Riches or Ruins? On an Old City and the New “1619 Project”

Phyllis Beveridge Nissila

To paraphrase an old saying,

Both riches and ruins are in the eye of the beholder.

It depends, of course, on which lens you’re looking through…

What prompts my post today comes from two very different places but united under the common theme of interpretation being in the eye of the beholder–and the importance of that.

Medieval Arch Archway Westgate Gardens Parks Canterbury Kent UK

The first (real) place is described in essays of a tour of Canterbury, England, sent over by friend and fellow blogger Colin Markham who lives in South East England and has a local’s knowledge of the city and frequently visits the storied places there.

As is the case when touring any historical sites, the visitor perceives either riches or ruins (or some combination of both), depending upon his or her interests, and this idea comes through in the “tour guides” of Colin’s essays (linked below*). For a bit of respite today, we invite you to take a look.

The other motivation for today’s post is from two views of a completely different (real and ideological) “place” where, just now, some are attempting to revise the real history to shore up an ideology based on a view of the nation as primarily ruins, so to speak, not riches; rubble, not beauty; slavery, not freedom.

An attempt to revise history that, in my view, is divisive and dangerous.

To the second prompt:

On “The 1619 Project”

For those yet unaware, a movement to redefine the motivation behind the founding of the United States of America from a nation devoted to God-given freedoms and rights to a nation built on and for slavery was launched last month (August 2019) by the New York Times via an extensively researched multi-faceted feature called “The 1619 Project.”

According to the article(s), arguably written through the lens of racism, the history of how Africans first came to “the New World” as slaves is traced to a group of twenty-some individuals brought to Jamestown in 1619. By narrowing their view to the issue of slavery, the researchers erroneously suggest that slavery was the central force driving the founding of this nation, as opposed to the actual cause which was the fight for independence from British rule and for the rights eventually enshrined in our Constitution.

While the facts of the slavery view of history are true and heartbreaking (and thankfully Americans fought against and stopped slavery by the shed blood of tens of thousands of its young men in the Civil War in the 1860s), the complete story of slavery in this land actually began much earlier and involved landowners from other nations as well who originally occupied parts of what is now the contiguous 48 states.

Before and after the introduction of slaves from Africa, there were also Native American slaves as well as slaves from Ireland, Scotland, and China. Additionally, there were African slaves owned in the U.S. by “free” Blacks as well as Native American slaves owned by other Native Americans.

And none of it was good.

There are many research projects on the (entire) history of slavery in America that include all of the nationalities involved not just Whites enslaving Blacks, and, most importantly for a balanced view of our history, include the successful efforts to eradicate slavery. As one researcher notes:

(The) history of America is not defined by some romance with enslavement, as the 1619 Project seems to suggest. The high points of American history, the ones we celebrate, memorialize, emphasize, and teach to our children as who we are, and as examples to be emulated, are moments of liberation.

The Jamestown founding of America has no national holiday, in part because most Americans sense that slavers looking for gold is, while part of our history, not the part we want our children to emulate. But when Thanksgiving comes, we celebrate the Plymouth colony: religious dissidents seeking liberty. (Source)

From another critique of the NYT series:

Contrary to what the 1619 Project would have you believe, slavery and racism do not define what America was in 1619 or what it is today. America was born in freedom in 1776 for most and then born again with a new birth of freedom in 1865 for all. After segregation was ended and the full panoply of civil rights ensured to all black Americans, America has fulfilled the promise of its original charter — that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Source)

The danger of reducing our history, whether of slavery or any other aspect, to and through only one narrowed focus, one view, one lens, is to enter the treacherous waters of an ideologically driven narrative as opposed to the actual historical record, thereby presenting not only an incomplete history but also an imbalanced and–regarding its premise–a false one.

It would be akin, in a sense, to taking a tour of Canterbury and only focusing on the destruction caused by past wars and catastrophes to the detriment of missing out on the beauty, both ancient and modern, literal and figurative, surrounding the visitor today as well as the efforts to restore and enhance what was damaged.

But back to this side of the Atlantic: When attempting to revise history through the narrow lens of slavery, everyone loses–those who never learned that the nation as a whole “applied its lesson” about the evil of slavery (and fought a horrible war to stop it) and also those who, without the historically accurate and inclusive narrative, the bad and the good, the ugly and the beautiful, the ruins and the riches, can more easily be incited to bitterness which is easy to exploit by those, usually politically motivated, who can profit by–inciting bitterness.

With this in mind, many are seriously concerned that the perpetrators of the 1619 narrative are intentionally trying to reconstruct our history in an attempt to exploit the long-since resolved issue of slavery by stoking political fires and anti-White racism.

The fallout remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, as I type this, the erroneous notion that the real story of how and why this nation began is all about African slavery and White supremacy is what is being incorporated into K-12 curriculum. This attempt to revise history will soon be entrenched in–and will influence–those who know no differently. That bodes ill for now–and the future.

Bitter or Better

Unless and until this altered historical view is rejected and corrected, it will only incite more anger which will feed bitterness. When bitterness hinders efforts to better the nation, only evil can result.

When a nation’s history is only viewed as ruins, so to speak, to the detriment of its riches, anger is incited, fostered, and may well be used to divide–and conquer.

None of that is good, either.


*For a description of the tour and the Gardens, we invite you to read Colin Markham’s essays, Westgate Gardens, Canterbury and Beyond the Westgate Gardens, Canterbury“.

For a “pictorial tour” of the Westgate Gardens, click here.

Image of Westgate Gardens, Canterbury England from Wikemedia commons

This entry was posted in COLIN MARKHAM FEATURES, Commentaries, GUEST and EMBEDDED FEATURES, most recent posts and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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