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'1619 Project' journalist says Black people shouldn't be an asterisk in U.S. history

Nikole Hannah-Jones won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2017. She is a tenured faculty member at Howard University.
The New York Times
Nikole Hannah-Jones won a MacArthur "Genius" Grant in 2017. She is a tenured faculty member at Howard University.

As a child, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones didn't hear much in school about the role of Black people in U.S. history. "Black people are largely treated as an asterisk in the American story," she says.

But Hannah-Jones' awareness changed in high school when she signed up for a Black studies elective. Among the things she learned was the date 1619, significant because it's the year that the White Lion, the first ship carrying enslaved Africans, arrived in the British colony of Virginia — one year before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

"Every American child learns about the Mayflower, but virtually no American child learned about the White Lion," Hannah-Jones says. The omission, she says, is "symbolic of how history is shaped by people who decide what's important and what's not. And that erasure is also a powerful statement."

As editor of the New York Times' 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones fought against that erasure. Originally published in 2019 as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, the project reframed the American story through the lens of slavery. Hannah-Jones was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay. Now, the new book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, expands upon that initial initiative.

"The project argues that slavery is a foundational American institution," she says. "It is one of the oldest American institutions, and that the legacy of the first 250 years of slavery still, of course, permeates throughout society in a variety of ways."

Students across the country have embraced the ideas contained in the work. But there's also been a backlash by conservatives who have vowed to keep the 1619 Project out of classrooms — including threats that have been made against her personally.

"People who send threats, people who make threats, what they're really trying to do is silence you," she says. But, she adds, "This is my mission. And so nothing will distract me from that, and I just can't go around worried about what might happen. I just have to do my job."

Interview highlights

/ Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House

On having a realistic view of U.S. history

I feel like I have to try to force us to acknowledge the truth about who we are so that we can try to build the country that we believe that we are.

The benefit of not having very high expectations in the first place is that you are seldom surprised, though you can be disappointed. When you have the luxury to spend your life studying history, then you understand that the moment that we're in is wholly predictable, and that every time there is a sense of racial progress in this country, it is met by an intensive backlash. And I guess what is difficult is that you would hope we would eventually learn the lessons. But we don't. So I'm motivated by a sense of obligation to all of the ancestors who never could have lived the life that I live, and I have been very blessed to be in the position that I am, and so I feel like I have to try to force us to acknowledge the truth about who we are so that we can try to build the country that we believe that we are. But that requires, for me at least, taking a very unsparing understanding of our country, and some might consider that cynical. But I just think it is a realistic view of where we are and what to expect in these times.

On the connection between the protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the backlash against teaching history of structural racism

The 1619 Project is specifically banned from being taught in Florida, in Texas and in other states by name. And then, of course, there are many more states that have now passed or are considering these larger, much more vague anti-Critical Race Theory laws, which I would argue are anti-history and memory laws. This all begins to happen around the time of the [George Floyd] protests. And I think that what you saw during the protests were millions of Americans ... and those protests were multiracial, multigenerational. And people were really connecting what they were marching in the streets about to this 400-year struggle against the legacy of slavery. And they were arguing that the reason people were protesting, that the inequality that Black Americans were facing, was not about individual actors, Black people making individual choices and a few "bad apple" racists, but that these were structural and that they were going to require a structural solution. ...

So it's not incidental that that's when you start to see this really stoking of white resentment through the Saving American History Act. Donald Trump begins to talk about The 1619 Project, and you see this effort to say, "Look, they want to take your history from you. They want to tell you that you're bad. They want to tell you that all of your heroes are not heroes anymore." And that backlash — I mean this is the argument of The 1619 Project — there's a reason that racializing our politics is so effective to drive white voters.

On the news media's responsibly to speak out against threats to democracy and voting rights

I think that this is a time where [journalists] really have to question the stated mainstream mores of our field. And if those actually allow us to rise to the urgency of the moment, this kind of dispassionate view of the world, of our country, of our politics and this both side-ism that we treat both sides as equal, even if one is clearly doing things that are beyond the pale, that are beyond norms, that are actually harmful to our democracy, our sense that to be fair or to be objective, we have to treat them both as equally legitimate is actually one of the things that is weakening our democracy.

Our job as journalists is to tell the truth. And sometimes the truth is, one political party doesn't believe in democracy. One political party is actually doing things that are hurtful to democracy. And I really fear that we are not rising to the moment, not enough of us anyway. There certainly is excellent reporting being done. But there's also something about a political press that largely comes from people who have not had to fight for their rights in this society, who have never had their ability to vote and exercise their franchise questioned that they sometimes, I think, report with too much faith in our institutions, or too much faith that things will work out OK. That's not a luxury that Black journalists or journalists of color or journalists from other marginalized groups could ever have. We understand what the worst can be because we have, as a people, experienced that. And so we have it, I think, an innate skepticism that things will work out, that we need to pretend to have objectivity in a country where we're seeing legislatures actively trying to take away our fundamental right as citizens, which is the franchise, which is the key to all other rights.

On the term "woke," and if it can be used as a slur

I have often and regularly really tried to discourage journalists from using the term "woke" because I think it is lazy and I think it is useless, and I do think it has become a dog whistle. What does it mean? What are we saying when we say that? Are we saying that being anti-racist is bad? Are we ... talking about Black people asking and fighting for justice as a bad thing, but we can't say that, so we use woke as this kind of catchall phrase? To me it's to really try to silence or diminish racial justice claims, people who are asking for racial justice. So I think many, many Black people hear it as a slur. One, we know that this is a term that was co-opted from Black people, that this is something that Black people were using. It became co-opted by conservatives in a way that is disparaging. ...

I have often and regularly really tried to discourage journalists from using the term 'woke' because I think it is lazy and I think it is useless, and I do think it has become a dog whistle.

I don't think that journalists should be using it. And I think when politicians and others use it, we should ask them to define what they mean, because when we're using terms like that, we are expecting people to fill in the blanks, and we're using terms like that because we don't want to be explicit about what it is that we're saying. And journalists should not be letting people get away with that. So I think it can be taken as a racist slur, yes.

On reparations not being a serious conversation in the mainstream

For my entire lifetime, reparations has not been a political topic that you could have in serious company. It has been treated as a fringe topic. You didn't see mainstream political candidates talking about it. You certainly didn't see cities, municipalities, states and other governments seriously talking about reparations, and there's been a really seismic shift in that conversation. And that is because I think there is a scholarship and a reckoning that is occurring where we are being forced to actually acknowledge the truth about our past. ...

There's certainly a cohort of Americans whom you will never convince that anything is owed to Black Americans or anyone else. But I think there's a large segment of Americans, because they have not learned this history well, because they do not understand ... that Black people were trying to get reparations during slavery, immediately after slavery, and have never stopped trying to get that. And so it's not just a matter of "no one alive today was enslaved." It's an ongoing debt. But also that people don't understand that after the end of slavery, we didn't become an equal society, and that the government continued to engage in practices that were harmful to Black Americans and that kept Black Americans from obtaining the same type of wealth and resources and opportunities that other Americans have, and that we still live with that legacy. That is why the study of history is important because we don't learn this history, and so it becomes very hard to understand: Why are these people owed anything?

On whyIda B. Wellsis her "spiritual godmother"

I was just astounded that a Black woman, who was born around the time of the emancipation, existed in the form of Ida B. Wells. She was a suffragist, a feminist, a newspaper publisher, an investigative reporter, a co-founder of the NAACP. And she was a woman who stood up to white people, to Black men, to anyone who she thought morally was incorrect and also who was trying to deny rights to anyone. I just never heard of a historical figure like her. As someone who was thinking about journalism as a career myself, one who always understood that as a Black American, if I wanted to be a journalist, there was always going to be a degree of activism to that journalism in this society, that she provided a template for the type of person and journalist and woman I hope to be. And ever since then, I've considered her in some ways kind of my North Star and my spiritual godmother.

Sam Briger and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Arun Venugopal