Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yet Another Historian Weighs in On the Problems With The New York Times' '1619 Project'

Peter A. Coclanis, the Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, writes:
It is increasingly clear that the 1619 Project, foisted on the American public in August by the New York Times, was ill advised. Fatuous, tendentious and tedious, 1619 is more advocacy than history, and is intended mainly to stoke the woke and to keep race on the front burner in the upcoming 2020 elections.

No close observer of the Times over the past few years would have expected otherwise, for in its domestic coverage it reads at times more like a Midtown edition of the Amsterdam News than a national newspaper of record. While still indispensable in some ways, its editorial slant and, indeed, news coverage have become unmoored...

The 1619 Project argues assiduously for the precocious importance of slavery and race in British North America, particularly because of the chance arrival in Virginia in 1619 of ‘some 20.  and odd Negroes’, who were sold either as indentured servants or slaves. By this, the organizers and editors of the 1619 Project signal their desire to flatten American history through interpretive bludgeoning. Simply put, the year 1619 is of little historical importance to Africans, African Americans, White Americans or really to anyone not currently working at 242 West 41st Street in New York City.

As numerous historians of British and Spanish America have long pointed out, Africans, including enslaved Africans, were present in North America well before 1619, and some for almost a century.  Indeed, if the 1619 editorial crew hadn’t been so avid to link its project with 2019 — and, more to the point, November 2020 — it could have waited until 2026 and marked (at least) the 500th year since the first traces of African slaves in North America. That would have meant nodding in the direction of the short-lived Spanish settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, founded by Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón at some still debated site along the southeast coast of present-day South Carolina or Georgia, its demise due in part to a slave revolt.

Scholars such as Michael Guasco, writing in 2017 in Black Perspectives, have already called attention to the ‘overstated significance of 1619’. Several generations of careful scholarly work on the origins of racial slavery in Virginia —by historians both black and white — have demonstrated that the process by which the status of Africans became differentiated and then fixed juridically was slow and incremental, involving much ambiguity, with both forward and backward steps. It wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century that the process began to be codified. Only in the last quarter of the 17th century did African and African American slavery begin to achieve any substantive importance in British North America.

Indeed, if one is interested in slavery in North America in 1619 and the first half of the 17th century, one would think first of Native Americans and the Spanish, not Africans and the English. Native Americans were mainly enslaved in indigenous communities or in silver-mining areas under control of the Spanish in the southwest. There were also Native American slaves — and African and African American slaves too — in Spanish Florida, as well as relatively small numbers of enslaved Native Americans in French Canada and in the seaboard colonies organized under the English...

With this in mind, it seems fair to suggest that if one were searching for truly important historical developments around the time of the arrival at Point Comfort, Virginia of the English privateer White Lion with its cargo of Africans, the smart money would be on 1618. That was the year of the onset of the Thirty Years’ War, which was to lead to millions of deaths and was to fundamentally reshape Western geopolitics and religious history. The even smarter money might be even on 1620, the year of publication of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, wherein Bacon systematized and synthesized natural philosophy to promote inductive reasoning, one of the pillars of the scientific method, which in time was to transform human history far more than anything that happened in Virginia in 1619.

For more on the 1619 Project see here.


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