I promised Tom Cathcart an explanation of my cryptic remark that the NY TIMES’s 1619 Project was “the wrong story.” I thought I could get away with referencing my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, but Tom has read that [one of the few!] and is still puzzled, so here goes.
The standard story of America is that it is exceptional, a nation founded on an idea, The Idea of Freedom, a land, to be sure with defects [brief allusion to slavery], but nonetheless dedicated over its long life to the gradual realization of The Idea of Freedom, first by the freeing of the slaves, then by the slow extension of suffrage to women, to Negroes, then by the modern Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement and throughout by the steady, onward, upward perfection of the vision of the Founding Fathers. For this reason, America has been and remains a City on a Hill, a model for all mankind, the Leader of the Free World, the Last Best Hope for Mankind.
For eighty-five years, going all the way back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, four generations of great scholars, Black and White, have been challenging and revising that story. The 1619 Project is a splendid popular compendium of the results of their research. The Project places the slaves and their descendants at the center of the American story rather than at the periphery. But it is still a story of free White men and women and their slaves. The story is so changed as to be almost unrecognizable, but it is still the same story.
The true story is different [and here I rely entirely on those very same scholars, for I have contributed not so much as a single brick to the edifice they have reared by their splendid work.] From those earliest days in the 17th century, America was a colonial outpost built on unfree labor White and Black. In early Colonial America, there were very few Whites whom we today would recognize as free, free to live where they chose, free to work as they chose, free to marry whom they chose. At the outset, there was no clearly defined status of chattel slavery, for no such status existed in the English Common Law that the settlers brought with them. Slowly, over almost two centuries, in inseparable interaction with one another, two legal, social, and economic statuses crystallized: Free White Citizenship and Black Chattel Slavery. The process was local, complex, messy, and never successfully carried through, for indentured servitude for Whites continued for a long time and there were, contrary to all theory, free Black men and women prior to the Civil War. But the status of free citizenship for Whites was defined in contrast to and even in terms of, the status of chattel slavery for Blacks.
America has never been a City Upon a Hill, the Only Nation Founded On An Idea, the Last Best Hope on earth. It was, at the outset, a White Settler colony built on unfree labor, White and Black, and that fact must be made central to any understanding of its nature today.
Something like that is the true story of America.