Star Tribune 1619 guest essay revises history of slavery; again

On Sunday, December 8, the Star Tribune took a giant step back in race relations by running on the front of its Sunday edition an editorial by well-known right-wing operative Katherine Kersten titled “1619 Revisited.” The piece sought to walk back the findings and scholarly work of the New York Times’ 1619 series.

The most pressing question is why did the Star Tribune run that editorial and why now? The subhead read “Times 1619 Project gets the truth exactly backward.”

The editorial is ill-timed. It should have run during the time the 1619 Project was printed. The project has gone a long way toward helping fellow Americans reconcile the US’s racist and slave past. And while the Star Tribune has every right to print alternative and sometimes disparate views, the prominent position of the commentary on the front of its “Opinion Exchange,” along with the elaborate graphics accompanying it, seemed to give the perception of tacit approval.

The continuation of attempts to justify chattel slavery, nullify chattel slavery and mollify the guilty feelings of some White Americans or to modify the image of the U.S. in relation to this heinous crime only hinders efforts to move forward.

This is no small oversight. Revisionists have done such a good job of turning the genocide and inhumanity that was chattel slavery into a chapter of U.S. history—that wasn’t so bad—that some people still believe that “good” masters existed.

Of course, a “good master” is an oxymoron! Holding people against their will, forced work without compensation, punishment for failure to reach quotas, daily humiliation, arbitrary punishment, separating of families, raping pre-pubescent youth, denying the slaves humanity and shipping them like tuna is as bad as it sounds.

Is this really the way the Star Tribune wants to enter the new decade?

The Star Tribune’s editorial page editor Scott Gillespie to his credit did not duck the question when asked. He said the reason they ran it was they thought, “It was legitimate commentary on a project that is being widely discussed around the country.”

While it is indeed true the 1619 is still a topic of discussion and school children are using it as a primer around the country, Kersten’s commentary is far from legitimate.

In fact, the commentary on its face is illegitimate because the right-wing demagogue—I suspect purposely—avoided using the word CHATTEL when referring to the slavery practiced in the Americas and in the U.S.

The European settlers introduced into the world a new and different kind of slavery that had never been practiced before. Slavery in the U.S. was based solely on skin color and designated humans as something other than sentient beings.

The word that best describes the commentary is disingenuous. She laughingly stated that the project is a left-wing product of the New York Times. She takes MLK and Frederick Douglass out of context. Even the racists she quotes who had influence on U.S. policy and law contradict rather than make her point that racism was not a central part of the U.S. settler establishment.

The op-eds writer is a relic from the days when White supremacy and White nationalism were given a nod and a wink as long as it was veiled in intellectualism. Yet, the right-winger employs no real academic rigor and simply repeats the same old tired tropes and the same age-worn attempts to justify that which cannot be justified.

The facts are incontrovertible as the series makes clear that the imposition of chattel slavery is the defining event in U.S. history. There is no doubting that because of that event Africans living in the U.S. have struggled to be identified not just as citizens but as human beings. The slave trade reinforced the idea of the American experiment, the White Settlers’ dream of a White nation. 

Yet with the skills of a kindergartener, Kersten attacks the 1619 Project, with, “what about isms” and “we experienced slavery too,” meaning Europeans. She tries to obscure the crime of chattel slavery with old, tired racist justifications about Africans enslaving themselves. Africans did not encourage the Europeans to raid their interior stealing human beings, and Africans did not practice chattel slavery, which designates the slave as a non-sentient being, a thing, something equal to a cow or a pig.

Kirsten in her critique unwittingly accurately rephrases the point of the project. She accuses the 1619 Project as aiming “to recast Americans concept of their nation as one founded on freedom, equality, and opportunity into one irremediably corrupted by slavery, inequality, and racism.” Exactly!

This commentary was simply a poor attempt by Kirsten and her organization the American Experiment to keep alive the myth of a “White Nation,” the United States that stumbled just a bit, but is exceptional among nations.

The Star Tribune will likely run editorials condemning racism and suggesting that the body politic should move on, but how can it move on when the local corporate media continues to run commentary that seeks to dredge up old dusty lies, long-buried bones, and relics from the US’s racist past.

About Mel Reeves

Mel Reeves is the community editor at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He welcomes reader responses at mreeves@spokesman-recorder.com. Find his personal blog at fighthepowerjournal.com.

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