Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project, and Academic Freedom

In April the University of North Carolina's Hussman School of Journalism and Media announced that Nikole Hannah-Jones would join its faculty as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism.


The Knight Foundation funds endowed chairs in journalism at universities across the country. Appointments are made in accordance with a school's established policies and procedures. The foundation has no role in the appointment of any given individual. At UNC Hussman one goal of the Knight Chair is to bring practicing journalists into tenured positions. According to Mimi Chapman, chair of the faculty at UNC, "that's how it's always been done on this campus" (Breaking down the tenure process). Since UNC began working with the Knight Foundation in the early 1980s all Knight Chair professors at the Chapel Hill campus have been tenured (PW Special Report). Until Hannah-Jones.


The appointment of Hannah-Jones underwent rigorous review through the established tenure process. The final step in this process is approval of the recommendation for tenure by the university's board of trustees. This approval is a routine formality. Until Hannah-Jones. The board, which is politically appointed, bowed to conservative political pressure based on opposition to views expressed in the 1619 Project and declined to take action on approval of tenure. An unidentified board member said, "The university and the board of trustees and the Board of Governors and the legislature have all been getting pressure since this thing was first announced last month. There have been people writing letters and making calls, for and against. But I will leave it to you which is carrying more weight" (PW Special Report). UNC Hussman, making the best of the situation, appointed Hannah-Jones to the faculty as a Professor of Practice for a five-year term with an option to be reviewed for tenure at the end of that period. This would seem a reasonable accommodation if not for the fact that she is being treated differently from her predecessors because of political opposition to her views.


Nikole Hannah-Jones has an impressive resumé. After earning her master's degree at UNC Hussman in 2003, Hannah-Jones began her career as an education reporter for The Chapel Hill News and The Raleigh News & Observer. She went on to work as an enterprise reporter at The Oregonian in Portland and as an investigative reporter covering civil rights, discrimination, housing, and school segregation at ProPublica before landing at The New York Times in 2015. Along the way she garnered an array of honors and awards (Pulitizer Prize-winning MacArthur 'Genius' Nikole Hannah-Jones), including the National Association of Black Journalists' Journalist of the Year Award in 2015, a MacArthur Fellowship in 2017, Columbia University’s John Chancellor Award for Distinguished Journalism in 2018, and a second Journalist of the Year award in 2019. Last year she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for The 1619 Project and was elected as a fellow by the Society of American Historians.


The awards testify to a career of distinction before and apart from The 1619 Project, which brought fame and controversy with its publication in The New York Times Magazine in August 2019. For Hannah-Jones's champions the 1619 Project could be seen as a crowning achievement in the stellar career of a still young journalist (b. 1976). For others her resumé is not enhanced by the publication. The project's intention to reframe U.S. history, and how it is taught in primary and secondary schools, around the centrality of slavery and racism was bound to attract brickbats and condemnation from the usual suspects in partisan conservative circles for whom the teaching of American history amounts to indoctrination in the story of American exceptionalism untarnished by slavery, racial injustice, and wrongs committed against people who occupied the continent before Europeans arrived.


Substantive criticism came from an array of distinguished historians of colonial and revolutionary America who pointed out factual errors, untenable assertions, misrepresentations of scholarship the project purports to overturn, and questionable postpublication edits by the New York Times Magazine. These critics endorse demonstrating the role of slavery, race, and racism in our history. But as Gordon Wood warns,


that necessary and worthy goal will be seriously harmed if the facts in the project turn out to be wrong and the interpretations of events are deemed to be perverse and distorted. In the long run the Project will lose its credibility, standing, and persuasiveness with the nation as a whole. I fear that will eventually hurt the cause rather than help it. (Wood Responds)


Wood and Sean Wilentz are two of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the 1619 Project. They are leading scholars of colonial and revolutionary history who have written extensively about slavery and race-related issues. Wilentz has taken issue with the 1619 Project in articles at The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books, publications not known for their conservative slant. An interview with Gordon Wood is published at the World Socialist Web Site, the online publication of the world Trotskyist movement, the International Committee of the Fourth International, and its affiliated sections in the Socialist Equality Parties around the world, in other words, a group presumably not associated with conservative or right-wing bias. I recommend the Wilentz articles (A Matter of Facts and American Slavery and 'the Relentless Unforeseen') and the Wood interview for detailed discussion of problematic claims made by Hannah-Jones and other contributors to the 1619 Project.


From the outset The 1619 Project is provocative, combative, and given to grand claims and sweeping generalizations.


It [1619] is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history. Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth. What if, however, we were to tell you that this fact, which is taught in our schools and unanimously celebrated every Fourth of July, is wrong, and that the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619? Though the exact date has been lost to history (it has come to be observed on Aug. 20), that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.


The reference to enslaved Africans is according to Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of History Emerita at Princeton, a misrepresentation right off the bat:


People were not enslaved in Virginia in 1619, they were indentured. The 20 or so Africans were sold and bought as "servants" for a term of years, and they joined a population consisting largely of European indentured servants, mainly poor people from the British Isles whom the Virginia Company of London had transported and sold into servitude. (Painter, How we think about the term).


This is perhaps a minor point, those indentured Africans were not free by any means, but it is indicative of the way the 1619 Project plays fast and loose with history and paves the way for sweeping generalizations and contentious claims that "Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional" and the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. Scholars, and not just revisionist historians who share the project's view of the nation's history, have been studying and writing about these subjects for decades. This history has not seeped into popular culture and primary and secondary school education, and that needs to be corrected, but it is wrong to say it has been ignored by historians.


For more than two generations, historians have deepened and transformed the study of the centrality of slavery and race to American history and generated a wealth of facts and interpretations. Yet the subject, which connects the past to our current troubled times, remains too little understood by the general public. The 1619 Project proposed to fill that gap with its own interpretation. (Wilentz, A Matter of Facts)


The problem is that the project's interpretation is shaky. Among the most readily confuted claims is the thesis that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. Wood tells his interviewer that one thing he has emphasized in his writings is


how many southerners and northerners in 1776 thought slavery was on its last legs and that it would naturally die away. You can find quotation after quotation from people seriously thinking that slavery was going to wither away in several decades. Now we know they couldn’t have been more wrong. But they lived with illusions and were so wrong about so many things. We may be living with illusions too. One of the big lessons of history is to realize how the past doesn’t know its future. We know how the story turned out, and we somehow assume they should know what we know, but they don’t, of course.

I think the important point to make about slavery is that it had existed for thousands of years without substantial criticism, and it existed all over the New World. It also existed elsewhere in the world. Western Europe had already more or less done away with slavery. Perhaps there was nothing elsewhere comparable to the plantation slavery that existed in the New World, but slavery was widely prevalent in Africa and Asia. There is still slavery today in the world.


And it existed in all of these places without substantial criticism. Then suddenly in the middle of the 18th century you begin to get some isolated Quakers coming out against it. But it’s the American Revolution that makes it a problem for the world. And the first real anti-slave movement takes place in North America. So this is what’s missed by these essays in the 1619 Project.


In a response to the New York Times' defense of the 1619 Project, Wood wrote that "Far from preserving slavery the North saw the Revolution as an opportunity to abolish the institution. The first anti-slave movements in the history of the world, supported by whites as well as blacks, took place in the northern states in the years immediately following 1776" (Wood Responds).


One of the best takes on Hannah-Jones that I have seen comes from legal historian Paul Finkelman, president of Gratz College in the greater Philadelphia area, reported by Cathy Young in an article at The Bulwark (1619, 1776). Finkelman told Young that he "sympathizes with the goal of showing slavery—and later, white supremacy—to be deeply woven into American history. Nonetheless, he was also scathing about the 1619 Project, especially Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer-winning essay." He told Young that if he were grading this as a history paper, he would give it a B or a B-minus: "It is very vigorously written, and some of it is even true. But we talk about people painting with a broad brush, and in much of '1619,' the authors are basically painting with a paint roller. There’s not much nuance."


The radical revisionism advanced by the 1619 Project is not without its advocates among historians. David Waldstreicher, Distinguished Professor of History at CUNY, Woody Holton, professor in the History Department at the University of South Carolina, and Gerald Horne, Moores Professor of History at the University of Houston, are names that pop up frequently as scholars whose work buttresses the project's assertions. According to Young, Horne's work was "most commonly cited" as the basis for the project's claims about slavery and the American Revolution, and Hannah-Jones herself has cited Horne's The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (2014) alongside others "as 'helpful' sources of factual evidence for her version of revolutionary history" (The Fight Over).


Reasonably well-informed and well-read individuals, the sort who could be thought of as everyday intellectuals, readers of publications like The Atlantic and The New York Review of Books, are likely to have at least a passing acquaintance with Wilentz, Wood, James MacPherson, and other critics of the project. The same would not be said of Waldstreicher, Horne, and other revisionists cited by the project's defenders. They are marginal figures, not as highly regarded in the field as their critics. This does not mean that Waldstreicher et al. are necessarily wrong. It is grounds for casting a critical eye on their work and certainly reason not to take them at face value.


Young calls attention to an amusing twist on the controversy in her discussion of these revisionist historians. I would not make too much of this, but it is too amusing to let pass unremarked. What, she asks, is so special about Gerald Horne?


Well, it’s the fact that he is, to put it bluntly, a tankie with a professorship. (A tankie, if you’re not up on your political slang, is a hardline communist and Stalinism apologist—a term that apparently originated on the British left in the 1980s.) And no, Horne is not a “Communist” in the word’s loose usage as a slur for someone far left; he’s the real deal. He was a regular contributor and editorial board member for Political Affairs, an actual house organ of the Communist Party USA, until that distinguished periodical folded into the People’s World website four years ago. In 2007, he delivered a glowing panegyric to the CPUSA and to the Soviet Union at an event marking the transfer of CPUSA archives to New York University’s Tamiment Library, predicting that the view of the USSR as an “Evil Empire” would someday go the way of romanticized notions of "'happy Negroes' during the slave era."


One may also suspect Horne of bringing a dubious agenda to his study of the Revolution given that, ten years ago, a Chronicle of Higher Education piece lamenting the revival of Joseph Stalin worship in Russia moved him to pen a letter to the editor which ran under the title, "Stalin Was No Worse Than the Founding Fathers."


Young notes the obvious and delicious twist that debate over the 1619 Project "is now a battleground between Stalinists and Trotskyites."


I would not have supported the appointment of Hannah-Jones to the Knight Chair with tenure had I been among those making the decision. To my mind the flaws of the 1619 Project outweigh the outstanding accomplishments that would otherwise make her highly qualified for the position. The faculty and university administration whose place it was to make the determination thought otherwise. The determination rests with them, not with the board of trustees, not with the state legislation, not with wealthy alumni and donors, and most certainly not with a mob of partisan banshees. This is a core principle of academic freedom.


Scholars critical of Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project standing firm in defense of academic freedom have denounced the board's denial of tenure. Sean Wilentz and Keith Whittington wrote a strongly worded column published at The Chronicle of Higher Education (Tenure Denial Is a Travesty), summing up in conclusion:


We have been critical of Hannah-Jones’s best-known work in connection with "The 1619 Project," and we remain critical. We also respect the judgment and the authority of the University of North Carolina’s faculty and administration. For the Board of Trustees to interfere unilaterally on blatantly political grounds is an attack on the integrity of the very institution it oversees. The perception and reality of political intervention in matters of faculty hiring will do lasting damage to the reputation of higher education in North Carolinaand will embolden boards across the country similarly to interfere with academic operations of the universities that they oversee.


Support of principles of academic freedom does not preclude continued vigorous debate about issues associated with the 1619 Project and with the campaign to have the project serve as a framework for primary and secondary school education. To the contrary, vigorous debate is at the heart of intellectual freedom. So too is the principle of academic freedom from political interference.


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