History is written by the victors. That adage jangled around in my head this week as I made my way through the New York Times’ 1619 Project. An ambitious heave in its Sunday magazine and special section, the project argues that to understand our nation better we need to fundamentally alter how we view slavery and everything that came after.
Even if critics call it propaganda and a rewriting of American history, the publication of the 1619 Project by one of the nation’s leading newspapers shouldn’t surprise us.
How we tell the stories about who we are as a nation, our place in the world and our deepest values – what we know as our nation’s history – has regularly changed. Since our country’s founding, successive generations have revisited what stories from our past to lift up and what stories to downplay based on the present.
Today the United States is more ethnically diverse than it was a few decades ago, and will only become moreso. It seems logical, then, that the questions we’re asking today are different than the ones we asked 75 years ago when the United States was much more homogenous.
You can see this wrestling with American history in real time across the nation. California is tussling with how to teach history in public schools, through the ethnic studies proposal that’s moving through the General Assembly. Stories about the Red Summer of 1919, once the preserve of history books, are finding a mass audience this summer through news stories, as are articles on violence during the same era against Hispanics in the Southwest.
Placed in that context, the 1619 Project is merely part of a larger conversation that’s been building among historians and other academics – as well as activists, policy makers and legislators – for decades about how we teach American history.
So, you ask, what does the 1619 Project have to do with New Mexico?
Like California and other places, New Mexico is engaged in how to tell its own history.
You can see it in the publication of more books like native New Mexican Laura Gomez’s Manifest Destinies: The Making of the Mexican American Race more than a decade ago.
You can see it in last year’s decision by the Fiesta de Santa Fe to discontinue the Entrada — a historical pageant of Spanish conquistadors reclaiming Santa Fe from the Indians in 1692 – because it was a “symbol of colonialism for some Native Americans, as well as a reminder of New Mexico’s bloody past,” as the Santa Fe New Mexican put it.
And you can see it in this past legislative session in the behind-the-scenes discussions about how to respond to a state judge’s demand that New Mexico reform its public education system. Should New Mexico, like California, jump all in to multicultural education, or not?
As someone who likes history, I feel like I’m living through an era ripe with opportunities to learn, which is how I view the 1619 Project.
As a white Southerner whose formal education skimmed over slavery, deemphasizing the brutality and playing up the kind slaveowner – Exhibit No. 1 of a history written by the victors – I see the 1619 Project as an invitation to consider our history from the perspective of communities whose voices have traditionally been muffled.
It is not so much a call a replace history but a request for a more honest telling.
For some, slavery and what came after – or, for that matter, the 1692 reconquest by the Spanish in New Mexico – is all in the past. Let me leave those folks with this quote from my fellow Southerner, William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Editor’s note: This essay is part of NMID’s weekly newsletter The Week In Depth. You can sign up to receive it and all of our stories here.