We need 'The 1619 Project'
In the January Heights Observer, Alan Rapoport wrote to tell us he is upset that Heights Libraries uses tax money to sponsor public seminars about The 1619 Project. He is concerned that this fosters “a one-sided, biased and ideological approach” that appears more authoritative than it actually is, and that, in dredging up the racial harms of the past, it “encourages the worst type of racial division.”
Mr. Rapoport has things backwards.
I, too, am weary of so often having to hear that so much of American society is pervaded by racial antagonisms and tensions. But my weariness comes from the actual existence and continuation of these problems, not from efforts like The 1619 Project that may call attention to them.
Mr. Rapoport claims to be a student of history, but his learning seems to have some gaps. I wonder if, for example, he has read Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, in which the author examines high school history textbooks, concluding that they generally tell a lackluster tale of American goodness and grandeur in which events unfold without cause or conflict or relevance to the present, and which tend to avoid altogether, or give short shrift to, what it was like to be a racial or ethnic minority in this country.
If you had been a person of color in the Jim Crow era, you most certainly would have been keenly aware that the pervasive and relentless racism of American society affected just about every aspect of your life—from access to jobs, schools, voting rights, housing, even lunch counters and cemeteries. If you were not a person of color, but paid any attention to what was going on, you could not possibly have been oblivious. If, today, you have no awareness of this history, you need to educate yourself about it. It is an inherent part of American history.
There are those who say we should just put it aside, forget about it and move on.
Trying to pretend it away won’t work. We are where we are and what we are because of what we were. William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This does not imply that we today need to blame ourselves for the conduct of our ancestors. But directly or indirectly it is our history. Attempting to gloss over uncomfortable aspects not only avoids necessary efforts at genuine understanding, but such an approach also relegates into insignificance the real experience of large segments of American society. They and their ancestors lived it. They know what went on, even if many in the majority culture are oblivious, and wish to remain so.
It is not clear how we address and rectify things to go forward, but we do know it will be difficult. We should also understand that ignoring facts cannot possibly help. Efforts such as The 1619 Project can provide much-needed perspective.
Brian Larson is a Univerisity Heights resident, affiliated with a nonprofit group that sponsors community forums.