Faculty Q&A: Richard Bell on The 1619 Project, Critical Race Theory and Teaching Hard Truths

Nancy Murr

Richard Bell is Professor of History at the University of Maryland and author of the book Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped into Slavery and their Astonishing Odyssey Home which was a finalist for the George Washington Prize and the Harriet Tubman Prize. He is teaching "The History Wars: The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory" and "What We Commemorate on Juneteenth" with us this summer.

How did an Englishman such as yourself become a professor of American History of the 17th and 18th centuries?

I grew up in London, all my family still live in the Greater London area. I’m the only one who lives in a foreign country. I went to college at the University of Cambridge where I studied Medieval European history. I loved it because it was full of sex and violence and I was 18 years old! But by the time I went into my senior year, I’d basically run out of Medieval Europe courses to take and needed something to fill my schedule.

I stumbled into a class on Colonial American history, which was taught by one of the most gifted professors I've ever met, Professor Betty Wood. Honestly, if she had been talking about ancient Egypt, that would have changed my life in that direction! But turns out she was talking about Colonial American history. Soon after I decided I wanted to get a PhD in American History. Once you decide that, it’s fairly clear you’re probably going to the US to do it.

I had the great fortune to go to Harvard University for seven years studying American Colonial and early Republic history with some very gifted historians there. I’ve been teaching American history ever since—for 20 years now. I’ve made my career in the US because the place in the world where students most want to hear about the history of the United States is in the United States.

As a historian, what do you make of these attempts in many parts of the country to scrub history, hard histories, from school curriculum and libraries?

History seems to be under assault in many parts of the country at many different levels. In Florida, it's all coming together at once as a sustained attack on history curriculums and K-12 schools. There's an attempt to remove the academic protections that tenure guarantees to faculty in Florida, and there's a more general sense across the nation that history doesn't matter—or that only science, technology, engineering, and computer science matter and that it is reasonable for state legislators to exert direct control over what is taught in history classes, rather than leave it to professionals, like teachers.

I find it all incredibly problematic. Anytime we confuse the teaching of history with the inculcation of political ideologies—like nationalism, for instance—we're making a giant mistake as a citizenry.

Teaching real history requires us to confront difficult truths, hard histories, about who we are, where we came from, and how we got here.

To prevent young people from encountering those hard histories is to prevent them from gaining the sorts of critical thinking, reading, writing, and speaking skills, and the capacity for dialogue, that creates the next generation of citizens in this country. We're not trying to raise automatons — unthinking blinded zombies. We're trying to raise young, independent thinkers. That requires giving teachers and professors a good degree of academic freedom and encouraging debate in the classroom.

Proponents of these bans claim they're protecting students from feeling “uncomfortable.”

Some of these new anti-history laws do seek their justification in the notion that no student should be rendered uncomfortable in the classroom. Yet I don't think any teachers set out to make their students uncomfortable. That is not a lesson plan that I am familiar with! Instead, our responsibility is to present young people with the facts about the past as we understand them, and the tools to grapple with those facts. How students respond is up to them.

History is not therapy, and history teaching should not be infantilizing. I think all things worth knowing are discomforting. And so the goal of educators is to broaden horizons and give students the tools to encounter difficult truths and move forward with that knowledge.

Your course is focused on The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory. Without giving too much away, what’s your take on The 1619 Project?

My headline is that The 1619 project is asking the right questions about the past, and that its interventions into our national debate about the long shadow of slavery are much needed and long overdue. Whether it always has the right answers is perhaps a different and tougher question. But I'm really glad those questions about the enduring legacy of slavery are being asked and that it's provoked the sort of debate among good-thinking people that it has. And, you know, good-hearted people can feel free to disagree about some of this stuff. It can be very, very complicated. And historians don't actually agree on some of it either!

But the questions it raises—about the role of slavery in the American Revolution, about Lincoln's racial politics, about whether or not the Constitution was a freedom document or pro-slavery document—those are sensible and smart questions, which, without the help of The 1619 Project — this very public vehicle for doing history — we probably wouldn't be talking about it.

And Critical Race Theory, which, I confess, I had never heard of until a couple of years ago?

Critical Race Theory is one of the most misunderstood pieces of academic scholarship in the last 50 years. It's a narrow set of claims and research outputs done by a relatively small number of professors, usually in law schools or schools of education. The controversy has certainly made us all go to our libraries to discover what on earth this Critical Race Theory is that everyone's shouting about.

Sadly, however, CRT has become a catch-all term for any type of hard look at systemic racism in this country that certain people find uncomfortable. The slippage from a narrow set of historical inquiries to a general boogeyman hasn't happened by accident. There's been a conscious attempt to weaponize CRT as the scourge-of-the-day in conservative circles.

What these folks are actually wringing their hands about is the fact that schoolchildren today are being told fuller, more diverse, more critical stories about American history. They're looking at history, from multiple perspectives. Not just the George Washington view of history, but the Harriet Tubman view of history and everyone else's view of history, and unfortunately that's making some people uncomfortable.

What do you hope OLLI members take away from your course?

They’ll have a chance to think about some of the key historical claims of The 1619 Project, and have the tools to be able to interrogate the accuracy of those claims. As for CRT, I will make the case that Critical Race Theory is a set of inquiries, of questions, which we can consider as we're thinking about the structural impact of racism over hundreds of years, and ponder who we are and how we got here.