Reframing U.S. History and the 1619 Project

By John DeGuardi, CASDA Faculty

In June of 2020, 11th grade students in New York State will have the opportunity to sit for the inaugural administration of the new U.S. History and Government Regents exam. The exam consists of three components, one of which will be the “Civics Literacy Essay.” This task will require students to analyze important constitutional and civic issues in historic and present settings and discuss how various groups and individuals attempted to address those issues. I began the school year thinking about what support U.S. History teachers would need to help them navigate this transition, and how CASDA could provide that support. In the midst of my of my planning, I immersed myself in a set of resources that I believed served as a model as to how to approach “civic literacy” in a high school social studies classroom. My introduction to these resources came as I was running in Saratoga State Park while listening to the first episode of The New York Times “1619 Podcast.” As my feet rhythmically hit the ground, the words of narrator Nikole Hannah-Jones began to engross me both emotionally and intellectually.  Her method of storytelling was not only riveting, but served as a model of looking at history in a way that would invite students to think about history through a civic literacy lens. The podcast is part of The 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine that commemorates the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery: The moment that 20 enslaved Africans were first sold to colonists in Point Comfort, Virginia. The project, spearheaded by New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones and featuring work by more than 30 writers and artists, launched with a full issue of the magazine that explores the lasting impact of slavery through 18 written essays, 15 creative works, and a photo essay, as well as a history of slavery in 15 objects that was curated by the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In addition, the Pulitzer Center and the Classroom Law Project have also curated and developed resources for teachers and students that are being implemented nationwide.

On January 10, I facilitated the CASDA workshop “Reframing U.S. History: The 1619 Project and the Civic Literacy Essay.” Twenty-two teachers from various Capital District schools attended and were introduced to the aforementioned resources and participated in discussions as to how the 1619 Project resources can serve as an exemplar of how to approach the teaching of US History through the framework of civic literacy. Teachers had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the resources and to reflect upon this fundatmental concept: How a country conceived with the founding principles of liberty and equality, is still struggling with racial inequities that can be traced to the legacy of slavery.

Yale Historian David Blight captures this fundamental contradiction: “The biggest obstacle to teaching slavery effectively in America is the deep, abiding American need to conceive of and understand our history as ‘progress,’ as the story of a people and a nation that always sought the improvement of mankind, the advancement of liberty and justice, the broadening of pursuits of happiness for all.” One of the resources that exemplifies this is Hannah-Jones’ opening essay, accompanied by her Episode 1 Podcast. Through her own family narrative, Hannah-Jones captures this dichotomy: “Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.” This is the essence of the civics literacy essay: students being able to demonstrate an understanding of the nation’s founding principles, how individuals and groups have struggled to become part of “We the People,” and what that means for us as a nation today.

It should be mentioned that 1619 Project has received some criticism from “the field.”  A group of historians, while recognizing the project for being a “praiseworthy and urgent public service,” criticized what they considered to be historical inaccuracies. In response, Jake Silverstein, editor of the Times Magazine wrote, “I think that there is a misunderstanding that this curriculum is meant to replace all of U.S. history...It's being used as supplementary material for teaching American history.” In other words, the resources are intended to enhance our U.S. history curriculum, not replace it. In the context of the New York State Social Studies Frameworks, this represents exactly the type of “historical thinking” that we want students to engage in. Here is an excerpt from the “9-12 Social Studies Practices” contained in the Frameworks that explains some of the expectations for high school students in a social studies class:

  • Define and frame questions about events and the world in which we live, form hypotheses as potential answers to these questions, use evidence to answer these questions, and consider and analyze counter-hypotheses.

  • Identify, describe, and evaluate evidence about events from diverse sources (including written documents, works of art, photographs, charts and graphs, artifacts, oral traditions, and other primary and secondary sources).

  • Analyze evidence in terms of content, authorship, point of view, bias, purpose, format, and audience.

  • Describe, analyze, and evaluate arguments of others.

In this context, the 1619 Project provides an excellent opportunity not only to enhance traditional curricula, but to provide teachers and students with a set of rich and engaging resources that examine U.S. history by looking at historical events through a contemporary lens. In essence, our role as social studies teacher is to make history relevant and “real” for our students. The 1619 Project is an important, extensive, and valuable set of resources that helps us reach that ideal.

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