PhD student fears risking career by speaking out against 'The 1619 Project'

PhD candidate Paul Schwennesen expressed concern that he was 'probably making a mistake' by speaking with Campus Reform, but says his 'impetus here is about honesty, and it's about decency' as a historian.

Campus Reform has covered The 1619 Project extensively since it was initially published by the New York Times in 2019.

Paul Schwennesen, a History PhD candidate at the University of Kansas, is risking his career in academia by challenging the revisionist narrative of Nikole Hannah-Jones‘ 1619 Project.

“To suggest that the experience of slavery is a uniquely Black, or uniquely North American phenomenon does a great injustice to the Blacks and other North Americans who came before 1619,” according to Schwennesen’s recent op-ed written in response to the Hulu documentary version of the Project released for Black History month.

Campus Reform has covered The 1619 Project extensively since it was initially published by the New York Times in 2019. The Project presupposes that “no aspect of [the United States] has been untouched by the years of slavery” following the importation of African slaves to colonial Virginia.

Although several institutions have adopted The 1619 Project into their curricula, many prominent historians across the ideological spectrum have debunked Hannah-Jones’ claims, particularly its inaccuracies about the Founding era.

Schwennesen’s critique is different in that he notes, “Slavery was well-established in North America at least one hundred years before the alleged ‘beginning’ of the American slavery story” in 1619.

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Hannah-Jones’ Project “only makes glancing reference” to institutionalized slavery under Spanish colonial rule and within Native American tribes before English settlers arrived in the New World. 

As a graduate student who has not yet defended his dissertation, Schwennesen is mindful of the risks of speaking out against The 1619 Project.

In an interview, Schwennesen expressed concern that he was “probably making a mistake” by speaking with Campus Reform, but he was willing to incur the consequences because his “impetus here is about honesty, and it’s about decency” as a historian.

Hannah-Jones told MSNBC that criticisms of The 1619 Project are “not legitimate” because they are “not coming from people who have engaged with the ideas of the project or the work,” according to Fox News.

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Schwennesen has examined Hannah-Jones’ ideas, however, and still reaches the conclusion that The 1619 Project’s emphasis on English colonization promotes the “specific political aim to impugn ‘capitalism’ and the ‘hypocrisy’ of revolutionary founding ideals.”

“There is no black and white history,” Schwennesen told Campus Reform. “The minute you’re being fed a line that there’s good guys and bad guys, that there are winners and losers, or anything else, that’s when your guard should go up.”

Although Schwennesen acknowledges his work may be viewed as “an attempt to trivialize the egregious impact of [slavery] in the United States, it is not. It is instead an attempt at a more honest, more complete history of slavery, so that we don’t delude ourselves into repeating the tragic mistakes of the past—treating one another differently based on the color of our skin, for instance.”

Schwennesen concludes noting, “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, but [advocates of the Project are] overplaying their hand and they’re not being honest.”

Follow Gabrielle M. Etzel on Twitter.