The Foreign Service Journal, May 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MAY 2021 17 SPEAKING OUT How the 1619 Project CanHelp Public Diplomacy BY JOHN F ER John Fer is the information officer at U.S. Embassy Tbilisi. With the State Department since 2009, he has served in New Delhi, Managua, Moscow, Riga and Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a firefighter/EMT for Montgomery County, Maryland. He is an Air Force veteran and a returned Peace Corps volunteer (Nepal). He and his wife, Victoria, have two sons. T o be effective, U.S. public diplo- macy should make a point of pre- senting how Americans wrestle collectively with acknowledging our own history, including past sins, and try to improve along an arc of moral jus- tice that is spelled out in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. An excellent subject for such a pre- sentation is The New York Times ’ 1619 Project, which was launched in Augus t 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. An ongo- ing initiative in print and digital formwith articles and photos, “it aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the conse- quences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” the Times states. Not only is the project an important focal point in the discussion of the prob- lem of racism taking place in the United States today, but the controversy sur- rounding it illustrates both the complexi- ties of the issue and the give and take of vigorous debate in a democracy. Recognizing Complexities To make clear where I’m coming from with this, I’m going to back up for a moment. In a previous life, when I taught eighth grade social studies, I began our Constitution module with a lesson on fractions: the three-fifths clause. For a moment, my students shed their awk- wardness and aloofness to agree in uni- son: “That’s messed up, Mr. Fer.” Indeed. That year, I pledged a graduate chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the country’s oldest predominantly African American fraternity, and the first one to integrate. Of the organization’s renowned members (including Martin Luther King Jr., Thur- good Marshall, Jesse Owens and Duke Ellington), Paul Robeson was the one I most admired. Quite possibly the most well-rounded American to ever live, Robeson was the definition of a Renaissance person, truly excellent in half a dozen disparate fields: athletics, drama, singing, activism, lin- guistics and law. Yet no one in the United States seemed to know who he was. Through further reading I discovered that Robeson’s life was destroyed by the witch hunts of the Red Scare days, and his legacy carefully erased from history, ironically just as Stalin did to his rivals in the Soviet Union. My research also showed me that Paul Robeson had sig- nificant faults. His extramarital exploits There is no reason not to point to the vitality of democracy on display in this moment. were as varied and frequent as his public engagements, a flaw I find indefensible, especially after reading his wife’s touch- ing biography of her husband. Robeson also was a staunch pro- moter of Stalin, even when the facts of his barbaric reign were revealed and verified. To many, this lapse in judgment warrants the treatment Robeson received in life, as well as the lack of attention he receives in death. To a smaller group—in which I count myself—it provides the opportunity to examine a great person in totality, serious flaws and all. While I can- not defend Stalin, I can understand how Robeson, who once charged the United States with genocide against African American people, could make such a difficult choice between the Soviet Union and his home country. As a public diplomacy officer, I’ve tried to promote opportunities to engage foreign audiences on such difficult top- ics—which exist in the United States and in every other country in the world—to show how to articulate and evaluate tough problems, to show how democracy works. In 2013, during my second tour, I sug- gested we put together a panel of alumni and American officers to discuss Senator William J. Fulbright, a man who launched the world’s most renowned scholar- ship with the aim to bridge cultures and save humanity, yet also voted against