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Nikole Hannah-Jones on The 1619 Project and how the seeds of her work were sown during her childhood in Waterloo

Nikole Hannah-Jones
John Minchillo/AP
/
AP
Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The purpose of The 1619 Project, as stated by The New York Times, is to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the country's national narrative. The date,1619, is the year a ship called the White Lion landed near the English colony of Jamestown, bringing with it more than 20 enslaved people from Africa. This happened one year before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth Rock.

The 1619 Project starts with this important piece of history, and through a series of essays it demonstrates how the foundations of inequality in the United States have persisted through the history in law, imprisonment, income inequality, health care, culture and more. It also highlights many of the untold stories and accomplishments of Black Americans.

The project was the brainchild of journalist and Iowan Nikole Hannah-Jones. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, and "The 1619 Project" has continued to evolve. It started as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, a website and a podcast. It became a curriculum developed in conjunction with the Pulitzer Center. It's now a book and children’s book, and a docuseries produced by Oprah Winfrey is in progress. Many journalists, historians, poets, artists and others have contributed along the way.

The project also found itself on the front lines of today’s politically charged culture wars, and Hannah-Jones herself has been a personal target. The award-winning journalist, author and professor Hannah-Jones has returned to her home state of Iowa. She will receive the 2021 Iowa Author Award from the Des Moines Public Library Foundation, and on Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 7 p.m., Hannah-Jones will host an event at her alma mater, Waterloo West High School: An Evening with Nikole Hannah-Jones in Waterloo, Iowa.

Charity Nebbe spoke with Hannah-Jones on Talk of Iowa.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

About her book "The 1619 Project"

"When I created the project, my hope was to just put the year 1619 into the national lexicon. It was a date that had largely been erased from historical memory. It wasn't a date that schoolchildren regularly learned, or that most Americans knew. And yet, I believe that it is one of the most foundational dates in American history because the decision, 400 years ago, to purchase enslaved Africans would shape so much about the country. It would be a factor in the American Revolution. It would be a factor in how our country nearly dissolved during the Civil War. Some of our worst societal tensions that we see now go back to that moment. So I really wanted to bring that date out of the obscurity of history. And then I wanted to do a series of essays that show how that legacy of a foundational American institution continues to shape the society that we live in in very many ways, even though we don't often realize it. So there are essays on capitalism and American capitalism's roots in slavery, on traffic patterns and how that goes back to the anti-Blackness that develops out of slavery. It was just a way for us to understand that an institution that was practiced in this country for 250 years still says so much about our society, even though we don't know it."

Vision for the book

"This book had to be broad. To me, if you are going to try to encapsulate a 400-year story in one text that it has to come at that story from many different entry points. So there are photos, and the photos are archival photos of regular Black Americans through time. Some go all the way back to the invention of the camera and all the way to the present. Each one of those photos is a reminder, before you start each essay, that everything that we're talking about is not abstract. That these horrors were done to human beings, and that these were human beings who had the same wants, hopes, desires, loves, pains as anyone else.

"Then we also have more than 30 pieces of fiction, short fiction and poetry, in what is a literary timeline. There are some of the nation's greatest writers who are re-imagining these different points in the history of America involving Black Americans.

"And then, of course, there are the essays. Most of them are written by historians and the others written by journalists. And so I say that this book is a testament and a testimony. So it is a testament to the resiliency of Black Americans. We now have more than 30 million descendants of American slavery, and they have indelibly shaped this country. And it is a testimony to how much of a force both slavery and black resistance has been in the American narrative."

What's missing in the American story

"The sad things about the American story is for many, many, many decades, archivists didn't think that it was important to collect the histories and the possessions of Black Americans. It wasn't seen as worthy. We still see that to a degree today. Part of the reason that we had to do the literary timeline on this reimagining of historic events is because Black Americans are the only people in the history of our country for whom it was ever illegal to learn how to read and write. So you don't have the richness of archival text for these moments in Black history, because white Americans were able to write journals and send letters to each other and write books about their experiences. Most Black Americans were not. Most Black Americans were forcibly and legally made illiterate.

"So when we were thinking about these historic moments, this is when the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein said, 'Well, what if we have the descendants re-imagine these moments so that we can still get these historic moments from a Black perspective?' So that is, to me, such an important part of what this book is trying to do, which is to fill in for that erasure. I talk about this in my opening essay, the preface for the book, that erasure of the Black Experience, of Black Agency, of Black presence, of Black people as actors in the American Story. That erasure is as powerful, because when we are not taught to think about these things or to understand the role that Black Americans played, we fill in that gap with the presumption that Black people haven't done much worthy of knowing, and that slavery was just an asterisk to the American story. And that anti-Blackness was somehow banished after 350 years with the civil rights movement. So this book is trying to force us to reckon with this truth by filling in so many of the gaps that all of us, no matter our race, grow up with in this country."

On the criticism about her work

"It's not always been easy. I didn't get into journalism to become a symbol. I frankly didn't expect anyone would ever know my name. I just got into journalism to do the type of work that I felt was important. So to become a symbol, kind of a shorthand for things that conservatives don't like, that disparagement of my work and the credibility of my work has been really difficult because, as a journalist, all you have is your credibility. If people don't believe that you operate with integrity, why would anyone believe anything that you do? Becoming kind of a target, it's not easy. Especially when your family members see the things that are being written and said about you, the threats that are made. It takes a toll."

On Black history

"I've said, often, the reason I fell in love with history was when I started to study history, all of the sudden, in a world that didn't really make sense to me based on the explanations that we were getting in popular media, you know, from politicians about the landscape that we saw ... Cedar Falls and Waterloo were miles apart when I was growing up. Everyone knew Black people couldn't live in Cedar Falls, and that this wasn't a place that Black people would be welcome to, and so we didn't go. I was bussed, starting in the second grade, out of my Black neighborhood in Waterloo, into white neighborhoods with their white schools, so that I could get a good education, and I didn't understand why I had to leave my neighborhood to get a good education when the white students could just walk out of their house and down the street to get that education.

"I didn't understand why when we got to the West Side, they had all these businesses and restaurants and stores and nicer parks, and the housing was better. And what we were told was Black people just didn't want better and didn't work hard. And yet my family worked extremely hard. They worked at beef packing plants. They worked at John Deere. They did roofing. They were working very, very physically taxing jobs. Black people had to do the dirty jobs in that meatpacking plant, and [her father] would come home with bloody clothes, change, shower and then put on his orderly uniform so that he could go to a second job. So I knew that the narratives that Black people were just lazy or didn't want to fix up their houses were not true. And yet I had no other explanation for it.

"So when I started studying history, things just started to make sense. I learned that our neighborhood had been redlined by the federal government, making it almost impossible for Black people to get loans to purchase homes and fix up their homes. I learned that there was, even within the meatpacking plant, a hierarchy of jobs, and Black people had the most difficult jobs with the lowest pay. I learned that Black people had been kept out of labor unions for most of the history of this country, meaning they were unable to organize for better working conditions and better pay. So when you start to see that history, then all of the sudden the world starts to make sense. That is what propelled me to do "The 1619 Project," and that is what I have heard from readers of all races and all ages, is that no one ever taught us any of this. And now I have a deeper understanding of why a police officer would think, a white police officer, that he could kill a man in front of witnesses and have no concern, that he would have repercussions. Why did we have an insurrection on the Capitol? Where Republicans decided that a legitimate election is not legitimate because too many Black and brown people voted. The history we've been taught doesn't explain the country that we live in, and I'm trying to counter that, and people have embraced that. People have been grateful for a better understanding of their country. But of course because people have embraced it, you've also seen the intense backlash to the project as well, including in our home state of Iowa."

Being a journalist and an activist:

"I became a journalist because I didn't feel that mainstream media was accurately representing my community, and I didn't think that mainstream media was accurately grappling with the truth of racial inequality. So I became a journalist because of my identity. Black people have always had to engage in journalism that was trying to win and vindicate their communities' rights. And I would also say, I don't believe that any journalism is objective. I don't believe that most journalism is neutral, no matter the practitioners. White journalists are certainly covering the world from a racialized perspective, just like Black journalists are, but they often don't recognize that's how they're covering the world.

"Most of my career, I've been an education reporter, and I won the highest award for education reporting for my coverage of school segregation. In my speech, I talked to the room of mostly white education reporters and I said, 'You haven't been covering the primary driver of educational inequality in this country, which is school segregation. You have ignored it, and that means you haven't been doing your jobs.' But that's because most of those journalists were white women who didn't grow up in failing schools, [who] grew up in white, segregated schools and didn't realize that was segregation, who had a very different experience of the educational systems in this country, and that clouded their perspectives.

"So I believe that all of journalism, to a degree, is activism. When you go to The Washington Post, the motto is 'Democracy Dies in Darkness.' That's not a neutral position. That's the belief that democracy matters. That's the belief that the journalist's role is to hold power accountable. That the journalist's role is to uphold our democracy. That's not neutral. So I think we have to stop talking about journalism as activism only when we're talking about journalists of color. I think journalists of color are just more honest about the fact that their experience and their desire to build a more just society, that that motivates their work. But I don't know a reporter who doesn't want to do journalism that makes change. You don't do investigative reporting because you just want people to know something exists. You do investigative reporting so that people will respond to the wrongdoing and make it right. A reporter who's covering child protective services failing a child and a child dies doesn't write that story just so the public can be informed. They write that story because they believe the children should be protected and they want the government to be held accountable. And the work that I do is in that tradition."

The current state of democracy:

"It is hard to really assess what's happening in real time, or how critical the moment is, but I am very worried. I think our democracy is actually at an inflection point. What we're seeing is not politics as usual. This is not a partisan argument. But I've been reading recently a lot of experts on democracy and how democracies fail, and what we're seeing in terms of the extreme gerrymandering that ensures Republicans can retain power, even if they lose the majority of votes. The efforts to make it easy for Republicans to overturn elections that they don't like. These anti-history laws, the so-called anti-critical race theory law that got passed in Iowa and are getting passed all across the country are really anti-history laws. And historian Tim Snyder calls them memory laws, and he talks about how you see these same types of laws getting passed in countries as they slide into authoritarianism because it is a way to control the national memory and the national narrative and make poor policies more acceptable.

"I think that if you study history, we're seeing something very similar to what happened when reconstruction failed. I'm not arguing that we are in that period. History never repeats itself, but it certainly echoes itself. You didn't see the slide from that brief period of true multiracial democracy during reconstruction to Black people going back into a complete apartheid state. It didn't happen overnight. It happened one law at a time. It was a slow sliding. The Iowa that we grew up in was, politically, a much more balanced state. It was a much more tolerant state. You didn't see this far-right extremism that we're seeing now. I can't tell you how profoundly disappointing it is that my own state would seek to prohibit the teaching of my work when it was in an Iowa classroom that I received the transformative experience that allowed me to have the type of success I've had. So I think people need to be very, very concerned. This is why the study of history is so important because it gives us an insight into what's happening at a time when, in the midst of it, it can be hard to figure it out."

Hannah-Jones' origin story:

"Mr. Dial was one of my favorite teachers at Waterloo West High School. He was the only Black male teacher I had my entire K-12 career. He taught this class called the African-American Experience. It was a one-semester elective course. And in that one semester, I learned more about the history and contributions of Black Americans than I had learned in my first 10 years of education. I just was astounded and empowered and angered. I talk about in the preface how children presume that if something was important you would have been taught about it. So the fact that we hadn't really been taught about Black people and their contributions at all led me to think we hadn't done much of note. Taking that class, I realized people made choices, that it wasn't that Black people hadn't done anything of note, it was that people had made a choice to exclude these histories and these stories.

"I became really obsessed with learning this history, and I would ask Mr. Dial to give me additional reading outside of class. One of the books he gave me was a book called Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett. I read the year 1619, about the White Lion, which landed a year before the Mayflower. Yet every child learns about the Mayflower, and no child really learned about the White Lion. That was a transformative moment for me. It's why I decided to major in history and African-American studies in college. It's why I have been a voracious consumer of history since then.

"Mr. Dial was also the one who got my career in journalism started, because I came into that Black studies class one day, and I complained about how our high school paper never wrote about kids like me, all the Black kids who were being bussed into the school and having a really hard time. Our teachers sometimes discriminated against us. Our classmates didn't think we belonged there. It wasn't easy. Mr. Dial told me that if I didn't like that coverage, I should join the newspaper and write those stories myself. He helped me get on the newspaper. That one classroom is responsible for so much that has happened since, which is why I'm still in touch with Mr. Dial, and it's why I really wanted him to join me on stage at my old high school for the talk."

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On state politics:

"I don't believe that the governor and the Legislature represents most Iowans. Whenever I've come home to give talks, I've been shown so much love. It is always a joyous occasion. I hear all the time from fellow Iowans who contact me on social media and say that they are proud. People are often surprised to learn that I'm from Iowa. You don't have to agree with me politically. You don't even have to like "The 1619 Project," but I would hope we can all take pride in a hometown girl made good because that's what I am, and I just want to give back to my community. I never come home and not feel embraced, and I'm very excited to be coming home. I was adamant that we had to do a stop in my hometown in the first leg of this [book tour]. It is so important for our children, particularly Black children in this state, to be able to see someone who can reflect their aspirations for themselves, who can provide them with a model for what they can become. I just don't, I don't understand how anyone could disparage that, whether you agree with my writing or not."

Reflecting on her work:

"Every journalist hopes that you can do work that matters, and I think we all hope to do something that has the potential to be transformative. You can't do ambitious work and not expect that there will be criticism of it. People have responded to this work in a way I could not have ever imagined. This is why I got the Waterloo (tattoo) on my wrist, because I didn't come from much, and on my worst day, I don't have the struggles of those who came before me. So I never lack for motivation. I never feel bad for long. I just feel extremely, extremely blessed."