The irony is palpable. A senator whose nom de famille is Cotton finds it problematic that the 1619 Project would offer pedagogy that differed from the more acceptable understanding of African American slavery.
But the New York Times-developed school curriculum, which takes its name from the year enslaved Africans arrived in Point Comfort, Va., near Jamestown, that reexamines the legacy of slavery in America, finds itself in the crosshairs of Arkansas senator Tom Cotton’s legislative ire. Sen. Cotton calls the 1619 Project “racially divisive” and wants to prevent its curriculum from being taught in U.S. schools by denying federal funding.
Sen. Cotton recently offered this insight to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette:
“We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country.”
Had Sen. Cotton ended his remarks at this point, there would have been no need for further discussion. He simply reiterated the goals of the 1619 Project.
Alas, he continued: “As the Founding Fathers said, it (slavery) was a necessary evil upon which the Union was built. But the Union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction.”
Nestled between Cotton’s aforementioned sentences is additional history that renders his simplistic analysis problematic.
Sen. Cotton either ignores or is ignorant of the sociological and scientific efforts to justify those in bondage as subhuman.
The sociology, which began in 1619, based on skin color, gave rise to “whiteness” becoming a social construct, synonymous with superiority. In 19th century America, universities, North and South, offered scientific theories that the black brain was inferior to whites.
Though it’s true the founding fathers removed any commentary against King George and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in the Declaration of Independence, it was hardly an issue that galvanized around a uniformed belief that slavery was a “necessary evil.”
Was Sen. Cotton unaware that John Adams never owned slaves or that Benjamin Franklin’s last public address in 1790 petitioned the House of Representatives, calling for the federal government to gradually abolish slavery and end the slave trade?
Sen. Cotton’s critique minimizes that in 1776, the nation took the unprecedented step to break free from tyrannical British rule. Its Founders formed a nation based on the ideals of liberty and equality. While liberty and equality in the 18th and 19th centuries were indeed novel concepts globally, American slavery becomes a paradox.
America committed itself to liberty and equality while legitimizing slavery. Therefore, it became a nation that implemented subjective liberty and inequality.
Was the Union built in a way, as Cotton offered by way of Abraham Lincoln, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction? Perhaps!
But in 1794, when Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, it was a game-changer that revolutionized the cotton industry, making slaves a more valuable commodity.
Moreover, as Cornell University professor Edward Baptist writes in “The Half Has Never Been Told,” cotton in the 19th century was akin to oil in the 20th century, and the microchip in the 21st. By 1860, the United States dominated cotton’s global market share. Slavery was transformed from the South’s “peculiar institution” to America’s.
Lincoln did indeed offer to confine slavery to the South, where “it would surely die a slow death.” What exactly did Lincoln mean by a “slow death?”
During his 1858 debates with Stephen A Douglas, Lincoln envisioned a “slow death” persisting for another 100 years.
Though slavery officially ended with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865, Jim Crow segregation and the Black Codes were an effective method to circumvent the 13th Amendment in order to maintain de facto slavery. Moreover, it wasn’t until 1954 that the Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow segregation.
But it also required the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act before African Americans received the benefits of full citizenship. In this context, Lincoln’s supposition was fairly accurate.
None of this suggests the 1619 Project is in sole possession of unimpeachable scholarship, but neither is the source on which Sen. Cotton relies so heavily. Different social locations will view similar events through a different lens.
Slavery’s outcome may have indeed made it a “necessary evil,” but that makes the case for rigorous historical examination. History is the medium that informs us of who we were, giving insight into who we are today. Its importance lies in not simply knowing what happened, but exploring the reason(s) why something occurred.
It must be able to withstand the weight of judicious intellectual scrutiny, rather than the reflexive impulses of a United States senator whose truncated knowledge of history is pregnant with irony.