As if we needed another field for partisan controversy, American history is now under siege.
One month ago, the Sunday edition of the New York Times ran an extensive feature article claiming that Catholic nuns at the Georgetown Visitation Monastery in Washington, D.C. – still the home of a convent and a highly regarded school – owned and sold slaves in 1821.
The visitation exposé was well-researched and – although creatively dramatized (“short of funds, Sister Agnes Brent, visitation’s Mother Superior, casually decided to sell slaves…”) – I’ve no doubt it is factually correct.
But I’d argue that it is wholly unfair to judge Sister Agnes’s frame of mind in 1821, based solely on entries in a recovered financial ledger. More importantly, are we really shocked to learn that people who lived two centuries ago, in a society that would be barely recognizable today, did not share the same belief systems and social consciousness as 21st century Americans?
Catholic nuns in 1821 – just as today – devoted their lives to prayer, sacrifice and service to others. They come from the same roots and share the same imperfections as their secular contemporaries. After all these years, what purpose is served by singling them out now for rebuke?
It turns out that the visitation article was just a teaser for the main event. Two weeks later, the Times rolled out its 1619 Project, commemorating the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans on our shores.
As they describe it, the project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding and placing the consequences of slavery and contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are."
Their thesis: There is nothing more important to the American experience than slavery and racism. They maintain, in effect, that slavery is the root cause of all that is bad about America today, and that much of what is good was achieved by, or stolen from, slaves.
The 1619 Project is an impressive body of work. Altogether, it comprises 100 pages of essays, analyses, fiction, photographs and poetry. All was compiled and fact-checked by a panel of historians, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute.
What’s wrong with that? After all, many (I’m one) criticize today’s wholesale demolition of monuments and murals deemed to be racially insensitive because it erases history. Isn’t it a good thing to add to the historical record, to fill in the blanks with pertinent, accurate and previously unknown information?
Yes, it is. Learning from history is critically important, and it demands factual accuracy and completeness. But it also needs context. The 1619 Project, left unchallenged, presents a very distorted picture of our nation.
The missing context is this: Until the mid-19th century, slavery was a world-wide fact of life. It was driven more by conquest and barter than by racism. The arrival of 20 slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, was but a tiny footnote in what was then a booming, lucrative Atlantic slave trade.
Even before the American colonies came together as the United States, many here questioned the morality of slavery, and it was a topic of lively debate among the Founding Fathers. That was truly radical thinking in the 17th century, but it took root steadily in our new nation, leading to the abolition movement and then the American Civil War – the war that took the lives of over 600,000 Americans, about 10% of U.S. population, ending slavery in America.
The New York Times is an excellent but transparently biased newspaper, not the best place to look for an objective history lesson. They actively promote progressive causes and Democratic Party candidates, and their editorial pages routinely accuse the president and anyone who supports him of racism. The 1619 Project Director Nikole Hannah-Jones asserts that “it’s time to stop hiding from our sins … it’s time to make them right.”
That sounds more like politics than history to me. There’s an election coming up. Is it any wonder that this new narrative about racism in America shows up now?
The Times proposes to use 1619 Project material in schools. My strong preference for the historical message we should give our children is this: America has been from the start a world leader in eradicating slavery – we’re still at it, together working to achieve true racial justice for all.
No one questions the horror of slavery, and it is important that we understand its effect on America. But exaggerating and politicizing it does nothing to heal the wounds.