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University seminar delves into controversial ‘1619 Project’

| Friday, November 5, 2021

Over the past two years, The New York Times’ “1619 Project” has been the subject of much controversy. The long-form journalistic project spearheaded by Notre Dame alumna Nikole Hannah-Jones “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative” through a series of essays. 

It has been met with a wide spectrum of reactions, including a response history project called “The 1776 Report” published by the Trump White House and criticisms from some historians who challenge the accuracy of some claims found in the series.

Professor John Duffy works in the English department at Notre Dame and teaches a University seminar (USEM) called “Reading the 1619 Project.” Duffy said he chose to teach about the project because it “offers a historical narrative that examines race, and does so from a decidedly Black perspective” at a moment of racial reckoning. 

Duffy was also inspired by conservative politicians who sought to restrict the teaching of the project in schools.

“That seems like a very good reason to teach [the 1619 project], when it is such a provocative topic that people want to make it illegal, which I think is a very dangerous thing, to try to legislate what we can and cannot teach,” Duffy said.

Isa Sheikh | The Observer
Professor John Duffy teaches his “Reading the 1619 Project” University seminar at O’Shaughnessy Hall on Nov. 4.

In the course — which Duffy will offer again in the spring — students engage with every essay  in the project, as well as historical and political criticisms. For Duffy, historical criticism is useful to the project and worth listening to.

“There were some assertions made in the project that Hannah-Jones has now said she regrets, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s how you improve things like this. So I think those criticisms, the criticisms by historians, are worth listening to.”

Students also read political criticisms of the project, which Duffy called “hyperbolic and cynically opportunistic.“

“They are throwing gasoline onto the trash fires of the culture wars,” Duffy said.

Despite Duffy’s views, he said they consider all the materials seriously, allowing students to make up their own minds on the controversies. The students in the USEM have been working toward a final project where they explore a question of their choosing related to slavery or Black history. 

The project highlights slavery as central to the American story, with the title serving as a reminder of the year when slaves were brought to American shores. The Times began publishing the essays on the 400th anniversary of that event. 

Duffy and his students said learning about the experiences of slaves has enriched their understanding of American history. The “1619 Project,“ Duffy said, “[asks] us to come to terms with historical injustices, and how those injustices continue to shape the experience of Black and white Americans.”

Jamil Allan, a first-year student in Duffy’s USEM, said the class allows him to take things from the headlines and put them in perspective, particularly through conversations that confront topics directly.

“Topics that make people uncomfortable also build bridges,” Allan said.

First-year Morgan Blakey described the course as “transformative” to her perspective.

“Before coming in this class, I had a viewpoint of looking at everything from the perspective of a young Black woman in a predominantly white institution,“ she said. “Going through this class and then learning about other people’s ideas and what they believe has really helped me to shape how I look at things.”

First-year Madison Chambers had already studied the “1619 Project“ in high school and developed a critical attitude toward it.

“At the time I kind of resented it, just because I’m half Black,“ Chambers said. “I was like ‘Half the people who wrote these articles are white what are they talking about?’”

However, she said the USEM has drastically changed her perspective on the project.

“I’m learning it now, and I’m like, ‘This is so important,‘ just seeing how the perspectives of my classmates change, hearing their white perspectives, which you normally don’t hear… and hearing where they come from helped me understand some things,” Chambers said.

Chambers also saw the impact of the project on her peers, both at Notre Dame and in high school.

“Hearing [Black] perspectives expressed in the essays I think was really important to see how they can just become more aware,” she said. “The most important part of the ‘1619 Project‘ is that it shows the ramifications of slavery on Black people today through microaggressions, through blatant acts of racism, but it also shows the cause of systemic racism.”

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About Isa Sheikh

Isa Sheikh is a freshman in Stanford Hall. A political science major hailing from Sacramento, he enjoys reading The Observer on the 2nd floor of the Hes, sipping Cinderblock Coffee in the morning, and re-watching 30 Rock over and over. Please feel free to shoot him an email at [email protected]!

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