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Tuesday, Oct 3, 2023

Challenging the American historical narrative 

Middlebury students were given the opportunity to re-learn American history on Tuesday, Feb. 25. That opportunity came in the form
of a talk by Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones explained that the intention behind the 1619 Project was to place enslaved people, formerly enslaved people and their descendants at the center of the American historical narrative. In this project, she reveals that it is black Americans who — since our country’s “true” inception in 1619, the year which marked the beginning of American slavery — have upheld the ideals of the 1776 Constitution, which not only declared all men to be equal but entitled all to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The 1619 Project illuminates the America that could be if we as a country were able to honestly and fully accept that we are built on a foundation of unprecedented slavery.

At one point in her speech, Hannah-Jones referenced her own birthday to illustrate that she is a part of the first generation of the descendants of enslaved peoples to be born with the full constitutional rights and privileges theoretically endowed to all Americans. At this point, people clapped. Hannah-Jones quickly pointed out that this is not something worth applauding. It is shameful. In 2020 — in a country which supposedly decided it was founded on “equality for all” in 1776 — she, a 43-year-old, was part of the first generation of black people who could truly claim America as “their” country. In telling us not to clap, she reminded us that our job as white people is to give voice to disenfranchised groups and, most importantly, to listen to them. She concluded her speech with a photograph of a black woman protesting, holding a sign that read “trust black women,” and went on to remind us that black women were the only demographic who did not have members who voted for Trump. Our job is to listen and vote alongside the people who have constantly demonstrated that they understand what it means to live in a democracy defined by equality.

With 1619, Hannah-Jones and her team — dedicating an awe-inspiring level of time, care and integrity to their project — flipped the stagnant narrative of white superiority and dominance on its head. Throughout her speech, Hannah-Jones challenged the audience to make a moral judgement on the accepted narrative of American history. When I learned about slavery in school, I learned that it was wrong, but also that I couldn’t make a moral judgement about it because it “wasn’t considered wrong at the time” and those judgements would be grounded in 21st-century beliefs. In every history class that I have taken for my major here, someone has argued that we cannot make a judgement on some horrific reality of history because it was acceptable for its time. A culture which enabled slavery and profited from it is not insulated from critique or judgement.

At the end of the day, the entire population of enslaved people knew it was wrong. Not only did enslaved and formerly enslaved people speak about it being wrong, they also wrote about it being wrong. If you claim something was seen as right at the time (and so a moral judgement cannot be made), you are clearly not doing due diligence to examine the disenfranchised voices of the time. The job of a historian isn’t to maintain the dominant narrative; the job of a historian is to push those narratives by researching and giving voice to the parts of history which have been erased by a white, privileged pencil. To claim that because white slave owners and white Americans — who profited immensely from a system of brutalization, murder and torture — thought that slavery was justifiable should not render it forever justifiable in the American narrative. White Americans have erased the contributions, opinions and experiences of enslaved peoples, formerly enslaved peoples and their descendants from the history of the progression of American Democracy. It is the responsibility of white people to enable these voices to rewrite the history they have been excluded from and to accept the new definitions of history, so, as far as I’m concerned, America was founded in 1619 when the first slave ship landed in Virginia.

Izzy Lee is a member of the class of 2020 and a History major.