Publication of The 1619 Project in the New York Times Magazine August 18 edition has generated a flurry of both praise and criticism. 1619 is the year the first African slaves (technically indentured servants, but without contracts securing their release they were indeed slaves) were brought to the North American continent. The project content is generated by prominent black writers – journalists, essayists, poets. Project head and multiple-award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones describes the objective of the project as “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”
Fans of the project call it revolutionary, and critics call it propaganda. Newt Gingrich tweeted, “The NY Times 1619 Project should make its slogan ‘All the Propaganda we want to brainwash you with’ .it [sic] is a repudiation of the original NY Times motto.”
From what I’ve been able to look up, a few elements of the historical content of The 1619 Project publication might be debatable, but most of its history is solid. This places it squarely in the company of almost every other historical analysis upon which we rely to understand the American experiment. Certainly more reasonable than the “African worker” spin a recently published textbook from McGraw-Hill put on the slave trade. (In fairness, McGraw-Hill apologized and replaced this edition … but one wonders how no one in the public review process found it at least misleading.)
So why the controversy?
A large portion of White America is very uncomfortable with the idea of Black America taking control of its own historical narrative.
Blaming the whole phenomenon on racism isn’t wrong, but quitting there without diving into more nuance is a conversation-stopper. Once you call someone a racist, the conversation then becomes about whether that person identifies themselves as a racist, and there’s no conversational path forward available to either side. To quote a song from Avenue Q: “Everyone’s a little bit racist.” If we can start there, maybe we can be less sensitive when someone points out our own racism, and more empathetic when we need to point it out in others. We can’t participate in a discussion on race effectively when we’re in attack or defense mode.
Why the tendency to default to one or the other?
The information and perspectives shared in The 1619 Project aren’t simply new information. New information that contradicts what we already believe may be difficult to process, and often we outright dismiss it, but such information doesn’t have to provoke such a visceral reaction. The points of view in The 1619 Project cut deeper though: they force us to re-evaluate what we believe about our tribe.
Tribal identity is deep. So deep that often when what we believe about ourselves contradicts what our tribe believes … we alter our perception of ourselves. Confronting such a deeply held tribal identity touches off feelings many people may not even be aware they have. They can feel attacked by facts.
When confronted with unexpected, unpleasant feelings we may look to their catalyst to place blame. In her book Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, author Arlie Russell Hochschild comments on how self-identified conservatives in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana resent liberals telling them how they should feel about things like racism, the environment, and religion. These people very much understood these issues and their own self-interest, but liberal perspectives were in conflict with what Hochschild called this community’s “deep story” – a story about faithful, hardworking people who had been neglected, abused, and then forgotten by both corporate interests and the federal government. Liberals wanted to “line jump” – that is, to put the interests of minorities ahead of conservatives who had also worked hard and been left behind.
The feeling these people most associated with liberal viewpoints? Guilt. They’re not here for it.
Current conservative narrative is gleefully hostile to the idea of feelings. Well, liberal feelings anyway. “F*ck Your Feelings” t-shirts areproudly worn by (and sold by) attendees at Trump rallies. Online conservatives love to “own the libs” by calling them overly-sensitive “snowflakes” (a term co-opted from writer Chuck Palahniuk and ironically misaligned with his original intent). Conservative memes constantly call for a return to a time when people weren’t so easily offended.
Conservatives have plenty of feelings, too. Movies like Black Panther and the female remake of Ghostbusters elicit anguished cries of “Social Justice Warrior” and “this ruins the stories of my childhood” as though any single film could eradicate our vast trove of entertainment dedicated to and featuring almost exclusively white men. I’m pretty sure you can still watch the original Ghostbusters as often as you like and will not be forced to watch Kate McKinnon.
A soup commercial (or any advertisements) featuring same-sex or interracial couples somehow “forces diversity down our throats” and “demands a boycott” simply by not ignoring groups of people who actually exist and buy things.
And try saying “Happy Holidays” to someone with an axe to grind and no regard to whether or not you actually celebrate Christmas. They’ll have some feelings.
The conservative echo chamber convinces itself liberal ideas are all about sissified feelings and conservative ideas are all about strong principles. (The liberal echo chamber of course has its own set of problems stereotyping its opposition.) Perhaps that is why they assume the liberal “fixation” with race and the historical and current impacts of slavery must be feelings-driven.
And what could that feeling be?
Why, the snowflakiest of all snowflake feelings: White Guilt.
Ever hear the old saying that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes? It’s largely true, not least because once we achieve the success we seek, we may feel little motivation to learn more. However, artists and entrepreneurs with longevity and lasting cultural impact are never satisfied their latest production is the best they can do.
But, if we have a tribal bent to our nature, we drop the “learning from mistakes” ball when it comes to our tribe. After all, if “We’re number one!” (and what is the definition of that ranking if not our own tribal biases?) … where else do we have to go? And why would we need to? The tribe doesn’t make mistakes; the tribe has a deep story.
Many conservatives now complain that liberals hate the United States, their evidence being liberals’ willingness to call out our past and current sins. (Not that liberal always get it right; the eugenics movement in the early part of the last century was driven by liberals of the time.) Even weary moderates will complain how liberals constantly taint our proud national accomplishments by bringing up the negatives of the past.
People are OK with talking about slavery during Black History Month, but as Leonard Pitts recently tweeted: “slavery is also part of White History. The slaves didn’t exactly sell and buy themselves.” (Don’t let anyone distract from this by trotting out how Africans captured other Africans to sell; not the point and they know it.) Ask some people to consider the lasting impacts of slavery, and they’ll want to know why they should feel guilty when neither they nor their family owned slaves.
The short answer is: you shouldn’t; no one is trying to make you feel guilty.
Guilt is a terrible motivator. Guilt creates feelings of powerlessness, but to effect change we need to feel powerful. Guilt creates resentment of the person who “makes” us feel guilty (even when we’ve wronged them), and obstructs our access to empathy. Guilt leads to shame, and shame shuts us down.
No one wants to “make” us feel White Guilt, because our guilt – whether we fight or embrace it – is not just benignly useless: it moves the conversation backwards.
And this may be a good time to remind ourselves no one “makes” us feel anything. Not that initial pangs of guilt are voluntary or chosen, but our reaction to them is under our control. Defensiveness is surrender to guilt because it implies our responses are limited to guilt or nothing. Defensiveness is a position of weakness. Empathy however is strength found in vulnerability. Choosing empathy commits us to connecting without committing us to agreeing. As Dylan Marron, host of the podcast Conversations with People who Hate Me, says: “Empathy is not endorsement.”
Guilt will not move us forward. Feel free not to feel it. Feel free not to insist on it.
Progress does not require it.
Like all nations, the United States has a history of moments both proud and shameful. The shameful does not eradicate the good any more than the good eradicates the shameful. While we excel at celebrating the good, we often do so to the detriment of acknowledging the shameful. Both are parts of our true story.
History is written not just by the winners, but by the winning tribe. And the tribe has a vested interest in portraying itself as the eternal hero of its own story. But the United States has grown so large and diverse that the tension within the tribe is pulling it apart at the seams. The losing tribes also have stories, and over time have won back their voices, so naturally they too wish to be the heroes of their stories.
Unfortunately, we are not skilled at entertaining two such stories at once. We can’t comfortably balance the ideas of our tribe being the hero of our own story, and the villain of another tribe’s story.
Yet that is what each of us are.
The unpleasant truth of American history is that much of what makes us great was built on the grounds of slaughtered natives and the backs of enslaved people. This is an apolitical statement, yet our current culture divides our responses to these truths into politically polarized camps.
While “moving past” the past seems reasonable to the winning tribe, the losing tribes are still living with the consequences. They still live in the repercussions of the past, such as being stuck on reservations (whether official created or achieved through ghettoization) without the clean water they were promised – be they on a Navajo reservation or in Flint.
“Moving past” the past implies that forgiving and forgetting puts us all on equal footing. But as entrenched as we are in celebrating our past glories as the wellspring of our present greatness, we remain willfully blind to how our past sins establish the quicksand of our present ills.
Imagine, if you will, a race run up two escalators a dozen stories tall. A racer from each tribe is headed the same direction, but one escalator is moving upward and the other is moving downward. At every floor, the runner on the upward-bound escalator could flip a switch so the downward-bound escalator stops moving or reverses direction, but chooses to wait until the seventh story to stop it, and the tenth to reverse it. Is there any point at which such a race actually becomes fair? How much harder will the second runner have worked to reach the top of the escalator? Would the victory be satisfying – or deserved?
In case you hadn’t noticed, the ratios of seven and ten floors out of twelve are roughly equivalent to ratios of the passage of time during the last four hundred years from 1619 to 1870 (when black men were given the right to vote) and 1619 to 1965 (passage of the Voting Rights Act effectively ending the Jim Crow era).
Now imagine an entire tribe or two forced onto the down escalator by the tribe on the up escalator, and the prize for the race is dominance over half the continent. Imagine the more the “Downs” struggle, the more advantage the “Ups” have. Imagine that race takes 400 years to run; generations live and die.
Once the race is over everyone might appear equal because we’re all standing at the top of the escalator, but the economic, physical, and psychic toll of fighting their way up the first seven stories over 300 years has not left the Downs in anywhere near as good a condition as the Ups. The Ups had a century to settle in and get comfortable and start calling the shots and making the rules at the top of the escalator before the Downs ever reached equal footing.
The descendants of the Ups continue a proud tradition of celebrating their victory, but eventually, once the downs recover a little and catch their breaths and start telling their story, start reminding the Ups of the injustice and horror of the whole scenario, how can anyone think the results of the race are just?
What sets things right?
Not guilt. We’ve covered that. Guilt is the business of making your story into my story.
What sets things right is listening to the stories of what happened to people struggling upward against unfair odds while we did not have the same forces working against us.
What sets things right is trying to understand, without becoming defensive, what was lost, why it was lost, and how our tribe contributed to that loss.
What sets things right is figuring out how we can all really have equality here at the top of the escalator … not because we were directly responsible for the terrible conditions of a race established centuries ago, but because we are decent, thoughtful human beings who understand the effects of the race are not over.
The United States will never be its best, unified, just tribe until all our struggles become part of all our stories, and all our victories lift all of us together.
No one is here for our white guilt.
But are we really here for truth and justice the American Way?