The reaction to the New York Times 1619 Project has ranged from overwhelming approval to unabashed criticism. This criticism stemmed from those who do not see, or more importantly do not want to see, the ways that race and the institution of chattel slavery has influenced every aspect of our nation from its foundations to the present. The project states that its aim “is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year.” The project traces the ways that the arrival of 20 enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia in August 1619 laid the groundwork for America.
Some viewed this as an affront to the mythological narrative of America as a completely democratic, individualistic nation where anyone can succeed through their own gumption and will. Last week, even Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services made this argument when he misquoted Emma Lazarus “The New Colossus” which sits at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Instead of quoting Lazarus’ lines, he said, “Give me your tired and your poor who stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge.”
The economic system that slavery established denied enslaved individuals, and then later immigrants, these opportunities. Some, through their ability to assimilate into whiteness, could ascend. Others had a more difficult time due to the systems that placed profits and success above human lives.
Newt Gingrich tweeted that the 1619 Project is propaganda. Erick Erickson compared the project to Neo-Confederates, even writing that the 1619 project “seeks to embrace the Neo-Confederate world view of the South that actually won the Civil War by weaving itself into the fabric of post war society so it can then discredit the entire American enterprise.”
Gingrich, Erickson, and others seek to misdirect audiences. They either do this through outright attacks or through trying to justify their argument with sources. Ultimately, what these types of responses show is fear. Fear that the truth will challenge their position. Fear that they will loose their white privilege. Fear that they will have to provide equal opportunities for all, even poor and middle-class whites.
Lillian Smith, a white Southern Civil Rights activist, spoke directly to these fears in her writing. Most pointedly, she writes about them in “Buying a New World With Old Confederate Bills” in the Winter 1942-1943 issue of South Today. In this piece, she points out that the eyes of the world, during World War II, are on America and its supposed democracy. Focusing on the South, she talks about segregation, its causes, and its effects on individuals.
In the section “I am as good as anybody,” she directly confronts the ways that European immigrants became “white” and how the institution of slavery laid the groundwork for America’s economic growth. She begins, “White men came to American for many reasons, but all, to a man, learned to believe in one truth which they held as self-evident, namely: I am as good as anybody.” America’s mantra is equality for all, and European “White men,” as John Hector St. John Crèvecœur described the melting pot, were the beneficiaries.
Smith knew this history as well. She knew that these words did not extend to all genders or races. This belief only extended to white men. They came to America for opportunities and “plunged from American opportunity to American opportunity.” These words rang joyfully throughout America as the brash expansion occurred. Some men, as Smith notes, said “the obverse words: And you are as good as I.” Those men, however, did not outnumber the others, and thus their voices fell amongst the brash and boisterous expansion.
Once expansion began to slow down, things changed. It’s worth quoting Smith at length here:
Then came a time, as we all know, when there were no more frontiers; when American opportunity became for too many a white American dream of something-that-once-had-been, and a reality only for the few who knew how, and were willing, to climb up to it by stepping on those beneath them. Production for profit, with its old competitive, selfish cries of “rugged individualism,” of “the best man wins,” was no longer expanding, but frontiers now gone, soil wasted, world markets lost, had begun a new and frightening process of shrinking, crowding corporate monopoly back upon big business, both pushing hard on small business, all driving back the white working man who had nowhere to go except to step down upon the black working man. And now white men believe men who once had said I am good as you, and believed it, could believe it still only by adding For look at all the black folks we both are better than!
When the wealthy, white landowners and industrialists started pushing the poor whites who worked for them down, the whites, according to Smith, started pushing on those below them. This is what the Cajun Gil Boutan points out to the white landowner Candy Marshall in Ernest Gaines A Gathering of Old Men when he tells her, “You never liked any of us. Looking at us as if we’re a breed below you. But we’re not, Candy. We’re all made of the same bone, the same blood, the same skin. Your folks had a break, mine didn’t, that’s all.” These are the same things that authors such as Frank Yerby and intellectuals such as W.E.B. Du Bois pointed out.
The wealthy sow division among those who are beneath them. They do this to maintain their own positions within oppressive systems, and when hunger strikes those at the bottom, the fears that the wealthy stoke take hold, and instead of going after the wealthy, they go after one another. Smith talks about the hunger for “dignity and esteem,” and she points out that when physical and psychological hunger occur it is “an easier thing to turn such hate and fear upon those who, though innocent, show themselves in a weaker position than one’s own.”
For white Americans, “I am as good as anybody” became their ideal, “his creed and his necessity–as importune as appetite as the appetite for food, and love.” It becomes a mantra that one buys into because of the hope contained within it, hope that when peeled away reveals nothing but a rotten core that poisons. The facade of the “I am as good as anybody” leads to the feeling of superiority even when one is in a similar economic situation. This feeling, as Smith, the 1619 Project, and countless others point out, derives from racist beliefs that have come down to us through the centuries. Beliefs that have rotted the core of nation. Beliefs that continue to poison us to this day.
Smith continues by laying out how whiteness influences people’s psyches. She writes, “Had a historical sequence not placed the Negro race here, the white American would have had to find some other way to prove his equality with millionaires and kings than by proclaiming his superiority to the black man.” Blacks became, according to Smith, “a safety valve” for the white man, allowing those the poor and middle classes a group to look down upon. This helps us “understand why leaders or profit monopolies and workers, for quite different reasons, are not eager to give up their old habits of building up the Negro as a menace and as an inferior.”
This “old habit” is on display in the reactions to the 1619 Project. The building up Black/American history and Black intellectual thought scares those who have built their life on “I am as good as anybody else.” They have bought so hard into the myth of equal opportunities in America that they do not want to acknowledge who has access to those opportunities. They fear what will happen when people realize that they are pitting individuals against one another. They fear that the truth will somehow tarnish America’s reputation.
They fear what David Walker wrote back in 1829 when he noted that immigrants from Ireland, Greece, and other European countries were called men while “(coloured people) and our children are brutes!! and of course are, and ought to be SLAVES to the American people and their children forever!! to dig their mines and work their farms; and thus go on enriching them, from one generation to another with our blood and our tears!!!!”
David Walker knew the foundations of this nation trace back to 1619. Lillian Smith knew the foundations of this nation trace back to 1619. Nikole Hannah-Jones and the contributors to the 1619 project know that the foundations of this nation trace back to 1619. Until we directly reckon with the past, it will continue to manifest itself in new ways, expanding and morphing, effecting us all.
Nice work, Matt!
I may be teaching an early American Lit course next semester (retirements and two maternity leaves have blown up the Spring schedule, so I am still not sure), and I plan to introduce them to several essays in the 1619 project. I will include your essay and the Smith essay as well. This should make for a good module and great conversations.
Thank you for reading. The #1619syllabus has a lot of information as well (https://twitter.com/SilasLapham/status/1163828440954527744) and the Pulitzer Center has lesson plans (http://www.pulitzercenter.org/projects/1619-project-pulitzer-center-education-programming)
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