Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Recently, our beloved and not possibly racist at all president threatened to sick the Department of Education on California with the stated goal of stopping funding for any school found to use any of the 1619 educational material. I read actually a few different articles on this, and in none of them did the journalists explain what, exactly, the 1619 project is. So, yes, I had to look it up.
These days, dates like 1619 might be better known that in my generation. See, we are becoming more aware of social issues, and they’re being discussed than when I was in school. As it turns out, 1619 is the year that the first African slaves hit the shores of what were then the colonies. An English privateer ship brought them to Point Comfort in Virginia. The 1619 project, by the New York Times, argues that the history of America is the history of slavery and oppression and is providing educational material for history courses that shifts the focus of the history books to a perspective of minority oppression.
Let me tell you about slavery and oppression in America. No, how about not. How arrogant would I need to be to suggest that as a white old man I’m somehow an expert on the struggles of minorities? No, the purpose of this post is just to offer my opinion on the resistance the president and his supporters have against this project.
The resistance the president has against this project is that, in his opinion, the 1619 project “re-writes” history and thereby threatens the American way of life. The short answer is that, yes, the project does have a perspective bias, but the reality is that every history book, every history class, every history project does have a perspective bias. To suggest that this project will “re-write” history because it’s written with a perspective that is uncommon in most current history books and classes is simple ignorance.
The purpose of the American history courses in primary and secondary education becomes apparent when you think about how it is taught. The story of Lewis and Clark has been elevated nearly to the point of superhero status. There are trails, museums and monuments in their honor across America, but how many of us understand the story of their journey from the Native American perspective? As it turns out, there was a third member of the party who kept his own independent journal. The campaign was a military operation funded by the US Government, so the stories and reports sent back from the two, on which most of the expedition history is based, of course glorifies their adventures painting them as conquerors and heroes. This third journal paints a different picture.
The third journal showed the Native people not as the violent savages portrayed by Lewis and Clark, but as generous and friendly people who invited these strangers onto their lands, provided food and rations and navigational aid. The problems that arose, according to this journal, were often the result of cultural differences and misunderstandings. For example, Lewis and Clark wrote of a horse they “liberated”, roaming the plains free and without oversight, so they simply took it. As it turns out, the Native people did not restrain their horses, and the individual that had ridden the horse to that location was away probably hunting. Further downstream, when they happened on a tribe of Native Americans who welcomed and fed them, this individual saw his horse and took it back. He didn’t ask; since Lewis and Clark had simply taken the horse without asking, he just assumed this was the white man’s custom, according to this third account. The Lewis and Clark version recounted this story and painted the Native Americans as horse thieves, a rather serious crime back then.
So, did Lewis and Clark lie? No, not really, but they recounted the story from their perspective with a narrative intended to justify the large sum of money the government had spent on the expedition, and in the hopes of follow up expedition money. The American History class that I took did discuss slavery, but almost as a side-note, as if to say, “oh, and by the way, there was slavery, but the slaves were freed in the Civil War” with a massive accounting of the courage and history of the war itself. In fact, one of my teachers even went so far as to say that slaves were actually treated very well, almost like workers on the farm because they were a “significant investment”. While there might have been some cases where this was true, do you suppose it was the norm? Have you ever noticed how people treat their cars, the modern “significant investments” and as property just as the slaves were? Do you suppose the slaves themselves felt that they were treated well? And yet, with agriculture being the significant component of southern economy, the contributions of the slaves are extremely large, far more important than to be mentioned as a side note.
I’m not familiar with the 1619 project materials. I’ve not read them and don’t believe I have access to them, but yes, they are biased by the focus of the materials, but seriously, why is this focus less acceptable than the bias of other history materials?