How do religions start? Sometimes, they start from envy.
Such was the case with Scientology. Spurned by the scientific community, L. Ron Hubbard realized he could sell his theories on mind and body to the credulous public as religion.
Such was also the case with Islam. The Arabs of Muhammad’s time were familiar with the two great Western religions of their day: Judaism and Christianity. But the Jewish scriptures wrote off the Arabs as the children of Ishmael, Abraham’s “wild ass” son, and the Christian scriptures (which included the Old Testament of the Jews) had to be translated into Arabic from their original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. There were no Arab prophets, no Arab apostles. Because neither Judaism nor Christianity were originally “theirs”, most Arabs clung to their hereditary polytheism rather than subject themselves like red-headed stepchildren to one or the other of the monotheistic religions.
Enter Muhammad and his orations of a new scripture: The Quran. The Quran itself speaks of the base envy that generated it:
And indeed, the Quran is the revelation of the Lord of the worlds. The Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down upon your heart, O Muhammad, that you may be of the warners, in a clear Arabic language.The Quran, Surah 26:192-195
Finally, the Arabs had a prophet of their own and a divine message of their own, in their own language.
In another display of envy, the Quran rewrites one of the most momentous stories in the Old Testament: The Akebah, or the Binding of Isaac.
In Genesis 22:1-18, Abraham is ordered by God to take his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice. It is the supreme test of Abraham’s faith, as God previously promised Abraham that through Isaac’s descendants Abraham would become a father of many nations. Was God breaking his vow? Could Abraham trust God in the face of a divine command that would appear to negate God’s own plan?
In the end, Abraham passes the test. At the very moment he is about to kill his son at God’s command, an angel of God orders him to stop: Abraham has gone far enough in demonstrating his total faith in God, and a ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place. Isaac would live to father Jacob, whom God would later give the name Israel. Israel’s twelve sons would in turn father the twelve nations of the Jews, the people God would choose to bring His morals — and eventually, His Messiah — to the world.
But the Quran cannot allow Isaac, the progenitor of the Jews, to be the beloved child at the center of Abraham’s greatest test. Instead it makes Ishmael, father of the Arabs, the child whom Abraham nearly sacrifices.
And then Abraham said, “…My Lord, grant me a child from among the righteous.” So We gave him good tidings of a forbearing boy. And when he reached with him the age of exertion, he said, “O my son, indeed I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so see what you think.” He said, “Oh my father, do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah wills, of the steadfast.” And when they had both submitted and he put him down upon his forehead, We called to him, “O Abraham, you have fulfilled the vision.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, this was the clear trial. And We ransomed him with a great sacrifice, and We left for him favorable mention among later generations: “Peace upon Abraham.” Indeed, We thus reward the doers of good. Indeed, he was of Our believing servants. And We gave him good tidings of Isaac, a prophet from among the righteous.The Quran, Surah 37:99-112
Isaac, who once stood center stage, is now an afterthought. Ishmael steals the limelight.
Sad but true: The Quran is a document grounded in the desire of a marginalized people — the Arabs — to place themselves at the center of history.
In the Quran, the patriarch is Abraham.
In the 1619 Project, the patriarch is America.
Abraham has two sons: Ishmael the elder, and Isaac the younger.
America also has two sons: Slavery the elder, and Liberty the younger.
Mainstream American history takes the biblical route: Just as Ishmael is cast aside to make way for Isaac, so Slavery is cast aside to make way for Liberty. Liberty then becomes the center of the American story, as it expands to cover more and more groups of people up through the present day and into the boundless future.
But the descendants of Slavery — as they see themselves — are not content to join in the story of Liberty. They want a narrative of their own, where Slavery is patriarch America’s beloved child. And the 1619 Project gives those who desire it that narrative.
The first issue of the 1619 Project debuted on Sunday, August 14th. Its chapter and verse numbers have not yet been assigned, and its books are not so pithily named as “Psalms” or “Proverbs”. But it’s fairly clear from the titles of the first twelve selections that a new body of scripture is taking form right before our eyes:
- America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One
- American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation
- A New Literary Timeline of African-American History
- How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Differences Still Live in Medicine Today
- What the Reactionary Politics of 2019 Owe to the Politics of Slavery
- Why is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?
- How Segregation Caused Your Traffic Jam
- Why American Prisons Owe Their Cruelty to Slavery
- Why Doesn’t America Have Universal Healthcare? One Word: Race
- The Barbaric History of Sugar in America
- How America’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder
- Their Ancestors Were Enslaved by Law. Now They’re Lawyers.
Reading these titles, I can’t help remembering an old adage, warped through the lens of oppression: To a nail, everything looks like a hammer.
To their credit, the writers and historians at the New York Times who have assembled this project have done an excellent job of collecting and verifying historical facts. This would be commendable, if presenting facts were the point.
But it’s not the point. The point is narrative. One of the project’s own writers, Jamelle Bouie, confessed as much on Twitter:
It isn’t hard to put the above argument in perspective of “Jews and Christians vs. Muslims”. What is the “through-line” of human “history”, according to the Old Testament? It’s the struggle of the Jews throughout that history. But the Quran says no. The Quran takes the nascent Muslims’ struggle and places that at the center of human history, “going back to the very beginning” — the Quran actually makes Adam (3:33) a Muslim, and Noah (22:42) a Muslim, and Abraham (3:67) a Muslim, and Moses (3:84) a Muslim, and even Jesus (3:58) a Muslim. Islam makes every human being originally a Muslim, in fact — per Islam, every baby is born a Muslim and only falls away on account of being taught lies. For that reason, becoming a Muslim is actually called reversion, not conversion — i.e., you’re just reverting to what you were at birth. It’s the ultimate “we were here first” one-upmanship.
The 1619 Project is built upon that same spirit of one-upmanship. Even its title points to its core argument: The United States of America didn’t begin its existence in 1776 as a nation founded on Liberty, as is commonly held — no, America began its existence in 1619 as a nation founded on Slavery. Where most Americans see Liberty as the main plot of the American story and Slavery as a subplot, the 1619 Project preaches that the opposite is true and always has been.
Amazingly, Mr. Bouie claims this is not an attempt to delegitimize the United States. On the contrary, to fight the installation of this new narrative of American history — this new American creation myth, one might argue — delegitimizes black Americans. It’s the historian’s equivalent of, “How dare you not celebrate Kwanzaa!”
Of course the aim of the 1619 Project is to delegitimize the United States. It’s far easier to extract money from the treasury of a delegitimized nation than from a nation that still believes itself a force for good in the world. The ACLU made no secret of what the project is building toward:
Reparations are the gun aimed at America’s head. The 1619 Project is providing the ammo. With high-capacity magazines! (Pun intended.)
(You can find my thoughts on reparations here, by the way.)
The idea of changing the American narrative might seem inconsequential to you if you don’t understand how narratives are a real and compelling force in people’s lives.
Take my entry into religion, for instance. In the late 90s I knew bits and pieces of Christianity, but not enough that I felt compelled to really investigate it. Then I learned that a co-worker was a Jehovah’s Witness, and I asked him about the differences between their sect and mainstream Christianity. I wasn’t aware I was in the presence of a master teacher, and by the time he was done talking, he had done more for me than just explain things in “us vs. them” terms: He had woven a religious narrative for me — and what’s more, it was a narrative that I could be part of. I didn’t become a Jehovah’s Witness — quite the opposite, in fact — but it wasn’t too long before I was a baptized Christian living out, if not the same story he had told me, at least a story pretty close.
Or take my ex-girlfriend, a black doctor and professional who once worked as a policy advisor to a Democratic U.S. Senator. I once asked her why she was a Democrat when it seemed to me that she leaned more conservative in her beliefs — had she ever considered becoming a Republican? She wrestled with the answer, confessing that she couldn’t really explain why, but she just couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea of becoming a Republican. I didn’t understand, but I didn’t press. Later I found the answer in another conversation she and I had which touched on the civil rights movement — what she called “the Struggle”. I’m not normally synesthetic, but I swear I could hear the capital “S” when she said “Struggle”. And that’s when I understood her difficulty with changing parties. She saw her life as part of “the Struggle” — a narrative that she had no doubt been taught from an early age — and she could see no way to reconcile being part of “the Struggle” with being in the Republican Party. There were no “Strugglers” in the Republican Party — or so the narrative goes. Last I heard, she’s still a Democrat.
Lastly, take the testimony of General Jeff Page, “Mayor of Skid Row” and activist for the homeless of Los Angeles:
A lot of people feel like, “Well, this is the same country that enslaved my ancestors. So I don’t buy into that system. I don’t want to be a part of it. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” They just walk away. There’s this expectation: Get a job. “Why? Work for you?…It’s not livable wages…so in essence it’s modern day slavery!” That’s the mindset of a lot of people. They don’t want to work for slave masters.Sunset in the Golden State, Episode 2: Skid Row (26:20-27:05)
Imagine having the narrative of your oppressed ancestors — people you never personally knew, individuals with whom you have no connection other than blood and some superficial physical resemblance — driven so deeply into your consciousness that you won’t get a job for fear of identifying with one of those unnamed, unknown, but nevertheless iconic figures.
Narratives can draw you in. Narratives can keep you in. Narratives can also keep you out. Are narratives reality? Maybe. Maybe not. But they’re just as powerful either way. That’s why the New York Times’ attempt to supplant Isaac with Ishmael in America’s narrative is just as dangerous as any new provocation in the Middle East. Because mythologies that differ on key points cannot co-exist. Nor can the followers of those respective mythologies co-exist — not easily, anyway. You’ve just seen one of the 1619 Project’s writers effectively declare that an attack on the project is an attack on black Americans.
From my own personal experience, I believe he means it:
- “Quran” — By ~crystalina~ – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=990313
- “Binding of Isaac” — By Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18897641