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History as Politics – the 1619 project in the USA and its relevance to Nigeria

It is an oft-repeated complaint in intellectual circles in Nigeria that some people deliberately took the study of History out of the national educational curriculum several years ago to keep the sordid details of Nigeria’s past out of the minds of present and future generations. ‘They’ did not want future generations to learn about the horrible injustices that have led the nation to its present dire straits. Other people have suggested that the anomaly might be due to difficulty in getting historians to agree to a common version of history that could be equally taught to an eight-year-old Ibo girl in Awka and a Fulani lass of the same age in Sokoto. How for instance do you treat the Civil War, or the Asaba Massacre, or the Kano pogroms?

There is general agreement that a core requirement  for good education of young people is a thorough understanding of the past. People who do not know where they are coming from are apt not only to repeat the mistakes of the past but to be afflicted all life-long with a sense of identity confusion and lack of direction.

It is interesting to note that a similar debate on how to teach History to the young has been raging in the United States of America over the past two years. It has been attended by inflammatory rhetoric, and has, predictably, played into the yawning Liberal versus Conservative divide that is at the centre of America’s contemporary political experience.

The 1619 Project is a treatise on the history of the African American journey in America and the role played by slavery in shaping America into the society it has become today. It was developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones, working with writers from The New York Times, and the New York Times Magazine. It was published in 2019, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colony of Virginia. In the words of the authors, its aim was to ‘reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very centre of the United States national narrative’.

We cannot understand and address the problems of today without speaking the truth about how we got here

Instead of finding general acceptance as a masterly work of historical reconstruction lovingly put together through years of painstaking research by experts, the 1619 Project has become a subject of raging controversy and political diatribe. While it is popular among black intellectuals and many whites who feel America should come clean on its past of racial injustice as a way of dismantling the vestiges of physical and institutional racism in the present day, it is reviled by many white and conservative politicians and intellectuals who complain it is blackguarding America’s founders and generally trying to make people feel guilty about their country.

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America’s national experience is usually described from the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

The 1619 Project, citing facts, debunks some of the assumptions Americans have been taught about themselves. One of its central planks is that the Revolutionary War to break away from Great Britain was not fought just for the high-minded purpose of founding a land ‘where no man is oppressed’ but that many of the colonists and ‘Founding Fathers’ fought the war in order to preserve the right to keep slaves. The essays in the Project trace the evolution of modern American society, its traffic jams, its affinity for sugar, and their connections to slavery and segregation. There is even an insight into the impact of slavery on professional sports in the USA and the power dynamics of sports.

The underlying logic of the work is not to wallow in America’s past sins but to open up the full story of Race in America, warts and all, and to show that racial divisions are still buried under everybody’s skin and in all the nation’s institutions.

The fusillades from the enemies of 1619 came in furious volleys, and they are still ongoing.  Kamala Harris – before she became Vice President, praised the Project, seeing it as ‘a powerful and necessary reckoning of our history. We cannot understand and address the problems of today without speaking truth about how we got here.’

President Donald Trump, on the other hand, declared that it was a conspiracy to change the beginning of America from 1492, when Columbus – a white man, discovered America to 1619, when black slaves were brought in. To counter the dissemination of the 1619 Project or its ideas in the American school system, Trump established his own commission of ‘experts’ – ‘The 1776 Commission’ to generate a response. The ‘Commission’s’ report was presented to Trump just before the end of his Presidency. It was noted to be tendentious and to include many errors. Trump’s Commission was promptly terminated by President Biden as soon as he assumed office.

All of this complicated back and forth about what version of History to teach to children would seem to some people to be much ado about nothing. But patriotic platitudes about the need to love your country and salute the flag will not explain why policemen kill black young men disproportionately in America or wish away the reality of ‘white privilege’. In Nigeria, a dismissive approach to History will not explain why some people feel they ‘own’ Nigeria, or why bottom-of-the-class students rise rapidly to become Ministers and ‘federal’ Permanent Secretaries, while A-students obtain PhDs and come to labour under them.

In becoming educated on these matters, it is logical for the next generation to seek change in themselves and others, as well as in society at large. For the beneficiaries of power who run the system and are content with the status quo, such an ‘awakening’ would be an existential threat.

For the young who want their nation and themselves to be the best they can be, knowledge of the past is a sine qua non, and the beginning of the journey.

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