Jones’s opening essay from the original project is still part of this book, but the book begins instead with a new introduction to the collected book version. I was really excited to hear this new introduction because it addressed something I thought was missing from a lot of the discourse around the project. I am not a historian and would never claim to be one, and the only way I know how to think through historical writing is through comparison among different texts. In addition, a lot of my history comes in conjunction with cultural history and literary criticism, something I do have a lot of experience reading and writing.
Anyway, the question that I was concerned about with the 1619 Project discourse between legitimate criticism and difference of opinion among good-faith actors, and reactionary criticism from bad-faith actors. This conversation also includes the problem of people also not acting in academic good-faith, who are willing to defend the project, but might not actually providing expertise. What I mean by all this is that because the project was criticized in bad-faith by reactionary critics, and then people defended against that criticism, it means that the other kinds of criticism–good faith historical disagreement–was never addressed or unfairly lumped within the bad-faith criticism. So what I wanted to see was some of the ways that Hannah-Jones and other contributors dealt with that. The opening essay begins that process a little. Part of dealing with it can of course be to further disagree and establish how and why, but I appreciate the ways in which the book separates that. There were critics of the 1619 Project who I think are legitimately good historians, and of course there were the others. And as Hannah-Jones points out, there were plenty of historians (and not just those who contributed) who supported the project. And while the historians might disagree with each other, I was uncomfortable with the way that disagreement was at least partly being categorized by the project’s many defenders as automatically synonymous with reactionaries.
Because most of the history contained within this book is not especially new to me (I completed part of my PhD comps were in American Studies), I was mostly thinking about what the seeming goals of this book are and how successful the book is in this way. There’s a few books I have read recently that I’ve labeled something like “more of a syllabus” than a history. And what I mean by those books is that they provide a way to understand what are the important questions to ask and how to find resources to ask them. This is part of the continuing process of history anyway. This book is similar. It’s structured less like a history either covering a whole field or time period and more like a way to access further histories on a selection of given topics. In this sense, I think the book is very successful. Not only does it give you an access (and accessible) point, it offers up some historians for cross-reference.
So the other feeling I have about what type of book this is, is like an academic reader. That also feels like a reasonable comparison because the book is topical, taking an important idea like voting or citizenship or violence and tracing it historically and contemporarily to find a connections throughout the course of American history and American historiography.
What this book definitely is not is the final word on anything. And Hannah-Jones says this very specifically in the introduction. It’s clear that she sees her book as part of a continuing conversation, part of historical discourse. When several of the well-known historians criticized parts of the book (and I am thinking specifically of Gordon Wood and James McPherson) mostly they were also entering into that same discourse, in the same way that any given historian might disagree with any other historian. I think that some of their criticisms were valid (such as challenging the way in which some conclusions were extrapolated from small pieces of evidence).
But of course as happens whenever something gets hyper-politicized, even legitimate criticism gets swept up by reactionaries as proof of their totalizing reaction to something. For every legitimate criticism, there’s a whole swath of illegitimate criticisms. And worse, there’s documents like the deeply embarrassing 1776 project, which is just hilariously absurd.
One of the other strengths of this book that I wanted to mention is its relatively late publication date, especially in comparison to the original publication of many of its pieces. It’s an unfortunate thing for the country about how polarized 2020 and then Jan 6 were, but in terms of the book, there couldn’t have been a more clear and relevant set of examples of how white supremacy supersedes almost any other concern when it comes to white Americans feeling even the slightest tug on their power.