Published October 19, 2020 by Rebecca Goldfine

“The 1619 Project”: History Professors Draw Comparisons to the US from Around the World

In the third of four online events organized this fall by the Bowdoin history department to discuss The New York Times Magazine's “The 1619 Project,” professors Rachel Sturman and Page Herrlinger offered insights based on their international expertise.

Page Herrlinger and Rachel Sturman
Associate Professor of History Page Herrlinger and Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies Rachel Sturman.

Herrlinger's research areas include eighteenth- to twentieth-century Russia and the Soviet Union, nineteenth- to twentieth-century Germany, and modern Europe. Sturman specializes in the history of modern South Asia, with a focus on colonial and postcolonial India. 

“The 1619 Project,” published in 2019, “aims to reframe [US] history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” according to the magazine.

Moderator Brian Purnell, who is Bowdoin's Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History, began by saying he was excited to hear perspectives on the series and on US racial history from non-Americanists. “This is exactly what the program was designed to do,” he said, that is, to have historians, no matter their specialty, “talk about the craft and the practice of history as a discipline regarding these important questions of our country and of our contemporary time.”

The third session, called “Deep Cuts: Structural Inequality and Popular Culture,” focused on four articles in the NYT Magazine series—about democracy, the wealth gap, music, and traffic. Before opening up the discussion to questions, Sturman and Herrlinger briefly summarized the articles, offering their thoughts about the writers' arguments.

Below is a sampling of their quotes from the ninety-minute event.

"Undemocratic Democracy," by Jamelle Bouie 

Sturman: "Bouie begins by having us think about the seemingly unprecedented partisanship and power-grabbing by Republicans in our current moment and in the last, say, ten years. But he moves from that into thinking about how those actions that seem unprecedented and contemporary actually have a long history. He links them back to attempts by slave holders and slave states to control state legislatures, and to efforts by slave states to maintain their political power in the face of their increasingly minority position. Coupled with this analysis...is this sense that these slave holders and slave states identify themselves as the real America, even as they represent minorities and are using undemocratic means to maintain their power."

"The Wealth Gap," by Trymaine Lee

Herrlinger: "Lee tries to grab us emotionally in this piece, and to link this very personal story [about a Black businessman murdered by white men in 1947] to a much bigger picture of 'economic terror and wealth-stripping,' which have plagued Black people in this country since the post-Civil War period and still impact Black families today. ...Today, the median family wealth for white people is valued at about $171,000, compared to about $17,600 for Black families. ...Lee wants us to understand that [the murder of] Bolling was not an exception...it was part of a much bigger context and much bigger and broader social and political campaign to keep successful Black business people in their place. ...This was a pattern: any financial progress that Black people have made has long been regarded as an affront to white supremacy. And many other Black people have been put back in their place, not just in spontaneous acts of terror but also in terms of laws and polices."

"American Popular Music," by Wesley Morris

Sturman: "What Welsey Morris's piece does is think about the paired relationship of race and racism in American popular music. ...There is this dilemma where Black musical traditions and innovations are at the heart of American music, they in fact are American music. Yet the racism that African-American performers have experienced is equally integral to this history and to this music. ...He does this by showing the centrality of minstrelsy to American popular music more broadly, but then he also shows how there are similar phenomena: ...Even as Black performers come to be valorized, there's still a way in which they are made to inhabit this position of making themselves available for white consumption. ...And then there is this question of music as cultural property. ...What Morris shows is that there are dilemmas with thinking of culture as something that is owned or should be owned, and it is very American that our frame of reference for thinking of the question of culture is through a metaphor of ownership and access via possession."

"Traffic," by Kevin M. Kruse

Herrlinger: "Like Lee's piece, this is a case study of a particular situation, in this case a problem rather than a person: Kruse talks about the very annoying, everyday reality of traffic in Atlanta and ties it to policies of segregation—both formal policies of segregation, but even more importantly informal, or what he calls 'subtle' policies of segregation. ...This idea of finding ways to keep segregation very real and alive even after the Supreme Court made it illegal shows up in Kruse's piece with the way in which the federally funded interstate highway system was put into place in the 1950s and ’60s." 

Q&A Excerpts 

Purnell: "Did you get a sense from reading these pieces about the challenges that the US faces in processing this past history of race and racism? Where is the sticking point? Why is it so difficult? Why do people seem resistant to it?"

Herrlinger: "One thing that strikes me about these pieces is that the idea of shoring up true racial equality is somehow a zero-sum game. There is a real fear that allowing someone, like Bolling, to be a successful Black businessman is somehow a slight against the white members of the community. ...We are all better off when people have access, and have success. …I am struck by this notion that you have to keep the other guy down to preserve your own status—this strikes me as something in history that we need to wrestle with."

Sturman: "This country is founded on a contradiction, on this privileging of a core value of equality coupled with a core value of inequality. And I think sometimes that gets portrayed as a paradox; we have the values of equality and practices of inequality. But part of what we need to reckon with is that both of those are in fact values—that inequality has been integral to the formation of this nation from the beginning, just as much as equality. So who gets to claim American history? What is American history? What is the narrative? That is very much a debate about how we understand the centrality of inequality to a country that claims to be based on equality."

Purnell: "How do you view the American process of remembering with that of other nations?"

Sturman: "India has a similar pattern [to the US] of valuing equality while practicing oppression. The [1949] constitution states equality as the norm and the value, and tries to produce equal citizenship, and yet also recognizes even within the document itself, that in practice people are not equal.

An even more interesting comparison is thinking about the way history is relevant in India. And here part of what we see is not just the way history is contentious: History is integral to the work of nation-producing and reproducing, so therefore it is always contentious and something that is debated. But the other facet we see in the context of India is that history is seen as a critical resource for debates in the present. So, in other words, if you can claim that in practice the history of Muslims in India is a history of Muslims oppressing Hindus, and that Muslims have no real right to be in India, that they have never done anything good for India and simply squelched the true culture of India, if you can create that narrative of the past—which is a false narrative—it enables you to do certain things in the present and future…We see the same thing with all contested identities in India. The past is a crucial resource that is mobilized in efforts to lay claim to power in the present and future."

Herrlinger: "It was one of Gorbachev's decisions to allow the people to start dealing with their past for the first time in the 1980s. For example, those who had gone through the gulag were allowed to share their stories. And they started a process of coming to terms with that past. But the problem is there is this built-up residual suffering and trauma that spills out so quickly in the 1980s as people start to share their stories of their personal suffering or the suffering of their fathers or their mothers, or their brothers and sisters. It almost becomes almost too much for the country to bear, in a way. It is a cautionary tale for Americans, in terms of when you suppress and don’t work through. This is a concept that the Germans have come to debate a lot, this idea of working through an uncomfortable past. If you don’t do it, those ghosts don’t go away—they continue to haunt a nation, they continue to haunt families and individuals."

Q: (from Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kristi Olson): "Since 2020 is the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment [and 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment], I would love to hear the panelists' thoughts about the historical influence on today’s election."

Sturman: "What we see happening in India that is parallel to what is happening here is this idea that part of the role of the state is to benefit business, to benefit corporations, especially since the turn toward a more capitalist economy in the ’90s... And in some ways, what I fear we see in this country is that there has been a lot of preservation of the power and interests of corporations, of capital, of corporations as people, more than protections of people’s voting rights and the 15th Amendment. But I do think the movements, the pushback we see swelling up from the ground, really represent a groundswell of demonstrating the importance of the 15th Amendment."

Herrlinger: "The Soviets offer another cautionary tale around voting. It was a single-party state, therefore you could vote, but you only had one person to choose from! And I think we’re all aware that at least at the federal level, there are limitations on our choices that are deeply structurally pre-determined and effectively disempower voters in many ways long before we get to the voting booth. ..But I’ll quote my colleague, Matt Klingle, from the last session and reiterate the importance of voting, no matter what. Show up no matter what."

But this is something we should all be deeply troubled by, with redistricting, with these institutional maneuvers that are legal but only barely in terms of restricting voting access. …Making the problem visible is a first step toward doing something about it. .