If we needed proof that the saying “it’s academic,” meaning an interesting classroom discussion but of no value in the real world, was utter nonsense, President Donald Trump supplied it last week.
Doubling down on historical amnesia, the crypto fascist underscored the real-world significance of historical debate. Despite lacking authority, he threatened to revoke federal funding to any K-12 institution that taught the 1619 Project. In another scheme to gin up his base of White supremacist and nationalist vigilantes and frighten White suburbanites, he banned federal agencies from sponsoring workshops that teach institutional or structural racism.
Junior Arkansas U.S. Senator Tom Cotton, a rising star on the far right, quickly moved to turn Trump’s utterances into law. He introduced the “Saving American History Act of 2020.” It would eliminate funding for public K-12 schools that incorporate the 1619 Project into their curriculum. Calling the 1619 Project “racially divisive,” Cotton articulated Trump’s core premise that despite slavery, the U.S. is a “noble country founded on the proposition that all mankind is created equal.”
The President and his acolyte’s attempt to eliminate efforts to reevaluate U.S. history and offer structural remedies for contemporary systematic racial oppression represents a struggle for the mind and as Martin Luther King claimed, “the soul of America.” Trump is like the little Dutch boy who placed his finger in the dike. Unfortunately for him and his racist minions, after the murder of George Floyd, the tide rose. The trickle became a flood.
Recent polls show a strong shift among White Americans. After decades of rejecting the idea of systemic racism, many now see it as a major factor shaping Black people’s lives. In 2016, only 25 percent believed police were “more likely to use excessive force against Black people.” By June 2020, 49 percent did! Among White Americans, 71 percent now agree “racial and ethnic discrimination is a big problem.” While this percentage remains significantly below the 90 percent of Black folk and 81 percent of other darker peoples who share this perspective, it still represents a momentous change.
This dramatic swing is not just a product of the George Floyd uprisings or even the resurgence in Black struggle, post-Michael Brown murder in 2014. It is also a consequence of knowledge from Black studies slowly seeping into the Euro-American consciousness over the last 50 years. Through classes, newspapers, magazines, books, television and film and job-sponsored diversity training workshops, ideas challenging the U.S. master narrative were planted in the multiracial American mind.
The deluge of not-so-new knowledge sowed the soil for an alternative African American-centered historical interpretation and contemporary social analysis. This history and critical analysis of race calls into question the U.S.’s foundational myth.
At heart, the 1619 Project attempts to reconcile the contradiction between the African American sociohistorical experience and the U.S. master narrative. Journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones and her colleagues see the origin of the U.S. in the Jamestown gentry’s decision to build a society based on the enslavement of Africans. The issue is about interpretation, not the inaccuracy of a few historical facts.
Is U.S. mythology, which locates the origin of the U.S. solely in the War of Independence, a more accurate interpretation than one that positions the country’s actual beginnings in enslavement? The dominant elite White American story contends the founding fathers led an anti-colonial revolt that culminated in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and the founding of a “land of liberty.”
Hannah-Jones and 1619 Project writers offer an alternative explanation. One more in line with that of nearly all African American historians and a sizable segment of the recent scholarship on early America. This view rests on three central propositions. First, the U.S. originated in slavery, racial oppression is constitutive, not incidental to the country’s ethos. Second, the U.S. derived from both an ideal and a lie. Third, through their struggle, African Americans have been a vital element in pushing the U.S. closer to realizing its lofty ideals.
Interestingly, Black folk can find immense value in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, but most Americans of European descent are unable to acknowledge its hypocrisy, therefore falsity. Few of its 56 signers believed “all men are created equal.” Of the signators, 41 — or more than 73 percent — were slaveholders. Of the 13 who were not, a few like John Hancock obtained their wealth smuggling slave-produced products. Only four opposed slavery or later became abolitionists.
Moreover, the founding fathers legalized enslavement. Of the Constitution’s 84 clauses, six directly concern slavery, while five others have implications for the U.S. system of human bondage, death and immiseration.
These different historical interpretations cannot be reconciled. To produce the sanitized version of U.S. history preferred by Trump and his backward hordes necessitates erasing the tragedies at the core of the Black sociohistorical experience. The first interpretation denies and stymies knowledge of the vast underbelly of U.S. history and cripples attempts to resolve this 400-plus-year-old problem. The counterhistory facilitates our understanding of the historical roots of the contemporary crisis roiling the empire and points us toward a solution.
Undermining the teaching of the 1619 Project’s alternative historical interpretation and curtailing the use of Critical Race Theory or any other Black studies-derived interpretation that accounts for the persistence and pervasiveness of racial oppression is counterproductive.
It’s not academic!
Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African American studies and history at the University of Illinois; member of the Executive Council of The Association for the Study of African American Life and History, 2016-P; and a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is email@example.com.