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In one of his final acts in office, Donald Trump released his 1776 Commission’s first and only report — a bigoted tantrum in the form of an advisory committee product. The report, which omits citations, footnotes and its primary authors, expresses a desire to indoctrinate children through formal curriculum policy and has been widely rebuked by leading historians. Although terminated by President Biden on his first day in office, it is important to recognize the 1776 Commission, not just as an isolated occurrence of backlash against efforts to correct historical inaccuracies, but as a continuation of hundreds of years of systematic attacks on Black history and education.
The country’s oldest and the world’s largest association of professional historians, the American Historical Association, heavily criticized the report for the rushed manner in which it was drafted and for the commission’s failure to include contributions from historians or adequately engage the available body of legitimate historical text, according to an official statement released by the AHA. The statement also took aim at the report’s fact-challenged worship of the Founding Fathers, and its overt disdain for and attack on more modern and inclusive academic study of the nation’s history.
The Trump White House which characterized the 1776 report as a “rebuttal of reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.” The AHA’s take was that the report was an “attempt to reject recent efforts to understand the multiple ways the institution of slavery shaped our nation’s history… most notably the 1619 Project.”
The 1619 Project, a popular New York Times Magazine initiative, earned its creator Nikole Hannah-Jones the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay that put forth the thesis that our democracy’s stated founding ideals were a facade until Black Americans fought to make them true — or rather, closer to the truth. The essay sparked right-wing fury with some platforms going as far as characterizing it as “revisionist Black supremacist history.”
Although a small group of historians took umbrage at certain aspects of the project, with some specifically criticizing its cynicism — unsurprising with such a radical centering of the Black experience — the initiative has been widely celebrated. And why shouldn’t it be? Where is the controversy in acknowledging that the Declaration of Independence claimed a foundation of values that the country directly contradicted in its treatment of Black and Indigenous people for over a hundred years before and after its signing?
A sincere assessment of history supports the idea that 1619, the year of the involuntarily arrival of the first chattel slaves to Virginia, is an honest historical marker for the establishment of America’s true moral code. And yet, the conservative response to this notion has been extreme, ranging from harassment of Nikole Hannah-Jones online to an executive order to further sanitize America’s national sins through our school system, the latter of which is already an issue in American education. Not only are history classes generally providing a whitewashed version of American history, which diminishes Black contributions and fails to give proper attention to the role of slavery and racism, but our public schools, as a rule, disproportionately deny a decent and properly funded education to Black students.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report, “Public Education Funding Equity: In an Era of Increasing Concentration of Poverty and Resegregation,” in 2018 that highlighted the reality that residential segregation creates a situation in which poor communities have less revenue for tax dollars, and therefore less resources, insufficient technology, smaller pools of skilled educators, etc. compared to higher-income, largely white school districts. According to the education funding report, “…inequitable spending results in achievement gaps among predominantly Black and Latino students.”
Even with these inequities firmly in place in our schools, Trump used presidential powers to perpetuate a longstanding history of stifling education through policy with Black people and Black history as primary targets. A primary example of this, dating back to 1740, is America’s anti-literacy laws. Anti-literacy laws popped up beginning in the mid-18th century in an effort to control slaves, as fears began to mount that enslaved Black people who learned to read would organize and rebel or forge travel passes and move as free men.
For the next hundred years, seven southern states passed anti-literacy laws including a 19th century Virginia law stating “every assemblage of negroes for the purpose of instruction in reading or writing, or in the night time for any purpose, shall be an unlawful assembly. Any justice may issue his warrant to any office or other person, requiring him to enter any place where such assemblage may be, and seize any negro therein.” Additionally, creating barriers to literacy for Black people helped strengthen the perception of white superiority. America is the only country to have known anti-literacy laws.
Since slavery, suppression of Black education not only stifled collective upward mobility, it also kept Black Americans from being able to adequately document their own experiences and contributions in this country, as a matter of historical record.
Presently, anti-Black assaults on education, through policy, remain prevalent in the American prison system. According to a report from the Equal Justice Initiative, some of the most seminal pieces of Black literature are banned from both federal and states prisons including “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” and “The Souls of Black Folk” by W.E.B. DuBois. Often without explanation “…books by James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, Michelle Alexander, and other Black writers frequently are targeted for censorship.” Even the initiative’s “Lynching in America” report, a comprehensive report on lynching of Black Americans, is considered as a threat to prison security and therefore banned in Florida. The parallels between this and antebellum anti-literacy laws are clear.
Black Americans deserve the opportunity to rethink and correct widely accepted history in a way that celebrates our rich cultural past and contextualizes the role that the legacy of slavery plays in the current state of our communities. And we deserve to do so without constant fear of retribution. A federal directive to maintain the white supremacist chokehold on America’s history in response to the 1619 Project contributors challenging its readers to reframe the country’s history, for once, pushing the Black experience to centerstage continues the steadfast pattern of aggressive white backlash to perceived Black progress.
While Biden has scrapped the 1776 Commission, GOP-led states are considering laws that would prevent schools from teaching progressive historical curriculums like the 1619 Project. Lawmakers from Iowa, where Nikole Hannah-Jones is from, recently proposed House File 222 which seeks to “reduce funding for public schools each day the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project was used as part of a history class’ curriculum.” Yet, conservative lawmakers have championed the 1776 commission, which endeavored to use the classroom to “elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue,” according the AHA.
The events that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6 has underlined how heedful we must be of how little our country can afford yet another systemic elevation of ignorance.
In 1994, famed Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe said in an interview “there is that great proverb — that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” As a nation, we have a long way to go before history through a Black lens is normalized in our schools. In fact, that day may likely never come. Still, the response to the widespread intrigue, surrounding Hannah-Jones and the New York Times’ groundbreaking exploration of our country’s foundational history, indicates a panic that chipping away at our enduring white-centered version of history may subsequently begin to weaken the white supremacy. So, let’s continue chipping away at it.