Published November 16, 2020
I can think of no book more deserving of a review in The New York Times—or less likely to receive one—than Peter Wood’s just-published 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project. More than a powerful refutation, Wood’s 1620 is a withering appraisal and deadpan skewering of the 1619 Project as a cultural phenomenon. That ill-starred journalistic project is the purest and most perfect example of woke. The cultural revolution of 2020 will always rightly be associated with the 1619 Project of The New York Times. Not for nothing did project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones cheerfully embrace the term “1619 riots.”
Many young Americans believe that slavery was a novelty in world history—an exclusively American innovation. That misapprehension is abetted by the 1619 Project. Wood thus begins with a quick tour of New World slavery prior to 1619. Among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, captive enemies were kept for their labor, for the sport of torture, and in a few cases for what Wood calls “almost industrial level” human sacrifice, not to mention cannibalism.
Long before 1619, the Spanish and Portuguese used slavery to extract forced labor from native peoples. Eventually, they abolished the enslavement of native Americans in favor of something closer to serf-like dependence. Certainly, the Spanish and Portuguese imported slaves from Africa (where slavery was also common), sometimes putting them in charge of indigenous slaves. Those African overseers often discharged their task with brutality. When a party of Spanish conquistadors out to subdue what is now Florida were shipwrecked, they themselves were enslaved by the indigenes. Most died in short order. Slavery was a world-wide human norm.
What, then, of the slaves brought to Virginia in August of 1619, an act which according to the Times, “inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years”? The slaves sold at Jamestown in 1619 were likely treated as indentured servants, and would thus have been freed after a number of years. One may eventually have become a plantation owner himself, a Virginia black man with African slaves of his own. This African in early Virginia renamed himself Anthony Johnson and successfully sued one of his white neighbors in a Virginia court. The evidence on the precise status of the Africans who disembarked at Jamestown in 1619 is limited and disputed, but in pointed contrast to The New York Times Wood calmly and fairly assesses the arguments on all sides.
Well, so what? What’s a bit of historic license between friends? Maybe chattel slavery actually began sometime after 1619, but the evidence is imperfect and the symbolism of the earlier date is powerful. By placing the origins of American slavery four hundred years before the present—well before America’s seeming founding in 1776—and by marking that anniversary at the commencement of a presidential campaign deemed by the Times to pivot around the incumbent’s racism, a bold argument could be made to the effect that the inauguration of slavery was America’s “true founding.” That would make American exceptionalism shameful rather than “great.”
Here, Wood’s argument moves to another level, exposing and probing the political motives and historical deceptions that would someday entangle the Times. The climax came only a few months after the text of Wood’s 1620 was completed. (Wood himself played a role in that denouement, as we’ll see below). Wood’s penetrating critique of 1619’s fast-and-loose relationship to truth effectively predicted the fiasco that developed just months after the text of 1620 was completed and sent to the printer.
As part of his review of the 1619 controversy as it stood through the summer of 2020, Wood gives us a portrait of 1619’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones. A woman who styles herself “the Beyoncé of journalism” acts the part of a diva, and more. Treated by the Times, according to Wood, as “exempt from ordinary forms of accountability,” Hannah-Jones didn’t deign to reply to even the most respectful and serious scholarly criticism of her project. She booked herself instead into speaking venues where she was greeted as hero, prophet, or genius. And of course, Hannah-Jones was showered with accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. Rudely putting down critics, falsely denying that she’d said things she had demonstrably said, deleting tweets that showed her in a bad light, the behavior that eventually destroyed Hannah-Jones’s credibility was in evidence well before the final collapse. And it was all encouraged by the Times, which treated Hannah-Jones with kid gloves and ignored her critics until its hand was forced. Even when Times magazine editor Jake Silverstein finally answered a critical letter from twelve historians (not the first such letter), that letter’s text was never printed in the magazine.
Something larger is at stake here. To all appearances, Hannah-Jones is a grown-up “cry-bully.” She embodies the movement of campus snowflake culture into the “real world” (if the Times newsroom can be called that). In the old days, Hannah-Jones might have been dubbed a “spoiled child.” Pampered, self-important, lashing out in fury when challenged, she would appear to be a product of the modern double-standard.
It is a standard Wood dissects with some care. He quotes, for example, historian Nell Irvin Painter, who knowing full well that the 1619 Project was trafficking in falsehoods, nonetheless refused to sign a letter of scholarly protest. “I felt that if I signed on to that, I would be signing on to the white guy’s attack of something that has given a lot of black journalists and writers a chance to speak up in a really big way,” Painter said. “So I support the 1619 Project as a kind of cultural event.” Wood has no patience for this stance, rejecting it as condescending to black journalists, as if they require exemptions from standards of accuracy in order to speak up. White guilt and the consequent double standard are tailor-made to produce the campus cry-bully persona.
It all bit back on Hannah-Jones and the Times this fall, and Wood played a part in the drama. On September 17, after the text of 1620 had been completed and sent to the printer, Wood presented at the White House Conference on American History. (You can read the extended version of his remarks here.) President Trump’s remarks at that conference were directed in part against the distortions of the 1619 Project. Apparently, the prospect of the president turning the tables on the Times by making the 1619 Project into a campaign issue concerned Hannah-Jones. The next day (September 18), she appeared on CNN to deny that her project had presented 1619 as the true founding of America. Climbing down from the 1619 Project’s most famous claim might have been an effort to deny Trump a campaign issue, but it also exposed Hannah-Jones and the New York Times as acting in bad faith. How seriously could they have meant their bold historical claim if they could withdraw it so quickly and so lightly? The very next day (September 19), alerted by Hannah-Jones’s false denials, historian Phillip Magness exposed the stealth edits of the 1619 Project’s claim to be the story of America’s “true founding.” In light of this journalistic malfeasance, Wood helped to organize a letter signed by numerous scholars (myself included) calling on the Pulitzer Committee to withdraw the prize given to Hannah-Jones and The New York Times for the 1619 Project. That letter, published on October 6 at the website of Wood’s group, the National Association of Scholars, was widely discussed, including by a piece that appeared in the Wall Street Journal on October 7. Two days later, on October 9, Wall Street Journal editorial page alumnus, Bret Stephens, now an opinion columnist at The New York Times, published a devastating attack on the falsehoods, distortions, and irresponsible journalistic conduct surrounding the 1619 Project in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times itself. Although the Times has offered a highly unsatisfactory response, deep damage had been done—and rightly so—to the journalistic credibility of Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project, and The New York Times.
So Wood was a key player in the “fall” of the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones, and the Times. Yet the struggle continues. The events of autumn notwithstanding, the 1619 Project will still go out to the schools and will continue to serve as a rallying cry for the woke. Meanwhile, Peter Wood’s 1620 will stand as an essential statement for those who refuse to accept woke history and the culture it embodies. Wood’s takedown of the 1619 Project—both its substantive claims and its larger cultural ambitions—goes well beyond anything I can summarize here. His book will be contemplated by future historians as a record of the pushback against the cultural revolution of 2020. I cannot think of a more deserving institution to be on the receiving end of this pickaxe of a book than our erstwhile paper of record. Truly, Peter Wood’s 1620 is a book for our Times.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.