The release of The 1619 Project, the collection of essays and photographs about the untold histories of Black people in America published in The New York Times Magazine, in tandem with a dynamic, accessible K-12 curriculum—a companion project from the Pulitzer Center—provided groundbreaking content to K-12 educators seeking to address and explore the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. We wanted to expand its reach not only to our students but also to those at law schools and in colleges across the country.
In the winter of 2019, a conversation about these resources, at a meeting of the Squire Patton Boggs Foundation Deans' Circle, a group committed to civil rights advocacy, had brushed upon the need for content for post-secondary education. In a room full of law school deans, there was no shortage of interest to see these resources expanded to law school and pre-law classrooms. Through a partnership between the University of Miami and Howard University Schools of Law, the added dimension of law school modules— substantive resources that provide insight and perspective missing from much of law teaching and completely absent from many of our nation’s law school campuses— is available for legal educators and those interested in gaining an understanding of critical legal issues through the lens of The 1619 Project.
Lawyers are often taught that the law, like history, is neutral. As teachers, counselors, and advisors—but first lawyers—we know better. The law, like history, reflects the perspective of the powerful, the voice of the victor, and it echoes the narrative of the privileged storyteller. Law school curricula, with the doctrinal exception of Critical Legal Studies courses, are often sterilized and simplified in the name of neutrality.
The danger, for the student, is that the labels of perspective are silently stripped away and the curricula are presented as if without bias or prejudice. We teach students that a reasonable person is a neutral standard, but typically do not talk about who or what defines the reasonableness. In doing so, we deprive our students of the essential examination of the context of our laws and their impact on society.
The opportunity to critically examine and build tools to help professors unpack how they teach seemingly neutral doctrine was not only intriguing, but also timely. And, as colleagues at different law schools, it was a pedagogical opportunity for interscholastic collaboration at a time when we were all experiencing differing degrees of isolation as we entered the third month of the pandemic.
Teams of students from the University of Miami and Howard University Schools of Law set out to develop curricula to accompany The 1619 Project. The work that they began in the spring of 2020 became increasingly meaningful as the world watched countless images of the killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of the police. As the country grappled with ideas around racial reconciliation and anti-racist reading lists proliferated, the value of a critical examination of foundational courses in higher education became increasingly important.
The modules that we are sharing with you were designed to begin the process of filling voids, to enhance curricula, and inspire critical thinking about historical insights and perspectives missing from most classrooms. It is our hope that, as teachers, you will find these modules useful, as students you will find them helpful and that they will reinforce the import of expanding your understanding of the context and impact of law, and that as readers you will find them affirming, or even enlightening, on our common quest for truth and reconciliation.
Carmia Caesar, Howard University School of Law, Assistant Dean of Career Services
Marni Lennon, University of Miami School of Law, Assistant Dean, Public Interest and Pro Bono, Director of the HOPE Public Interest Resource Center