with this or that specific conclusion drawn from such an approach, the overall reorientation strikes me as laudable, if unexceptional.