Updated: September 13, 2020 11:24:36 am
President Donald Trump recently criticised an educational curriculum that teaches the impact of slavery in the US as “revisionist history”, and threatened to withhold federal funding from public schools using the resource.
The contested curriculum is based on The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of essays on African American history of the past four centuries, which explores the Black community’s contribution in nation-building since the era of slavery to modern times. A special edition of The New York Times Magazine, it takes its name from the year 1619, when the first enslaved Black people were brought to the present-day United States.
On Monday, Trump said that he supported the history of slavery being taught in schools, but opposed The 1619 Project, saying, “… we grew up with a certain history and now they’re trying to change our history. Revisionist history.”
A day earlier, referring to public schools in California teaching the syllabus, Trump said on Twitter, “Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded!”
Department of Education is looking at this. If so, they will not be funded! https://t.co/dHsw6Y6Y3M
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 6, 2020
What is The 1619 Project?
The Project is a special initiative of The New York Times Magazine, launched in 2019 to mark the completion of 400 years since the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia’s Jamestown in August 1619.
The edition consists of 30 written and visual pieces by journalists, historians, poets, playwrights, authors and artists, examining how social structures that developed in the US as a consequence of slavery affect present-day laws, policies, systems and culture, and the contributions of Black people in America’s nation-building.
It is a brainchild of Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Grant-winning journalist with the NYT Magazine, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for her work on the edition.
The collection aims “to reframe US history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” according to Jake Silverstein, the publication’s editor-in-chief. “Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country,” says his Editor’s Note.
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Criticism by conservatives and historians
The Project’s central idea, that US history should be reframed around the date of August 1619, has been opposed by those who insist that the nation’s story should be told the way it has been over the years– beginning with the year 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed, or from 1788, when the US Constitution was ratified.
What has particularly annoyed conservatives and some historians is the Project’s introductory essay by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which suggests that America’s founding leaders sought freedom from the British Empire largely to preserve the institution of slavery, and not for lofty ideals.
Hannah-Jones says in the essay, “In other words, we may never have revolted against Britain if some of the founders had not understood that slavery empowered them to do so; nor if they had not believed that independence was required in order to ensure that slavery would continue.
“It is not incidental that 10 of this nation’s first 12 presidents were enslavers, and some might argue that this nation was founded not as a democracy but as a slavocracy.”
After The 1619 Project was launched, the Pulitzer Center developed curricula based on it for use by teachers free of charge. Some schools subsequently said they would adopt the education material, much to the chagrin of conservative leaders.
This year, a Republican party legislator, Tom Cotton, introduced a bill titled the “Saving American History Act of 2020”, which aims to “prohibit the use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project by K-12 schools or school districts. Schools that teach the 1619 Project would also be ineligible for federal professional-development grants.”
While the proposed law is not expected to be passed by the US Congress, it is being seen as a message by Republicans before the November elections, a CNN report said.
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Trump has also doubled down on what he describes as “cancel culture” and “revisionist history”. As a counter to the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country in recent months, he has vigorously opposed removing from US cities the statues of Conservatives figures who fought to maintain slavery during the American Civil War.
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