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Creator of The 1619 Project and Iowa local Nikole Hannah-Jones on the significance of 1619 and how racism is taught in U.S. History

Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, Tuesday, July 6, 2021. Hannah-Jones says she will not teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill following an extended fight over tenure. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
John Minchillo
AP File
Nikole Hannah-Jones talks with Ben Kieffer about her new book and returning to Waterloo for a conversation with Rev. Ray Dial.

Her name and project have been everywhere. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter who covers racial injustice for the New York Times Magazine. She is creator of the landmark The 1619 Project — an ongoing initiative that started with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The 1619 Project reframes American history, placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative.

Her new book, "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story" has just been released in hardback. It's an expansion of the original journalism, one that seeks to explain the persistence of anti-Black racism and inequality in American life today. Hannah-Jones received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her work on educational inequality. She's a Peabody Award winner and the recipient of numerous other honors. In 2020, she won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work on The 1619 Project and was named on the Time 100 List as one of the most influential people in the world. She's currently the inaugural Knight Chair in race and journalism at the Howard University School of Communications.

Hannah-Jones is a local of Waterloo. She will return to her hometown Tuesday, Nov. 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 on River to River.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Kieffer: "Let's talk about this Tuesday event. You'll be in conversation with your former teacher, Rev. Ray Dial. I understand he introduced you to that date, 1619, when you were a teenager. Tell us that story."

Hannah-Jones: "So my high school at the time offered a one-semester Black studies course, and I took that course my sophomore year, and Mr. Ray Dial was the teacher. And that class really changed my life because I had never learned, in any of my other classes, really, much about Black history at all. In this one semester, I learned more about Black Americans and Black people across the globe than I had learned in my entire K-12 education up to that point. And so I really began to get kind of obsessed with learning that history, and I would ask Mr. Dial to give me books to read on my own outside of class.

"One 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 a journalist. I assumed that the title of the book was speaking to an African history before the Mayflower landed here, but about 30 pages in I came across the date 1619. The text talked about a ship called the 'White Lion,' and it became clear that the title was saying that every American child learns about the Mayflower, but there was this other ship that came a year earlier that was perhaps more important, even, to the American story, because it was introducing slavery into the colony of Virginia. That, of course, would go on to become part of the original 13 colonies that made America. And so even as a teenager, I really understood the power of that erasure. I wanted to know — why had no one ever taught us this date? It was powerful to me that Black people had been on this land that long, that we had that lineage, but the erasure was just as powerful. I realized that we are taught a manipulated history. We are not taught everything that we should know. And it really set me on this quest to study African-American history and to become a journalist as well."

"This new book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story just released in hardback. In a nutshell, give us the premise of the book."

" So the premise of the book is that slavery is a foundational American institution. Of course, every American knows that we had slavery in this country but we tended to treat it as an asterisk, as kind of an aberration, when in fact it was central to the United States and would be central to so much of our political-cultural and economic institutions. But we have not told that story fully. So what the project does, through a series of essays, is 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 music. There are essays on why Americans consume so much sugar. Essays on capitalism, on politics, on the Second Amendment. And then my essay is on democracy, and it really argues that the legacy of slavery, anti-Blackness and, critically, Black resistance is central to the country that we live in today. On top of the essays, it also offers what we kind of call a literary timeline. Which is more than three dozen poems and short pieces of fiction written by some of the greatest writers in America that reimagine historic moments that Black people bore witness to."

"I also understand the book offers a rebuttal to the project's critics. What are the chief criticisms of the 1619 project that you address in that book?"

"I really use the preface to, as you said, offer a rebuttal and to explain to people who may have had questions about the project because of the criticism that they've seen. So the primary criticisms are, one, that there's a couple of paragraphs in the original essay that I wrote for the project about slavery's role in the American Revolution. And some historians disagreed with my stating that the desire to protect slavery was one of the primary causes of the revolution. And so we really show the historiography that confirms that and talk about how 50 years of scholarship really back up that claim. But how many Americans, even historians, have wanted to protect this idea of our founding as divine and talking about the role of slavery in our founding is really disconcerting if that is the lens that you want to view history through. We also were critiqued for not having a nuanced enough perspective of Abraham Lincoln and of not giving white Americans enough credit in the story of slavery. So we really tried to address all of those things, not just in the preface, but the beauty of converting a magazine project to a book is you can have endnotes. And so people can see where we got our information from, where we got our history from, and they can go to the original sources in a way that wasn't possible with the magazine."

"This controversy surrounding the 1619 Project has swept the country in the past couple of years. The book comes as school boards throughout the U.S., including here in Iowa, have made moves to ban the 1619 Project, your project, and other works like it from being taught earlier this year. I'm sure you're aware, the summer of 2021 Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a law that she said will target the teaching of critical race theory, and other concepts as well, in government diversity trainings, also classroom curriculum. Here's what she had to say at the time of the signing:'Critical race theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual 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's a little definition between critical race theory and your work here, but perhaps you can address head-on the Iowa law, the reasoning that the Republican-controlled Legislature and our Republican governor gave to enact this."

"Well, one, I find it profoundly disappointing that my home state would seek to ban a work of journalism — a deeply researched, historically based work of journalism — and seek to ban the type of education that allowed me to become a journalist, and a successful journalist, and to tell these stories. It is very disappointing. That is not the Iowa that I grew up in. I also think it is important to say that no matter what you think about The 1619 Project, or anti-racist texts, if we believe in freedom of speech, then we should all be opposed to the government prohibiting the teaching of ideas simply because it does not like them.

"We know that the anti-critical race campaign is a propaganda campaign. That the things that they claim are being taught in schools are not being taught in schools, and what they're really trying to do is restrict how educators can grapple with the legacy of racism in our country, and how they can talk about the inequality that their students are observing, whether they talk about it or not. A year ago, we all know that none of us were talking about critical race theory until Republicans saw this as a way that they believed could be successful in stoking white resentment and driving people to vote for conservatives in elections. In Iowa, white teachers are not teaching white students that they are born evil. We have to call this out for what it is. Historian Timothy Snyder called these laws 'memory laws,' and I agree with that. These are laws to really shape our collective understanding around this narrative of American exceptionalism and to downplay the way that racism has plagued this country since its founding. The problem with that is that that narrative does not explain how George Floyd gets murdered on national television by a white police officer who does it in front of witnesses because he's unconcerned that he will ever face repercussions for killing a Black man. That narrative doesn't explain the insurrection on Jan. 6.

"So what they really want is to teach a version of American history that's not actually reflective of the American past, and all of us should be opposed to that. If you don't like these ideas, then come up with better ideas. Teachers should be teaching students not what to think, but how to think, to be skeptical of narratives, and the educators that I know all across the country who are using The 1619 Project are not teaching this as the Bible. What they're saying is 'Here's another narrative. What do you all think about this? Do you think that they make the argument? Do you think they, the historiography that they have included backs it up?' The only time we are afraid of ideas is if we don't have better ones to offer."

"I'm sure you're looking forward to getting back to the halls and the auditorium of your old high school. What else are you most looking forward to in your visit to Iowa and Waterloo?"

"I'm so excited to do this. Just to be clear, all of my family is still in Waterloo. I was just in Waterloo about a month ago. I come home frequently. But to be able to come home, it was important for me to have one of the book stops be my hometown because this is the place that made me. These public schools are the ones that shaped me, and I'm just excited to talk about this project with my community. Despite the law, I always get a very warm welcome, and Iowans have been very supportive of my work."

Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River