‘Bad History and Worse Social Science’
Last week I talked with the Howard University historian Daryl Michael Scott, the author of Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996 (North Carolina, 1997) and, more recently, an article in Liberties on “The Scandal of Thirteentherism.” One of the most interesting parts of our conversation, to me, was Scott’s discussion of the “other frames or other myths” for writing about the history of Black people in the New World — frames that, he says, were left out of The New York Times’s “1619 Project.” In the published interview, some of that material was left on the cutting-room floor. Here’s a fuller version of his response to my question about what the “1619 Project” missed.
What about other frames or other myths? For instance, the “Atlantic world.” Once you start making worlds, you are making myths. You’re circumscribing the world for your purposes, and you’re tracing origins.
When the nation-state comes along and pretends that 1619 is the starting point, that’s making a myth. The Atlantic-world scholars do a very similar thing. A priori, they have a “world” that they think they can establish exists. And that world has slavery. In that Atlantic world of slavery, 1619 is not an important moment.
And then you get the scholars who believe they can trace a Black identity across time and space back to Egypt, and for them 1619 is not a good date.
A guy like me comes along and says: There’s nothing wrong with identity history. There’s nothing wrong with sub-identities. African Americans as an ethnic group can validly, in an ethnic myth, say 1619 is a good point of origin, because we’re an English-speaking Black ethnic group.
So there are various ways scholars tell their tale. “1619” could have been a set of debates about that, but all of the other perspectives lost out. All of these critiques fell to the wayside in the traditional way that they do: You get a debate between white liberals and their allies, and white conservatives, and everything in America reduces to race and slavery. That’s culture-war stuff.
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