Many thanks to Katherine Kersten for bringing the New York Times’ “1619 Project” to our attention in her Dec. 8 commentary “1619 revisited, revisited.” Yet, Ms. Kersten does not seem to understand the purpose of the project, which is simply to acknowledge that in the year 1619 early settlers in Virginia purchased the first slaves in our nation’s history, setting in motion a power imbalance between our European and African ancestors that persists to this day. No amount of apology or denial can alter the fact that our country’s development has been stunted by the extreme racial prejudice arising from slave ownership.
Kersten would like us to forgive our abhorrent practice of enslaving other humans because slave trading has had myriad other practitioners throughout global history. This approach may allay her guilt but ignores the damage wrought on our society by this insidious threat to freedom. We will never be able to truly live by the principles stated in our Constitution unless we acknowledge and rectify our sins of the past, and rebalance power in our country for the privilege of all its people.
Joseph Ehrlich, Arden Hills
• • •
Kersten’s disapproval of the 1619 Project says much about the current state of conservative thought. She objects because the project suggests we consider American history through the experiences of the people who bore centuries of slavery, torture, terrorism and government-sanctioned discrimination.
She is telling us: Do not think. Do not consider the lasting legacy of slavery. (Everyone was doing it!) Do not worry about racism. (We’re colorblind!) America is exceptional. (There’s nothing to fix!)
The 1619 Project was a stunning piece of reporting precisely because it provokes us to think critically and to consider the experiences of people whose lives are different from our own.
Kersten clearly doesn’t want us to think critically. So she gives permission to ignore hard truths, and offers comfort to the comfortable.
Holly Ziemer, Edina
• • •
Every reader of American history learns about the Revolutionary War and the Founding Fathers who were so paramount to its success. What they don’t read about is that slavery was essential to that success. Colonial society, over generations, produced the leaders who aped their forbearers in England. Because of the slave workforce that they controlled, and the wealth it produced, these generations of white men had the education, the training and the free time to devote themselves to fighting a war and creating a government. Without the slaves, this group of men would not have evolved, and names like Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and Lee might not be so well-known in our history. That is the great “what if” of that history. If there had been no slaves, would there be a Washington, D.C.? It was serendipitous that slavery helped create a democracy. As terrible as slavery was, without it, this nation would not be what it is today. Black Americans can take pride in what their ancestors helped accomplish.
Tom Obst, Wyoming, Minn.
• • •
Kudos to Kersten for reminding us that the history of the United States is not entirely a narrative of slavery and evil oppression, but also righteous liberal movements that eventually helped improve conditions for persecuted people who stood up and demanded equity and equality. These other progressive causes ranged from suffrage and equal rights for women, to better pay and benefits for all workers, to economic security and health care for the elderly and all manner of other vulnerable people, to environmental justice. National opinion writer Timothy Egan makes a similar case in a recent column (“America the Hot Mess,” New York Times, Dec. 6) for celebrating our better angels of the past in a recent column, calling all of us to a more “progressive patriotism” as we look in the rearview mirror.
It’s reassuring to see some agreement from liberals like Egan and conservatives like Kersten on these themes, but it’s important to note some irony when praise for our liberal past comes from the right. Kersten’s ideological ancestors tended to oppose all those liberation movements and even to condemn them as un-American or socialistic or radical. We can’t forget that today’s increasingly white and extreme conservative coalition continues to alienate moderates and business leaders on issues of race and immigration, and was built on President Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” This was a realignment of the political map that exploited both Southern white and Northern white ethnic backlash to integration, affirmative action and other forms of remediation for the descendants of slaves.
Here’s hoping that Kersten and her colleagues can evolve and express support for more of today’s movements toward equity and inclusion, and not just yesterday’s.
Dane Smith, St. Paul
• • •
Kersten quoted numerous sources in her commentary but omitted some key statements that should have been included in her quotations. For example, she said that “the American founders’ statement in 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, that ‘all men are created equal’ and ‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights’ was a bold and radical claim.” She omitted the part of the Declaration in which the writers declare, in their list of grievances against King George III, this one: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” The early colonists’ opinion of the indigenous people is key part of the story.
Kersten quotes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as having hailed the Declaration as a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” She omits the two statements he made immediately after that one: “This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’ ” That’s a key part of King’s message.
The 1619 Project strives to tell the whole story of our nation’s founding and growth, not just the parts that make us feel comfortable. Kersten should strive to do the same.
Karen Barstad, Minneapolis
• • •
James Baldwin once said that not everything that is faced can be fixed, but that nothing can be fixed that is not faced. This country’s stubborn resistance to facing what slavery did to the Africans and their children and to the whites who thought it appropriate to own humans keeps us chained to our history.
The 1619 Project undertaken by the New York Times is a small and later attempt to begin to face facts, so the vociferous pushback from several quarters makes me sorry because it just confirms how utterly endemic racism seems to have become in our national character and narrative. For my part, I applaud the Times and urge it to expand the various formats through which it is teaching us a truer history than most of us got in schools or from history books or even from some of our religious organizations/leaders. The more of us who try to “face” this violent and hideous institution and its hydra-headed legacies, the better chance some of us have of “fixing” our guilt and shame. And, once we are a little freed from those paralyzing emotions, the better chance we will have of doing something that is anti-racist.
Toni McNaron, Minneapolis
• • •
Kersten’s commentary met her usual superb standard of writing. She supplied abundant information to justify our collective admiration for our founders and respect for our country.
But her last paragraph disappointed me. I am offended by the use of “man” to mean “women also” and submit this revision:
Humanity’s seemingly boundless capacity for inhumanity to fellow humans is one of history’s indelible lessons.
Jeanette Blonigen Clancy, Avon, Minn.