Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, founder of The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, spoke to more than 250 members of the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor communities in Rackham Auditorium Wednesday evening. The event was hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library and touched on the impact of the project two years after its release.
The 1619 Project is a multimedia initiative aiming to reframe the United States’ history of slavery and the ongoing consequences of nearly 200 years of legal enslavement. Jones discussed the criticism she has faced since the project’s release, most notably its common conflation with critical race theory.
Much of the backlash — such as former President Donald Trump’s creation of a 1776 commission to promote “patriotic education” in response to the 1619 project — has resulted in various attempts to pass bills prohibiting the teaching of the project, or critical race theory, in public schools.
Michigan state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, introduced a bill in May to decrease annual funding of public schools by 5% if critical race theory, or related content like The 1619 Project, is included in school curriculum.
U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., one critic of the project, has tried to prohibit it from being taught in public schools and introduced a federal bill to do so in July 2020.
“(The) 1619 Project is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded,” the bill says.
Jones dismissed the project’s critics, defending the research behind her project.
“I have to say I think I’m a pretty good journalist, but I didn’t know how a single word of journalism in the New York Times could threaten the very integrity of the United States of America,” Hannah-Jones said.
Jones criticized the American education system for inadequately critiquing the social inequities that underlie the country’s history.
“They really want propagandistic history to be taught in the classroom,” Hannah-Jones said. “A classroom that teaches American exceptionalism, when really, of course, the classroom should be teaching us to question and have skepticism.”
LSA freshman April Hamilton, who attended the discussion, said she is frustrated with the hyper-focus on critical race theory in conversations about public school curriculum.
“There’s so many other issues that we could be focusing on,” Hamilton said. “But this is something that the Right has really fixated on.”
Public Policy graduate student Jessica Hartshorn said she thinks the reality of American history that Hannah-Jones portrayed cannot be disputed.
“I think her interpretation is that Black people made America really the democracy that it is,” Hartshorn said. “And I think that (interpretation) can be argued, but the facts of what she’s saying can’t be argued.”
Sherlonya Turner, associate director of public experience at the Ann Arbor District Library, helped organize the event and said she resonated with Jones’ preference for realism over optimism when interrogating the history of the United States.
“What does it mean if culturally you’re supposed to be happy, or pretending to be happy, or looking at the happy side of things. What does that mean for us?” Turner said.
Following a recent controversy between Hannah-Jones and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — where she was offered a contract but initially not granted tenure, until UNC later decided to give it to her — she chose to accept a professorship at Howard University instead.
“What I said was ‘I refuse,’ and what I hope that I leave with you all tonight (is) … we all can refuse,” Hannah-Jones said. “We have more power than we think we have (and) we don’t have to succumb to what’s happening in our country right now.”
Hannah-Jones said she hopes to train a generation of Black journalists to continue to examine and question common interpretations of American history.
“I’m going to be training journalists who understand really what is at stake, and who I think are in the best position to hold our country accountable and up to his highest ideals,” Hannah-Jones said.