The 1619 Project’s massive success and wholesale acceptance by millions of readers, as well as its propagation into thousands of public schools, proves that many Americans are fond of ideologically driven historical narratives as long as they are well-written. It is incredible that a slew of essays by writers whose specializations are not tailored to the subject they are writing about can facilitate an about-face on a country’s history, and conduct a “reframing” to fit a seemingly purposeful misinterpretation of historical scholarship.
Such is the time we live, and such is the ongoing preference for modern cultural trends at the expense of cultural foundations.
In her new book “Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America” author Mary Grabar does just that—and more. It is not merely a debunking of an ill-conceived and historically inaccurate publication; it is an onslaught that provides the reader with an incredible amount of information drawn from history—some of it little-known or misunderstood.
Grabar points out early on that the 34 contributors to the 1619 Project, whose objective was to “reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding” were primarily “journalists (most associated with The New York Times) and creative types, poets, novelists, artists, and photographers.” Only four were historians, though none of them are “recognized as a leading expert in the history of slavery.” She points out that the creators, in particular Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times journalist whose brainchild was the 1619 Project, are politically on the left.
Grabar wisely not only provides necessary information about the politics of the contributors but also pinpoint how illogical it is to rely on artists and journalists to “correct” the narrative of American history—a history that has been explored and dissected for centuries by some of the brightest historians. Those advocating for a “reframing” of American history “through the lens of slavery,” as Hannah-Jones desires, will hardly be deterred from attempting to force their square peg into this round hole. Those who care about historical accuracy, however, will find that Grabar’s book pulls diligently from historians, both liberal and conservative.
The author does not shy away from the highly controversial topics covered by the 1619 Project contributors―including attempts to cancel Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, the claim that the American Revolution was fought merely to protect slavery, and that slavery in America, and in particular at Jefferson’s Monticello, was, as Hannah-Jones stated, “unlike anything that had existed in the world before.”
Grabar pores over each claim with historical facts, assessments by other historians, and quotes by contemporaries or the public figures themselves, like Jefferson and Lincoln. Her writing is matter-of-fact, unemotional, and without any malice toward Hannah-Jones or the other contributors. She comes from many angles to dissect the most egregious claims and lay them bare.
It is little wonder, as she points out, that Hannah-Jones has yet to accept an invitation to defend her stance on the debate stage. Even when historians—from the left and the right—expressed their criticisms, The New York Times Magazine refused to issue any corrections. (It also ignored Leslie M. Harris, the history professor from Northwestern University who helped fact-check the project and expressed strong reservations about it.)
Hannah-Jones brought the stage, but Grabar is undoubtedly bringing the debate with her 258-page debunking of the 1619 Project (along with nearly 60 pages of bibliography notes in a font much smaller than the galley text).
We get very little of Grabar’s personal thoughts on the subject, which is precisely the point. When covering history that dates back 400 years, less narrative and more historical context, especially from contemporaries and past historians, is key. It is, however, alarming that so many accept modern narratives lacking significantly in historical scholarship as gospel.
Grabar not only offers in-depth counterpoints to the 1619 Project’s claims through the writings of great historians on the topic of slavery, such as John Hope Franklin, Eugene D. Genovese, and Dumas Malone, but she also provides in-depth insights into Hannah-Jones herself, primarily through the journalist’s own writings.
There have been articles and letters written rebutting the 1619 Project, and those are often well-written and well-intended. But the issue with those articles from approximately two years ago is that they were reactionary, even if scholarly. These pieces do not cover enough, for there is only so much allowable space in a column or letter to the editor; they also often seem more opinionated than factual.
“Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America” provides what is needed—a thoughtful, in-depth, and scholarly work that addresses its most heavy-handed aspects.
This book is not a defense of slavery, which is an accusation that I fully anticipate will be foolishly launched. It’s also not an attempt to tamp down the slavery discussion. If anything, it helps place that discussion in its proper and necessary context. Grabar’s work is a defense of the nation’s true founding in 1776 and its foundational principles, and does not stray into an attempt to “reframe” everything we know to be true.
‘Debunking the 1619 Project: Exposing the Plan to Divide America’
Sept. 7, 2021
258 pages, paperback