His name and his project have been everywhere. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist who covers racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine. She is the creator of the landmark The 1619 project – an ongoing initiative that began with the 400th anniversary of the start of American slavery. The Project 1619 reframes American history, placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative.
His new book, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” has just been released in a hardback version. It is an extension of the original journalism, which seeks to explain the persistence of anti-black racism and inequalities in American life today. Hannah-Jones received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship for her work on educational inequalities. She is a recipient of the Peabody Award and the recipient of numerous other honors. In 2020, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on Project 1619 and was named to the Time 100 list as one of the most influential people in the world. She is currently the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Howard University School of Communications.
Hannah-Jones is a Waterloo resident. She will be returning to her hometown on Tuesday, November 23 at 7 p.m., where she will host an event at her alma mater, Waterloo West High School: An Evening with Nikole Hannah-Jones in Waterloo, Iowa. Ben Kieffer spoke with Hannah-Jones about River to River.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Kieffer: âLet’s talk about this Tuesday event. You will be in conversation with your former teacher, the Reverend Ray Dial. I understand that he presented this date to you, 1619, when you were a teenager. Tell us this story.
Hannah-Jones: âSo my high school at the time was offering a semester black studies course, and I took that course in my sophomore year, and Mr. Ray Dial was the teacher. And this course really changed my life because I had never learned, in any of my other courses, really, much about black history. During this semester I learned more about black Americans and blacks around the world than I had learned in all of my K-12 schooling up to this point And so I really started to obsess by learning this story, and I would ask Mr. Dial to give me books to read on my own outside of class.
âOne of the books he gave me was a book called Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett, who was a historian and journalist. I assumed the title of the book was about an African story before the Mayflower landed here, but about 30 pages I came across the date 1619. The text was about a ship called the “White Lion” , and it became clear that the title said every American child learns of the Mayflower, but there was this other ship that arrived a year earlier that was perhaps even more important in American history, as it introduced slavery in the colony of Virginia. This, of course, was going to be part of the original 13 colonies that made America. And so even as a teenager, I really understood the power of this erasure. I wanted to know – why has no one ever told us this date? It was powerful to me that black people had been on this earth for so long, that we had this lineage, but the erasure was just as powerful. I realized that we are being taught a manipulated story. We are not taught everything we need to know. And that really got me started on this quest to study African American history and also to be a journalist. “
“This new book, The 1619 project: a new origin story just released in cardboard format. In a nutshell, give us the premise of the book. “
“ So the premise of the book is that slavery is a fundamental American institution. Of course every American knows we had slavery in this country, but we tended to treat it like an asterisk, like some kind of aberration, when in fact it was in the heart of the United States and would be. at the heart of much of our policy. cultural and economic institutions. But we haven’t fully told this story. So what the project does, through a series of essays, is to argue that so much about modern American life is shaped by the legacy of slavery even though we don’t know it. So there are essays on the music. There are trials on why Americans consume so much sugar. Essays on Capitalism, on Politics, on the Second Amendment. And then my essay is about democracy, and it really argues that the legacy of slavery, anti-darkness and, most importantly, black resistance is at the heart of the country we live in today. In addition to the essays, it also offers what we kind of call a literary timeline. That’s over three dozen poems and short novels written by some of America’s greatest writers who reimagine historic moments black people have witnessed. “
âI also understand that the book offers a rebuttal to critics of the project. What are the main criticisms of the 1619 project that you discuss in this book? “
âI’m really using the preface to, like you said, offer a rebuttal and explain to people who may have had questions about the project because of the reviews they’ve seen. So the main criticisms are, on the one hand, that there are a few paragraphs in the original essay I wrote for the Project on the Role of Slavery in the American Revolution. And some historians disagreed with my claim that the desire to protect slavery was one of the main causes of the revolution. And so we really show historiography that confirms this and explains how 50 years of scholarship really supports this claim. But how many Americans , even historians, have wanted to protect this idea of ââour foundation as divine and talking about the role of slavery in our foundation is really baffling if that’s the lens you want to see history through. been criticized in ur not having a sufficiently nuanced perspective of Abraham Lincoln and for not giving white Americans enough credit in the history of slavery. So we’ve really tried to address all of these things, not just in the preface, but the beauty of converting a magazine project to a book is that you can have endnotes. And so people can see where we got our information from, where we got our story from, and they can look at the original sources in a way that was not possible with the magazine. “
This controversy surrounding Project 1619 has swept the country for the past two years. The book comes as school boards across the United States, including here in Iowa, have taken action to ban Project 1619 , your project, and other similar work. to be taught earlier this year. I’m sure you are aware, in the summer of 2021, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law which according to she will target the teaching of critical race theory, as well as other concepts, in government diversity trainings, also a school curriculum. Here is what she had to say at the time of signing: “The Critical race theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. She teaches children that we are to judge others on the basis of race, gender or gender identity, rather than the content of someone’s character … I am proud to have worked with the Legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination. ‘
“I realize there is a little definition between critical race theory and your work here, but maybe you can tackle Iowa law head-on, the reasoning that the legislature controlled by the Republicans and our Republican Governor gave to enact this. “
“Well, one, I find it deeply disappointing that my home state seeks to ban journalism work – deeply documented and historic journalism work – and seeks to ban the type of education that allowed me to become a journalist. , and a successful journalist, and tell those stories. It is very disappointing. This is not the Iowa where I grew up. I also think it’s important to say that no matter what you think of The Project 1619, or anti-racist texts, if we believe in free speech then we should all be opposed to the government banning the teaching of ideas just because they don’t like them.
âWe know that the racial anti-criticism campaign is a propaganda campaign. That the things that they claim to be taught in schools are not taught in schools, and what they are really trying to do is to restrict how educators can grapple with the legacy of racism in our country, and how they can talk about the inequality their students observe whether they talk about it or not. A year ago we all know that none of us was talking about critical race theory until Republicans saw it as a way they thought might be successful in stoking white resentment and getting people to vote Conservatives in the elections. elections. In Iowa, white teachers do not teach white students that they were born bad. We have to call it what it is. The history of the country since its founding. The problem with that is. is that this account does not explain how George Floyd is assass Born on national television by a white policeman who does it in front of witnesses because he doesn’t fear he will ever face repercussions for killing a black man. This account does not explain the insurrection of January 6.
âSo what they really want is to teach a version of American history that doesn’t really reflect the American past, and we should all be against it. If you don’t like those ideas, then come up with something. best ideas. Teachers should teach students not what to think, but How? ‘Or’ What think, be skeptical of the stories, and the educators I know across the country who use The 1619 project don’t teach it like the Bible. What they say is, ‘Here’s another story. What do you all think of this? Do you think they make the argument? Do you think the historiography they’ve included supports it? “The only time we’re afraid of ideas is if we don’t have better ones to offer.”
âI’m sure you can’t wait to return to the halls and auditorium of your old high school. What else do you expect from your visit to Iowa and Waterloo? “
âI’m so excited to do this. Just to be clear, my whole family is still in Waterloo. I was just in Waterloo about a month ago. I come home a lot. But to be able to come home, it was important to me that one of the reading stops was my hometown because that’s the place that made me.These public schools are the ones that shaped me, and I’m just happy to talk of this project with my community. Despite the law, I always receive a very warm welcome, and the Iowans have supported me a lot in my work. “