The 1619 Project and Bringing History to the People

tags: public history, 1619 Project

Anne C. Bailey is a writer, historian, and professor of History and Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). Dr. Bailey is the author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017).

The 1619 Project of The New York Times launched in August to wide acclaim.  The aim of the Project was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of African presence in Colonial America, while also “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Recently, I have been concerned at the pushback by a few historians of note. First, I should say, as a disclaimer, that my article on The Weeping time slave auction appears at the end of the issue, but my body of work and commitment to public history is such that I would be a supporter of 1619 whether I was a part of it or not.  I should also say that these historians and others are free to debate various points raised in The 1619 Project, but the hope is that neither they nor anyone else will dismiss its importance.

One of the things that I liked about the project is that though they asked me and a few other historians including Kevin M. Kruse from Princeton and Tiya Miles from Harvard to make contributions – the lead article was from one of their esteemed journalists and MacArthur Fellow, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been researching these issues for over 20 years.  She was the person to first pitch the story to Editor in Chief of The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who enthusiastically took on the challenge.  The fact that they also consulted several noted historians and other scholars early on in the process was also evidence of their due diligence, but again, to lead with a journalist’s take on the history of America through the lens of her own African American family was a stroke of genius.

In a democracy, history belongs to all of us and Hannah’s breakthrough article implicitly and explicitly says just that.  From my time as an undergraduate till my present position as a Professor of History at SUNY Binghamton, I have been frustrated that history seemed to belong to the few – the few who had made it their life’s work in the halls of academia, some of whom, as I was to learn, spoke more to each other than to the general public.   Like the idea of legal precedent, each historian looking at a particular topic builds on what has come before—expands it, refutes it,  nuances it—all in the name of bringing out the best interpretation of what happened and how it happened.  In principle, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this process.


Read entire article at Cambridge Blog

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