Free Speech Advocates Push Back Against The 1619 Project Culture War, Book Bans
Education Policy Brief #51 | By: Lynn Waldsmith | March 27, 2022
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As conservatives continue to inflame the culture war over “critical race theory” and curriculum or books that it labels as unpatriotic or offensive, free speech advocates are fighting back.
At the heart of the battle is “The 1619 Project”, the controversial and Pulitzer-prize-winning initiative that has drawn both praise and criticism. Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times, the project has since been made into a book and is being taught in some school districts and at the college level. The 1619 Project is a compilation of essays and reflections published in August of 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the start of American slavery. It essentially attempts to reframe the country’s history by suggesting America actually began in 1619 when the first slave ship arrived, rather than in 1776. The 1619 Project examines the contributions of Black Americans to building the United States and the far-reaching consequences of slavery.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and 38 members of his Senate GOP caucus, who want to remove the project from federal grant programs, last year called The 1619 Project “divisive” in a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
Hannah-Jones said in response: “When you hear people like him saying that teaching the actual facts of American history are divisive, maybe that’s because we have a divisive history in this country. He’s not arguing that we shouldn’t teach the truth. He’s just saying that the truth is too difficult for our nation to bear and that we’re far too fragile to be able to withstand the scrutiny of the truth.”
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) authored the Saving American History Act of 2020, which would ban the use federal tax dollars for staff development in school districts that use or adopt parts of The 1619 Project curriculum. While that federal bill didn’t grain any traction, the free speech nonprofit group PEN America reports there have been 22 bills targeting The 1619 Project in different states since January of 2021. Fourteen of those are pending, while six failed or were withdrawn. Texas is currently the only state that has legally banned the project. Hannah-Jones says she believes many politicians have not read the curriculum and she encourages them to do so before criticizing it.
History experts have criticized Republican legislators for supporting bills that attempt to force teachers to gloss over parts of U.S. history, arguing the effort is closer to nationalism and indoctrination of students, rather than teaching them how to think critically for themselves.
One view of teaching American history is to instill a sense of pride in one’s country, while another view is to teach students about how history has shaped society. As a more diverse generation of historians emerged in the post-World War II era, historical research began to include sources that had been previously ignored, including slave narratives and oral histories of former slaves. That, in turn, brought in more voices and is reshaping and building the narrative, changing the way American scholars and the public view slavery.
While some historians have criticized parts of the project, the Times has stood behind it. The Pulitzer Center, in partnership with The 1619 Project, has made lesson plans available and says more than 4,000 educators from all 50 states have reported using its resources.
“What the project at its heart tries to do is explain our country to itself,” Nikole Hannah-Jones said at the University of Notre Dame earlier this month. “People talk about the project as if it’s a history, but it’s not a history. It’s actually about America right now, and it’s using history to explain how did we get the country we got.”
In addition to efforts to stifle teaching of The 1619 Project, renewed attempts to ban various books from schools have been back in full force. This was most notably seen in Glenn Youngkin’s fall 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election, which relied on campaign ads featuring a mother who pushed to ban Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved from her son’s curriculum.
But free speech advocates are fighting back. For example, when a York County, PA school district banned several books that focused on diversity last fall, a series of student protests prompted the local school board to overturn the ban.
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Similarly, when a school district in a St. Louis suburb banned Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and several other books about race and gender, two students partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Missouri to successfully get the decision reversed. Last month the Wentzville School Board reversed its decision in the face of the criticism and a class-action lawsuit.
The ACLU, PEN America and the NCAC have been working with local activists, educators and families around the country, helping them to mobilize opposition to book bans. The CEO of Penguin Random House, Markus Dohle, has said he will personally donate $500,000 for a book defense fund to be run in partnership with PEN.
Red, Wine & Blue is a national network of politically engaged “PTA mamas and digital divas” that offers online “Trouble Maker Training”, which includes such guidance as “Present a calm face to counter the yelling and shouting” and “Own individual freedom: You can decide what is right for your child, but you don’t get to dictate what’s right for other families.”
Diversity Our Narrative is another nonprofit that is helping students take on free speech battles. It has chapters across the U.S. with over 1,700 students in more than 200 school districts who are community organizers who advocate for education that does not avoid teaching about race, racism, and anti-racism.
The “windows and mirrors” concept developed by Rudine Sims Bishop, a renowned scholar in multicultural children’s literature, theorizes that books can serve either as “mirrors” to reflect and validate one’s own identity, or as “windows” to see new perspectives. It’s clear many educators, parents and students recognize banning books that are “windows” to other parts of society or history sets a dangerous precedent.
“You cannot heal divisions by pretending they don’t exist,” James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, told The 19th, a nonprofit organization in reference to The 1619 Project. “The way to address divisions is to understand the history of those divisions.”
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