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“The 1619 Project Event Series” to tackle racism and historical truth

September 11, 2020

This afternoon, Professor of History Patrick Rael and Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell will kick off a four part discussion series inspired by the New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project.” The series, sponsored by the history department, was inspired by the social and political movements that swept across the United States after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers in May. However, its purpose has expanded to provide students with a model for productive, historical debate on sensitive issues such as race, history, racism and policy.

“Deadly violence against Black people, and social protest, once again, put color, class, shootings, public policy, the law and law enforcement front-and-center in national news and conversation,” wrote Purnell in an email to the Orient. “A member of the History department asked what we, as Bowdoin faculty and historians, would do during this moment. I suggested that we teach; that we work together to invite the community to participate in a critical examination of the history of race and racism in the United States.”

The original project launched in August 2019, exactly 400 years after the first enslaved people from Africa landed in America. It evolved from a single special issue of the magazine into a full-scale project that included multiple newspaper articles and podcast episodes. Its premise, that American history began not in 1776, but with the first arrival of African slaves to the new colony, supports the conclusion that American life has its “roots in slavery and its aftermath.”

Despite its similar-sounding moniker, “The 1619 Project Event Series” at Bowdoin is not intended as a promotion, nor even an endorsement, of the New York Times Magazine’s project.”

“‘The 1619 Project’ has shortcomings in my opinion—in content, in interpretation, in the types of evidence some of the authors use,” wrote Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle in an email to the Orient. “[But], it is also helping to generate an important discussion of who and what gets taught as U.S. history.”

Purnell agreed that examining the work of the project closely, both for its insights and shortcomings, could be very valuable.

“The articles are well-written and many have an intentional point-of-view about the centrality of race in America,” wrote Purnell. “Therefore, we can put the issue of race and racism in American history front and center while at the same time subjecting the essays to critical questions about interpretation of evidence, strength of argument and clarity of conclusions.”

Bowdoin is not the first institution to adopt media from “The 1619 Project” into its activities and curriculum. Public schools in Chicago, Washington D.C. and cities throughout the state of California have either added to their curriculum or expressed interest in using themes from  “The 1619 Project” in general history courses.

This move has been met with some resistance, and the debate on the impact of “The 1619 Project” in schools and across communities is representative of the dividing line between America’s conservative and liberal viewpoints. President Trump recently tweeted that the Department of Education is looking into the validity of “The 1619 Project” and threatened to withhold federal funds from schools that use its materials. Other prominent members of the Republican party such as Senator Tom Cotton, R-Ark., calling the project “revisionist history.”

“Revisionist” is a common criticism ascribed to novel historical studies, including “The 1619 Project.” Rael disagrees.

“In the case of ‘The 1619 Project’, I think the claim of revision is off base,” wrote Rael in an email to the Orient. “Rather than breaking new ground, it really just synthesizes a lot of arguments that have been around for a while—some of them nearly 50 years old. What’s new is that the project has presented some of these academic arguments to a new and broad audience. As the public turns its attention to long-neglected inequities, there is a new interest in understanding the historical roots of the problems. Sometimes ideas that were once sound become unsound as new sources and methods permit us to sensibly revise old understandings.”

The history department also hopes to encourage students to pursue reliable information and learn to recognize bias and unfounded arguments in the media. This theme will be highlighted throughout the lecture series.

“I hope that students get a taste of the ways historians try to think,” wrote Klingle. “How do we know what to believe? History trains us in critically sifting claims about the past. Better yet, history permits us a way of speaking to social issues that keeps us on firm ground.”

Purnell also hoped that this series would encourage students to consider their methods of discussion and critique as they engaged in dialogues about race, history and Black individuals’ experiences in the United States.

“There is a terrible myth that timidity and political correctness dominate discussions about race, racism, politics, policy and history,” wrote Purnell. “That type of sloppy thinking stays stuck on simplicity. We do the opposite. We ask questions. We weigh evidence. We evaluate arguments.

We are not doing this to promote ‘The 1619 Project.’ We are doing this to promote intelligent, informed, critical, evidence-based thinking about important historical and contemporary truths concerning race, racism and Black life in the United States.”

The discussion series will begin this afternoon at 4 p.m., when Rael and Purnell will lead a talk titled “One Nation?: America’s Origins and Slavery’s Unfinished Past.” The next three events are scheduled for September 25, October 16 and November 4. Topics will include prison systems, structural inequality and an analysis of the 2020 presidential election.


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