Aug 5, 2021 6 min read

#305: The Fight Over U.S. History

Happy August, loyal readers, and thank you for being here. This week I’m switching things up again, trying an experiment where I dedicate the whole newsletter to one great piece and encourage you all to take it in. My gut says that you’re going to like and appreciate it. But first, a bit of context:

Happy August, loyal readers, and thank you for being here. This week I’m switching things up again, trying an experiment where I dedicate the whole newsletter to one great piece and encourage you all to take it in. My gut says that you’re going to like and appreciate it.

But first, a bit of context: Even though the title of this week’s newsletter is “The Fight Over U.S. History,” we won’t be talking about Critical Race Theory. As a former high school history teacher, I’m not going to pretend there’s an actual debate about whether CRT is being taught or if it has a place in our schools. All due respect, but that’s not worth our time here.

What I do find interesting, though, is how powerfully The 1619 Project, by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times, has shaped our construction of and discourse about American history. Two summers after its publication, we’re just starting to feel its effects.

That’s why I am grateful that Ms. Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates went on Ezra Klein’s show last week to discuss the following questions: What changes when a country’s sense of its own history changes? What changes when who gets to tell that story changes?

My hope is that you’ll find time this week to listen to this thoughtful conversation. If you do, and you want to talk about it, hit reply and let me know. If there is interest,

I’d like to bring us together

next Tuesday evening at 6 pm PT (details to come). Until then, please enjoy!

What’s Really Behind The 1619 Backlash?

What’s Really Behind The 1619 Backlash?

In this 77-minute podcast episode, Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates speak with Ezra Klein about a number of topics, including their decision to join Howard University, their thoughts about the state of journalism, their beliefs about why The 1619 Project has caused such an uproar, and their perspectives on what young people should learn about their country’s history.

Instead of summarizing the conversation, I’m going to share four of my favorite excerpts from the conversation. Here’s the transcript if you’d like to read the whole thing (though listening is better, in my opinion).

On why there has been such a backlash about The 1619 Project:

Ms. Hannah-Jones: The entire reason the 1619 Project had to exist in the first place is that we have been willfully opposed to grappling with who we are as a country. What’s clear is that whether you are a progressive or a conservative, many, many white Americans have a vested interest in that mythology of American exceptionalism and greatness, and that we are a pure nation, right? And clearly, the 1619 Project intentionally was seeking to unsettle that narrative. What the 1619 Project does is it actually displaces white people from the center of American greatness and places Black people there.
And I think that is also part of what angers people so much. It is not just saying the men who founded us they did some pretty terrible things, like engaged in human bondage and human trafficking. But also, your whole idea about democracy actually comes from Black resistance. I think that’s just too much for people to accept.

On the centrality of slavery and how it changes the story of U.S. History:

Mr. Coates: What does it mean to know that without enslavement, without the destruction of Black families, without the exploitation of Black labor, without labor guaranteed through torture, [the founders] would not exist as we know them today? Thomas Jefferson wasn’t moonlighting as a slaveholder, George Washington wasn’t moonlighting as a slave holder. That was their career. That was how they garnered the resources to go off and do these other great things that we so admire and we praise. What does it mean to know your founder’s occupation was slave holding? What does it mean to have to accept the fact that the deadliest war in this country’s history for Americans was launched to preserve enslavement? It’s difficult. It changes the story. It decentralizes the individual; your individual goodness is irrelevant. There is a system at work here. There’s something larger than you, bigger than you.

On how we we should teach U.S. History to our young people:

Ms. Hannah-Jones: We can teach our children what George Washington did that was great, and we can also teach our children what George Washington did that was terrible. You can’t just put a person in a category as being good or bad, but that’s how we’ve wanted to teach the history of this country, and we have to be more honest. No one is responsible for what our ancestors did before us. We’re not responsible for the good things, so you don’t want to own up to slavery then also you can’t claim the Declaration because you also didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. None of us are responsible for what our ancestors did. But we are responsible for what we do now.
And we do have the ability to build a country that is different, that is not held hostage to the past. But we won’t do that by denying that upon which we were built. Because that past is shaping us. It is shaping our country, our politics, our culture, our economics, whether we acknowledge it or not. And all I’m saying is let us acknowledge that upon which we were built so that we can try to actually become the country of these majestic ideals. And I do believe the ideals are majestic, we just have failed to live up to them.

On the future, hope, and how the imagination matters more than facts:

Mr. Coates: Obviously I believe in the importance of history, but some of this ain’t fact-based, man. Some of this is like back in the lizard brain or whatever brain we assign to deciding what the world should look like. This is rude to say, but there are people that I recognize I can never get to because their imagination is already formed. And when their imagination is formed, no amount of facts can dislodge them. The kids, however, the kids who are in the process of having their imagination formed, who in the process of deciding, or not even deciding but being influenced in such a way to figure out what are the boundaries of humanity, that’s an ongoing battle.
And so like I think about 2018 the movie “Black Panther,” and I think about seeing white kids dress up as the Black Panther. This sounds small. This sounds really, really small. And I want to be clear, there’s a way in which this kind of symbolism certainly can be co-opted and not tied to any sort of material events. But I keep going back to this, there’s a reason why in 1962 they raised the Confederate flag over the Capitol of South Carolina. The symbols actually matter because they communicate something about the imagination, and in the imagination is where all of the policies happen.
There’s a generation that is being formed right now that’s deciding what they will allow to be possible. What they will be capable of imagining. And I just I want to be a part of that fight.

That last sentiment – about the role of imagination – is one that I want to reflect on as I return to work today, as young people return to school in the coming weeks, as teachers choose which curriculum to put in front of their students, as parents decide what to listen for and what to talk about with their children at the dinner table. What will we allow to be possible? What are we capable of imagining? What fight do we want to be part of? (77 min)

Thank you

for reading this week’s issue of The Highlighter. Did you enjoy it? Or do you think we should go back to the regular format? Let me know by clicking on “Yes” or ”No” below. I like hearing from you.

To our new subscribers




, I hope you find the newsletter a solid addition to your email inbox. To our long-time subscribers (






!), you’re pretty great, too.

If you like The Highlighter, please help it grow. I appreciate your support. Here are a few ways you can help:

On the other hand, if you no longer want to receive this newsletter, please unsubscribe. See you next Thursday at 9:10 am PT!

Join the conversation

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.
Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.
You've successfully subscribed to Big Reading.
Your link has expired.
Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.
Success! Your billing info has been updated.
Your billing was not updated.