1619 Project and Original Sin

March 27, 2022

Nikole Hannah-Jones and “The 1619 Project” have provoked a lot of interesting debate about American history. She and it have also provoked a lot of freakout on the part of many conservatives. This piece from last year nicely focuses on why the former is distinct from the latter, and why the latter is so lamentable at this point in our history. Why are people so afraid of — not disagreeing with, but afraid of, even panicked about — these debates? What do they not want to know? The Trump Administration's ridiculous (and reactionary, in all the senses of that phrase) "1776" project was a pathetic and embarassing response.

But the truths of the 1619 project should also ask us to think about history more deeply, and in entirely other ways. Last year, Matthew Karp wrote a powerful essay about how the framing of the 1619 project, while strategically effective, also played into a bad attitude to history, seeing history as mythology, a quest for origins, rather than actual history. As he says, quoting Adam Server, “The question…is not only about the facts, but the politics of the metaphor: ‘a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society.’” As regards the idea of slavery as “original sin,” he suggests an historian’s caveats:

The problems with this metaphor are manifold, as the historian James Goodman has noted: its historical anachronism, its confusion of the sacred and the profane, and its tendency to obscure, rather than clarify, the burden of responsibility for the crime of slavery. Yet perhaps the most serious problem is not the theological question of “sin”—a fair word for racial oppression in America since 1619, and one that has done heroic service in the cause of justice since the era of abolition—but the deceptiveness of “original.”

The political limits of origins-centered history are just as striking. The theorist Wendy Brown once observed that at the end of the twentieth century liberals and Marxists alike had begun to lose faith in the future. Collectively, she wrote, left-leaning intellectuals had come to reject “a historiography bound to a notion of progress,” but had “coined no political substitute for progressive understandings of where we have come from and where we are going.” This predicament, Brown argued, could only be understood as a kind of trauma, an “ungrievable loss.” On the liberal left, it expressed itself in a new “moralizing discourse” that surrendered the promise of universal emancipation, while replacing a fight for the future with an intense focus on the past. The defining feature of this line of thought, she wrote, was an effort to hold “history responsible, even morally culpable, at the same time as it evinces a disbelief in history as a teleological force.”

There’s a good brief interview with Karp here, which I recommend to you as well.

In a professional way, I am committed to the idea of "original sin" as an analytic concept.  (Don't worry, I know mine is a lonely fight, esp in this academic era.)  But insofar as "original sin" is meant to function archaeologically, as offering us a talisman-like end-point to our inquisitions, a point to which we can roll back the tape and say there--there's where everything went wrong--I want to say that that is not the most effective use of the idea.  The "original" should be more ontological than chronological: as John Ashbery put it in his vast, late poem Flow Chart, "blood everywhere--no wound, just the sign of bleeding;" and, as Declan McManus put it, in his guise as Elvis Costello, "there's no such thing as an original sin."

I'm not alone in this; many modern theologians (those who have tried to think about this, anyway) have tried to think about the idea of original sin as pointing to some ontic structure of the cosmos or human agency as we find it, but also as a condition that is in itself so outrageous, so obviously wrong, that we cannot simply accept it as part of nature. This is why Augustine's "realism" is so different from Thucydides's, and Sallust's, and Tacitus's: each of them wants to naturalize the condition, while Augustine wants to keep the appearance of moral outrage as more than just a patina of self-regard that has coated the facts of our history in a way that allows us to tut-tut about it but which must be seen through or stripped away to the core ugly truth, namely, homo homini lupus.  That last move, that "unmasking" move, is the core "realist" move--you think we're nice people, but here! I can show you we're really not.  This move is just what Augustine wants to reject--humans are monsters, but they are also noble, or can be, and occasionally are, and the difficulty of us is that the moral norms we profess are real in the sense of guiding us, just as much as the violations of those norms are real as well (and maybe almost equally deeply anchored in our psychology--almost, that's the "original sin" part).

Anyway, I get excited on this, that's for another day. What does this mean for the 1619 project? Not much, unless you want it to. I do want it to; and so for me, it means that the story that 1619 is trying to tell is an absolutely necessary story, and so far as we can recognize that 1619 is no more the start of where things "go wrong" than any other date, we will do well.  

Here's a perhaps gnomic thought: Things have been "going wrong" for us for longer than recorded history; but the fact that we register the wrongness of the way they have been going, the fact that some of us are outraged by this fact, is at least as important, in the very long run.  Maybe more important, in fact.  I think it is.

Happy Sunday.