What we can learn from the backlash to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a history of slavery in America

Stock photo of the The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 20, 2019. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University
Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

In observance of the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship to travel to the American colonies, The New York Times dedicated an entire issue of its weekly magazine to examining the history of American slavery, calling it “The 1619 Project.”

Margaret Burnham is the director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project and University Distinguished Professor of Law at Northeastern University. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The issue is composed of a series of essays that explore the way that slavery still informs institutions such as capitalism, popular culture, and healthcare in the U.S.

The project was met with swift, strong backlash from people who read it as the resurfacing of racial tension that has long since been put to rest. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, described it as “propaganda” in a tweet the day the magazine hit newsstands. Other elected officials and commentators echoed his sentiment, positing that the true goal behind the publication  was to “delegitimize America and further divide its citizenry.”

In its stark retelling of U.S. history, the Times piece put front and center the idea that “slavery is central to the country’s identity and wealth,” a statement that might make some people uncomfortable but one that “no serious student of American history denies,” says Margaret Burnham, who is the director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University, as well as University Distinguished Professor of Law.

“This is American history, and you have to face it to fix it,” she says. “If you don’t have any interest in fixing it, you don’t have any interest in facing it.”

Why do you think there has been such a swift backlash to The 1619 Project? 

There’s a consistent campaign to erase the experience of enslaved people and its consequences. It’s something we face in our [Civil Rights and Restorative Justice] project a lot as well: There is always a voice in the local communities in which we work that asserts that ‘you’re opening up old wounds.’ The answer is that they’re not old wounds; they’re ongoing wounds. 

In truth, yelling at The New York Times dishonors the lives of enslaved people, whose history we are trying to disinter. This is the history of outsiders, of the forgotten, the subaltern. That’s the American history Newt Gingrich, himself a history teacher, seeks to erase.

What’s the argument for publishing The 1619 Project? 

There are really two reasons justifying the New York Times piece, to the extent that it needs to be justified at all—it’s hard to imagine that if this were the 400th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, anyone would question why we’re acknowledging it.

The first reason is that scholarship on slavery has grown and deepened in historic ways in the past 20 years. Using computer-based resources made available in the last few decades, scholars have been able to really carefully map out what slavery looked like in the U.S.  

That slavery is central to the country’s identity and wealth is a fact that no serious student of American history denies. But ongoing academic studies of slavery will illuminate more precisely the correlation between the institution and present conditions. This work is challenging and a bit tedious, but new computing tools allow us to map the history and appreciate its complicated legacy through a fresh lens. We can more fully understand not only the cold economic appraisals of the slave owners, but the personhood of the enslaved. 

The second reason is that the root of slavery is race, and race is the predominant factor in our political discourse today. There’s a clear thread between Jim Crow apartheid and the inability to extirpate race as a defining characteristic of our civic life.

How does The New York Times project intersect with your work of investigating anti-civil rights cold cases?

One of the narratives described in the Times series concerns lost wealth [within families descended from enslaved people], and we see that repeatedly in our work with families who have been the victims of racial violence in the 1930s and 40s. 

Recently, Congress failed to adopt a bill just to study the idea of slave reparations. The question of reparations [which is the idea that some form of monetary compensation needs to be made to the descendants of enslaved people] is certainly a complex question. But the fact that it’s complex doesn’t distract from the necessity for some form of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow-era depravations. 

This conversation is not unique to the U.S.; it’s a conversation that’s going on all over the globe. It’s part of how we come to understand both the history and the debts that are passed on from generation to generation. Reparations are not the whole answer, but they are a small part of how we move forward. 

For media inquiries, please contact Shannon Nargi at s.nargi@northeastern.edu or 617-373-5718.