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Understanding the election through the 1619 Project

November 13, 2020

On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before the results of the U.S. presidential election were announced by major news outlets , four history professors—Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History Brian Purnell, Professor of History Dallas Denery, Associate Professor of History Meghan Roberts and Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies Matthew Klingle—gathered for the fourth panel in the department’s fall semester programming on the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, titled “The 1619 Project and Making Sense of the 2020 Election.”

The panel began with a discussion about the legacy of Black women in American politics, with Roberts quoting from Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University Martha Jones’s 2020 book, “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.” Roberts noted that Stacey Abrams has devoted herself to political organizing in Georgia since her loss in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race.

“What we are seeing as the election results come in for the state of Georgia … are the results of all [Abrams’s] hard work to reach out to communities in Georgia and to register new voters,” Roberts said.

Roberts also commented on sexism and racism within the criticism Abrams has faced for her political activity and for calling attention to voter roll purging on the part of Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, connecting it to skepticism, on the part of some, about Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s readiness to take on her upcoming governing position, as well as to criticism of Nikole Hannah Jones’s work on the 1619 Project.

“That, too, makes me think about the larger history of women on the public stage and how hard it can be for women, but especially for women of color, and particularly for Black women, to occupy a public position of authority,” Roberts said.

Purnell then brought up questions about Black patriotism and the role of Black people in the history of the United States, paying particular attention to the disproportionate scrutiny of two predominantly Black cities, Philadelphia and Detroit, in the aftermath of the election. He also discussed having seen a commentator on Fox News express concern over a significant majority of votes in Philadelphia being for President-elect Joe Biden.

“He said that this had to raise questions. How could there be 124,000 votes coming out of one county and none of them be for the president?” Purnell said during the panel. “That didn’t strike me as particularly objective or scientific or rooted in evidence. It really was a masked way to say that, the same way that people raised questions about the problems of Black men and Black people and Black women and Black communities participating in the democratic process after reconstruction, being some nefarious, corrupt form of ‘Negro’ rule.”

After the panel, Purnell noted that this type of systemic voter suppression highlights the necessity of educational materials like the 1619 Project.

“[President Donald Trump] is purposefully identifying counties with large Black populations as fraudulent, as corrupt and as criminal. He is saying that they are stealing the election from us, from the country. And I would call that a dog whistle,” Purnell said in a Zoom interview with the Orient. “That is a subversive way to target hundreds of thousands of Black voters as illegitimate citizens. And the 1619 Project draws attention to the ways that those types of racial dog whistles operate in American culture and politics … I think that’s what the 1619 Project’s continued relevance can be in understanding how the 2020 election unfolds.”

Other participants also presented the 1619 Project as valuable for our current moment, arguing that it provides a different framework for understanding American history than the 1776-oriented narrative typically taught in American schools.

“History concerns us, it matters to us … because history shapes and tells us who we are and what we care about and who we value,” Denery said during the panel.

“Critiques that academic historians have lodged against [the 1619 Project] entirely miss why it is important because they treat it as if it is an account of the past … people who have signed letters against the 1619 Project have written works themselves which contain errors,” he added. “[The 1619 authors] are suggesting that the narratives we tell ourselves are failing us. They leave us unable to meet the very real challenges that confront the country right now.”

Drawing on their different areas of expertise, the panelists also discussed Trump as an American celebrity and the political and cultural consequences of his prominence.

“Trump is a very particular kind of celebrity. He’s somebody who became famous in part because of his ruthless business dealings, and I think the ruthlessness is part of his persona, so that’s not my judgment, that’s how he wants to be viewed by the public,” Roberts said.

“The genius and the power of Trump’s celebrity is that he combines … anti-respectability … with a populist appeal to millions of Americans who feel ignored by the political establishment who are dealing with declining wages, decreasing life expectancy, shrinking abilities to envision futures for their children,” Purnell added. “You combine these things, and that’s a pretty powerful, novel form of celebrity for an American president. To the point of the 1619 Project … Black people can’t do that. Black people are always going to be beholden to a ‘holier-than-thou’ form of respectability politics to be considered mainstream and acceptable, whereas by his own admission Trump can do whatever he wants.”

Denery connected Trump’s culture of celebrity to the growing debate over truth in response to national division.

“Our values precede and determine what we pay attention to and what we care about and what we’re going to accept is true, and I think the problem that we face as a country … is there’s a real debate about the narrative that holds us together, and since there’s a debate about the narrative that holds us together, we’ve actually lost a common ground for evaluating what we accept as true and what we accept as false,” Denery said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you don’t have discussions with the other side anymore, and in fact, whoever represents your side is going to be the person who says things that you will now just accept.

The panelists grounded the conversation in historical references, demonstrating the usefulness of historical research projects, most centrally the 1619 Project, in unearthing new frameworks to understand present situations.

“I think about [the 1619 Project] as actually a remarkably hopeful work because I see the project as saying: ‘we have the resources in our past and in our traditions, that if we just think about them differently, we can rethink who we are and how we deal with these problems now,’” Denery said.


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