The 2020 Pulitzers are out. Not only did I not win (again), but there seems to be a theme in who did, and it’s well represented in the Prize for Commentary.
Hannah-Jones won for the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which has not only had an enormous influence on the discussion of American History, but has given rise to a mass reinvention of the history curriculum in American public education.
It’s a big deal to win a Pulitzer, and no one deserved this year’s Pulitzer more than Hannah-Jones.
The 1619 Project had an enormous impact.
The 1619 Project was very popular.
The 1619 Project was factually bankrupt.
A winner for our times.
The problem with the 1619 Project isn’t that American history had largely ignored the contributions to our society by black people, the suffering and horrors of slavery and the blight of racism in America. The problem is that it replaced whitewashing with blackwashing. If our understanding of history was flawed before, it merely changed the head on the corpse.
The project’s central conceit is that “out of slavery grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system.” Hannah-Jones even argued that the main reason American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery — a claim so contrary to the truth that the Times eventually corrected that part of her essay, though only to add two words: Now it says “some of” the founders fought chiefly for that reason.
It’s still not true — and the experts she consulted told her so. Leslie M. Harris, a black history prof at Northwestern, says she warned Hannah-Jones: “Far from being fought to preserve slavery, the Revolutionary War became a primary disrupter of slavery in the North American Colonies.”
A popular argument these days is that if it was wrong against us before, we’re entitled to have it wrong for us now. We trade one lie for another and call it equity. Nor can Hannah-Jones be absolved of her flight of self-serving fancy by the depth of her passion combined with her ignorance of the subject matter.
Nor was that her only distortion. Hannah-Jones also claims that President Abraham Lincoln “opposed black equality.” As part of The Post’s weeklong Twisted History series on the 1619 Project, historian Allen Guelzo pointed out that that Lincoln called for black voting rights and was hailed by Frederick Douglass as “emphatically the colored man’s president.”
But Hannah-Jones’ project barely mentions Douglass — a giant of 19th century America — or other great black freedom fighters. Even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the entire civil-rights movement get short shrift because they contradict her thesis.
In other words, she knew, she was told, and she was told again, that the history she was reinventing was a lie. She didn’t care. It was her lie and she was sticking to it.
Apparently, willful error can now win you the most elite prize in journalism.
To be fair, Hannah-Jones didn’t win the prize for journalism, but commentary. This is a curious detail given how many public schools have fawned over the project, which came with a new curriculum to be taught to children in their American history classes to change the “white history” of our Protestant founders into the black history of Hannah-Jones. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts.
Had the thrust of the 1619 Project been to recognize the contributions that blacks made to this nation, long ignored, to recognize the pain inflicted on people brought here in chains and how the consequences of our original sin remained to this day, the project would still be the target of attack by many.
For many of us who have spent our lives and careers fighting against racism and its consequences, this would have been a wonderful thing, just as Black Lives Matter began as a glorious moment when people began to recognize how racist perceptions of black dangerousness meant scared cops pulled the trigger too early and too often. People were dying. Black men were dying. Suddenly, people saw what we saw, knew what we had always known but no one believed us.
But that fight was based on fact, on reality, not on the pendulum swinging from one side of lies to the other side of lies.
Too bad the Pulitzer committee now thinks that facts are irrelevant to journalism.
Too bad so many of us, including so many of the same people who spent their days in the trenches fighting to end racism as it manifested on the streets and metastasized into the courtroom, are just as willing to shrug off lies that serve preferred outcomes as the lies that gave rise to the problems we fought to end.
Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize, Nikole Hannah-Jones. 2020 was your year.