“For 400 years, we have been told that black people are a problem. We are indoctrinated into this lie from the moment we take our first breath. No people have been more legislated against and studied than black Americans. That is because our very existence in our country gives lie to the exceptionality mythology of our founders.
So, this year, to mark the 400th anniversary of August 1619, the year racialized slavery began in America, I created the 1619 Project to finally force a reckoning and to tell, within the pages of the most important news organization in the country, that virtually nothing in modern American life—socially, culturally, politically, economically or legally—has been left untouched by our decision to engage in chattel slavery...
In essence, the 1619 Project argues that it is black Americans—more than any other group—who are this nation’s true Founding Fathers.” —Nikole Hannah-Jones, at The 2019 Root 100 Gala
There is no such thing as an “exact” measurement.
All measurements are subject to some uncertainty.
One of the world’s most valuable pieces of metal resides under three vacuum-sealed glasses that resemble the formal pound cake dish your grandmother only breaks out for funerals of pastors, high-ranking deacons, and people who earned permanently reserved front-row pew status. Since 1889, the International Prototype Kilogram has been the physical standard by which the standards for mass and volume are calibrated. It quite literally defined the kilogram for the world.
The science of metrology is based on the mathematical principle that no measurement is exact. Everything we measure is, essentially, an imprecise comparison to something else and is, therefore subject to uncertainty. So when the scientific community realized that the mass of the IPK had actually decreased by the equivalent of a single eyelash, they decided to revise the scientific definition of the kilogram. And because the tiny piece of Parisian metal represents the definition of the kilogram, it technically didn’t get smaller. Scientifically speaking, every other kilogram in the world gained an eyelash worth of weight.
So, on May 20, 2019, the IPK became irrelevant.
There is no such thing as “American history.”
What we call American history is actually white history and is subject to uncertainty. Even noted historians such as Carter G. Woodson, Lerone Bennett Jr., and The Root founder Henry Louis Gates are considered scholars of “black history,” which is different from “American history.”
While all history is relative, in this country, white people have always defined the unit of measurement we call “American.” The academic and intellectual pursuit of black people’s history is viewed through a Caucasian-colored lens that turns reality into an ahistorical fairy tale whose protagonists are the fair-haired, valiant champions of liberty and democracy for all.
The white version of black history doesn’t acknowledge that the 41 of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Their history ignores the fact that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin considered slavery a “moral depravity” but supported the insidious institution anyway. Contrary to publicly available data, white historians’ version of America’s past never reveals that 75 percent of white people believed civil rights protesters were communists and 85 percent of whites thought civil rights protesters were “hurting the negro cause.”
Whiteness has always been the standard unit of measurement.
So when the New York Times created the 1619 Project to commemorate the arrival of the first Africans in the American colonies, of course white people were upset. Andrew Sullivan (whose status as an intellectual rests solely on the notion of saying stupid shit in a British accent) called the Times’ journalistic historiography an act of neo-Marxist “liberal activism.” New York magazine’s Eric Levitz said it was steeped in “anti-white politics.”
And, on Saturday, a group of white historians’ crusade to re-reframe the undertaking in their own likeness culminated in a letter to the Times asking: “But-what-about-wypipo?” The letter was written by Victoria Bynum, Texas State University; James M. McPherson, Princeton University; James Oakes, City University of New York; Sean Wilentz, Princeton University; and Gordon S. Wood of Brown University. Their whole consternation came solely from the fact that the NY Times’ comprehensive historiography wasn’t centered in whiteness.
Seriously, that’s it.
Led by McPherson, the League of Concerned Caucasians have individually and collectively expressed outrage that they were not asked to contribute to the project. As if they were the keepers of America’s history, they want a list of the historians who did partake in it, along with corrections of what they call “misleading” information and “factual errors.” However, the errors and misinformation cited by the ignoble adversaries of black thought are all based on white Americans’ perception of history.
Their main quibble with the 1619 Project is that it “intended to offer a new version of American history in which slavery and white supremacy become the dominant organizing themes,” which upsets the prevailing narrative.
“Some of the other material in the project is distorted,” they write, “including the claim that ‘for the most part,’ black Americans have fought their freedom struggles ‘alone.’”
To be fair, that is a valid criticism. There were scores of abolitionists, civil rights protesters, and allies who were white. We can’t forget that Kim Kardashian bravely took a private jet to talk to Donald Trump after black women activists made her aware of Cyntoia Brown. I personally know someone who affixed a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker to his Honda Civic. But compared to the sheer number of apathetic white people who actively didn’t do shit to fight slavery, Jim Crow and inequality, the sheer number of white freedom fighters is minuscule, which is why—and pardon me while I switch to all caps—THEY SAID: “FOR THE MOST PART!”
But again, history is subjective.
The White Power Rangers pointed out that the 1619 Project painted Abraham Lincoln as a white supremacist, citing the fact that Lincoln had a black friend (Frederick Douglass). The group considers this “misleading,” in spite of the fact that Lincoln himself said in 1860:
I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the fooling of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge DOUGLAS, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position. I have never said anything to the contrary.
How is that not the definition of white supremacy?
But they insist that they know what Lincoln meant so it doesn’t matter what he said. Apparently, the Legion of Extraordinary Revisionists assumes that a random gaggle of negro brains couldn’t possibly possess the requisite historical clairvoyance demonstrated by their superior Caucasian minds.
Their final point is one that was recently explained to me by Dr. Greg Carr, Howard University’s chair of Afro American Studies and the aforementioned Henry Louis Gates. Namely, that the prospect of the British crown eliminating slavery was a major factor in the American Revolution. There is a whole book about the subject—Gerald Horne’s The Counterrevolution of 1776.
The white people say it’s a lie.
“This is not true,” they say, adding: “If supportable, the allegation would be astounding—yet every statement offered by the project to validate it is false.”
To its credit, the Times not only affirmed the accuracy of the 1619 Project but pointed out that the field of history is rife with subjective disagreements, explaining:
The letter writers express concern about a “closed process” and an opaque “panel of historians,” so I’d like to make clear the steps we took. We did not assemble a formal panel for this project. Instead, during the early stages of development, we consulted with numerous scholars of African-American history and related fields, in a group meeting at The Times as well as in a series of individual conversations. (Five of those who initially consulted with us — Mehrsa Baradaran of the University of California, Irvine; Matthew Desmond and Kevin M. Kruse, both of Princeton University; and Tiya Miles and Khalil G. Muhammad, both of Harvard University — went on to publish articles in the issue.) After those consultations, writers conducted their own research, reading widely, examining primary documents and artifacts and interviewing historians. Finally, during the fact-checking process, our researchers carefully reviewed all the articles in the issue with subject-area experts. This is no different from what we do on any article.
As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past. Historical understanding is not fixed; it is constantly being adjusted by new scholarship and new voices. Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.”
Ultimately, these supposed scholars contend that their viewpoint is the only perspective from which American history can be correctly understood. They are arguing that history, unlike every other academic and intellectual pursuit, is not subjective. According to them, black scholarship is invalid if it contextualizes whiteness in any other way than as the altruistic, magnanimous gravitational force that formed the undefeated world champion of liberty and justice for all—even when it didn’t.
But there is no such thing as an “exact measurement.”
Everything is comparative.
So, as a dedicated man of science, I took the liberty of placing the Saturday edition of the New York Times under my grandmother’s pound cake dish and locked it in my basement. Because if the world ever needs an exact measurement of whiteness…
I think we’ve found the standard.