Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The 1619 Project and Bringing History to the People

Anne C. Bailey

The 1619 Project of The New York Times launched in August to wide acclaim.  The aim of the Project was to commemorate the 400th anniversary of African presence in Colonial America, while also “placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

Recently, I have been concerned at the pushback by a few historians of note. First, I should say, as a disclaimer, that my article on The Weeping time slave auction appears at the end of the issue, but my body of work and commitment to public history is such that I would be a supporter of 1619 whether I was a part of it or not.  I should also say that these historians and others are free to debate various points raised in The 1619 Project, but the hope is that neither they nor anyone else will dismiss its importance.

One of the things that I liked about the project is that though they asked me and a few other historians including Kevin M. Kruse from Princeton and Tiya Miles from Harvard to make contributions – the lead article was from one of their esteemed journalists and MacArthur Fellow, Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been researching these issues for over 20 years.  She was the person to first pitch the story to Editor in Chief of The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein, who enthusiastically took on the challenge.  The fact that they also consulted several noted historians and other scholars early on in the process was also evidence of their due diligence, but again, to lead with a journalist’s take on the history of America through the lens of her own African American family was a stroke of genius.

In a democracy, history belongs to all of us and Hannah’s breakthrough article implicitly and explicitly says just that.  From my time as an undergraduate till my present position as a Professor of History at SUNY Binghamton, I have been frustrated that history seemed to belong to the few – the few who had made it their life’s work in the halls of academia, some of whom, as I was to learn, spoke more to each other than to the general public.   Like the idea of legal precedent, each historian looking at a particular topic builds on what has come before—expands it, refutes it,  nuances it—all in the name of bringing out the best interpretation of what happened and how it happened.  In principle, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this process.

The problem is that those who were lucky enough to be a part of the field tended to be white and male and for a very long time the perspectives of these men, except for the relative few, were consistent with the social inequalities on the ground.  Much has changed in the last few decades and as National Book Award winner, Ibram Kendi, says: “ This revisionist history has largely been written by women, by historians of color, by younger historians, by antiracist white historians“ who have rejected the master narrative and brought history directly to the people.

A good case in point  is Michel- Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing in the Past: The Power and the Production of History. In this book, Trouillot drives home that history is not just what happened but what is said to have happened and who holds the pen has enormous power in the latter.  In the case of the Haitian Revolution, Trouillot learned one thing at home from his Haitian family and another from the many French historians who for decades discounted the revolution of the first Black Republic of the Americas as a minor revolt or a footnote to the preceding French Revolution.

But it was not. The enslaved Haitian population did not coincidentally choose 1791—two years after the French Revolution of 1789- to rise and take their destiny into their own hands. No, they saw an opportunity in which the French were fighting amongst themselves and bravely sought to do what they had been dreaming of doing for years.

The ups and downs and successes and reversals of that revolution were such that it was not until 1804 that they finally triumphed over the great Napoleon to establish their own republic.  But triumph they did and forever made their mark on history as the only successful slave revolution in the Americas.

Yet for decades, you would never have known this had you read the works of some of these French historians. You would never have known about Boukman, an early leader of the conflict, or other leaders like Toussaint Louverture or Jean-Jacques Dessalines or the role of Haitian women in the Revolution.  These were peripheral figures to “real” history – the history of the French and European empires in general even though slave owners at the time were deathly afraid that such a revolution could take place in North America or elsewhere in the Americas.  From the perspective of these historians, as citizens of the French empire, a revolution by a group of poorly armed and “ragtag” enslaved soldiers was “unthinkable.” And so, they minimized its impact in their work- a legacy that in spite of the work of C.L.R. James, Edwidge Danticat and others, we are still struggling to overcome today.  Until recently, it was not uncommon for students, through no fault of their own, to come to college with little or no knowledge about the significance of the Haitian Revolution yet they had learned much about the French Revolution of 1789.

This is expressly why all voices matter; history belongs to all of us.  History cannot be a zero-sum game for historians alone.  As Silverstein, said in a recent tweet, “no one owns history.” The vigorous and needful debates among historians must also be debates discussed and generated from the general populace including the press.  The public must be actively involved in the understanding of their past. Does that mean that professional historians will have no role to play? Of course not. Those who have dedicated their lives to the study of history are necessary.  I would say there could be no 1619 without the original primary research work of historians and other scholars – including some of those who have critiqued it.  I know that my analysis of the American Civil War in The Weeping Time benefitted greatly from James McPherson’s body of work on the subject.

That said, history must come out of the archive, out of the halls of academia and must also make its home among the people. History does not belong to professional historians; it belongs to all of us and now more than ever in these troubled times, we all need to be students of history.  It must be something people care about deeply -deeply enough to engage, deeply enough to debate.

So I am thankful for 1619 as a public history project and as a public service. I encourage my fellow historians –and I think a number of us share this view—to see the arguments and issues it raises as a part of a continuation of the issues and arguments we have been raising all our lives—but now with different and much- needed perspectives in the wider marketplace.

Anne C. Bailey, Author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History (Cambridge University Press, 2017)


About The Author

Anne C. Bailey

ANNE C. BAILEY is a writer, historian, and professor of History and Africana Studies at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). In her works of non- fiction, she combines e...

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