On Sept. 22, students and faculty eagerly gathered in the Rackham Graduate School Auditorium and tuned in from home to hear New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones speak about The 1619 Project and its profound impact on our current educational, social and political landscape.
Arriving at the auditorium an hour before the event, attendees began lining up to attend her talk. As they waited for the event to start, they introduced themselves to each other and began initiating relationships, brought here by a mutual passion for initiatives like those of Hannah-Jones. The auditorium was abuzz, and the air was that of unrestrained excitement. This collective anticipation, palpable in the large gathering space, was warranted; getting to listen to Nikole Hannah-Jones speak was no small event, after all.
Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for The New York Times and has spent her storied career pursuing a firm commitment to discussing racial inequalities and injustice in America. More recently, she became a Pulitzer Prize winner for the body of work of which she would be discussing with us: The 1619 Project, a long-form project through The New York Times that was created with the intent to examine the pervasive legacy of slavery in America. While her plethora of accolades speak to her excellence — she bolsters a Peabody Award, MacArthur Genius Grant, two George Polk Awards, amongst other impressive accomplishments — she stands as a revolutionary journalist, activist and storyteller who has boldly redefined what it means to confront history in America.
Upon her introduction, the crowd burst into thunderous applause, only to fall into a reverential, entranced silence as she began to speak. From the start of the presentation, Hannah-Jones was unflinching, an unapologetic force of nature as she provided her honest accounts of the backlash she received upon The 1619 Project’s release. In an eloquent and unwavering recap of the past year, she acknowledged former president Donald Trump’s efforts to create an entire commission against the project while prominent senators worked tirelessly to pass bills prohibiting its teaching in schools. She continued to detail the frenzied response that followed The 1619 Project, explaining its rapid progression into an “intense disinformation campaign” executed through social media and mainstream conservative news platforms who actively worked to pervert the project into some heinous threat to the very integrity of our nation. Almost in tandem, a new phenomenon emerged in which the teaching of Critical Race Theory became synonymous with the goals of The 1619 Project, stoking a “faux-hysteria” that resulted in concentrated legislative efforts to ban CRT from being taught in classrooms. The arguments and discontent stoked by The 1619 Project were relentless, spawning adamant accusations that the initiative was divisive, revisionist by nature or an attempt to exploit racial grievances and further exacerbate existing polarization in America.
In the face of such attacks, Nikole Hannah-Jones remained resolute, identifying the claims as exactly what they were: efforts to preserve the ideas of American exceptionalism that have been sustained within our education system for generations, favoring the teaching of a propagandistic history as opposed to one that forces individuals to confront the cruel realities of our nation’s genesis. With the motivation behind the mass hysteria and concentrated legislative efforts illuminated before us, the question then remains: “Why?” Why, in a nation that prides itself on free speech and the preservation of a rich marketplace of ideas, had a project with this very same intention become the target of such intense opposition and disallowance?
In order to contextualize the ardent disapproval of The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones recounts the past year: notably, the murder of George Floyd and the widespread Black Lives Matter protests that arose as a response. The protests garnered an unprecedented level of engagement, with 69% of Americans claiming to have had a discussion about race between June 4, 2020 and June 10, 2020. This mobilization marked a paramount moment in American history: non-Black Americans were not only beginning to acknowledge the prominence of police brutality in our nation, but recognizing the systemic implications that perpetuate it.
“You’re seeing a change in the national lexicon in how majorities of Americans are understanding the racial inequality that we see today, and connecting the inequalities that we see today to the legacy of slavery that dates back 400 years,” Hannah-Jones stated.
This new shift in the collective understanding of systemic racism gave rise to the possibility that our institutions would be forced to confront the ways that their power was founded on and amassed through the subjugation of Black and Brown individuals: to understand the events of 2020, the collective would have to understand the events of 1619. Hannah-Jones cites this daunting combination as the catalyst for the public’s fear. It was not incidental that January 2021 marked the incessant vilification of The 1619 Project, and a bizarre obsession with Critical Race Theory that spurred substantive legislative efforts to limit its presence in public schools.
Upon acknowledging this pattern, Hannah-Jones poses a question to the audience: “Why is it that when you feel like your party is losing power, history is the thing you go to? When I start excavating the past … then it becomes something that is dangerous and has to be legislated against?”
The answer lies in the significance of history: how it is managed and manipulated to shape our collective understanding of the world, and how, when threatened, institutions seek to preserve the version of it that demands the least reconciliation.
Hannah-Jones’ description of history is two-pronged, illustrating our nation’s deliberate tendency to construct and maintain a favorable version of the past: “There’s history that’s what happened, on what date, and who did it, and then there’s history that is what we are taught about what happened, on what date, and who did it, and why, and what do we collectively … think our history is?”
With this understanding of history’s profundity and its immense power to guide collective memory, it becomes clear that The 1619 Project was never a direct threat to America’s integrity. What is truly threatened by initiatives like Hannah-Jones’ is the sanitized, delicately curated version of American history that has long been upheld by those in power. Unfortunately, the two have become intimately interwoven, as the preservation of our “American integrity” has become seemingly contingent on an active denial of our honest history.
Any attempt to shed light on alternative narratives that have been selectively omitted from our collective memories thus threatens the institutions and power holders that have utilized their retellings of history to preserve their purported superiority. Those individuals will call these efforts blasphemous, “un-American,” anti-patriotic — they will call it anything, really, but the truth.
Because with an emergence of new understandings, narratives and perspectives comes the threat of action. “Nations use our memory to shape our understandings of the past … so if you want to maintain the status quo, you have to maintain the status quo of how we understand what our country is, the idea of exceptionalism. … If you believe those things, then you don’t challenge those things,” Hannah-Jones said. The goal is then to continue obscuring what we remember, ensuring that we do not understand and challenge the world in which we live and instead remain suspended in preservationist histories that promote the fictitious notion that our country can do no wrong.
Nikole Hannah-Jones has spent the greater part of her career fighting against that obscured version of history, and because her work directly threatens established institutions of power that rely on that fantasy, she has been subject to severe backlash and consequences. Most recently, she has been denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. However, she explains that the issue is much larger than her: “What does that mean for all the unknown people who don’t have platforms who are … having their lives’ opportunities taken away, but much more important, the ideas that they bring to a classroom that allow us to be a functioning democracy?” Hannah-Jones has since accepted a position at Howard University, where she plans to train the next generation of journalists who will not waver in the face of difficult conversations, equipping them with an understanding of the stakes of their work and preparing them to hold our country accountable.
As the presentation drew to a close, Hannah-Jones ended with a rousing call to action: to refuse.
“What I said is ‘I refuse’ and what I hope I can leave with you all tonight … is we all can refuse. We have more power than we think we have. We don’t have to succumb to what’s happening in our country right now.” Quoting Timothy Snyder, she urges the audience to choose an institution and defend it, to remain valiant in our defiance every day and to reject passivity in favor of truth.
“People who have power have to step up,” she said, “and we all have a collective power and we have to step up.”
Hearing that firm exhortation from such a powerful, transformative voice in our modern American landscape is not a moment you merely brush off; the words ring in your ears for days, their implications sitting at the pit of your stomach for far longer. They do not dissipate in the air of the Rackham Auditorium, but burrow deep within your bones with fervent persistence. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the institutions that I’ve been choosing to defend and the actions that I’ve been choosing to take with the undeniable power of my voice.
While contemplating what such a voice entails, I find myself grappling with the responsibility that comes with it. Of course, I begin to think of Michigan in Color, and the mission that my fellow writers have relentlessly championed in our journalistic pursuits.
I joined Michigan in Color during a time when I was convinced that my voice held no inherent power at all. It could not move mountains or rectify centuries of hurt and wrongdoings. Coming from an oft-silenced identity, bearing stories that have been left out of textbooks and collective memories, voices like mine felt like an afterthought in the larger fabric of our world.
Upon hearing the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, however, I’ve come to understand that as writers, we are pursuing the very ideals that are worthy of being fought for. We are actively deciding that we, too, refuse. We refuse to remain silent and idle, and we refuse to relinquish our voices. Instead, we recognize the irrevocable power that our words, stories, and narratives have in redefining public perspectives, and this recognition is the life force of all the work we produce. We publish pieces that speak to glaring injustices, to stories left untold and excluded from our larger collective memories. We bravely curate sanctuaries to amplify silenced voices and reclaim our own narratives, and we trust that it means something. In the end, it means everything.
I came away from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ lecture with a deeper understanding of my purpose as a writer, and of the gnawing urgency that prompts my peers and me to continue doing the work that we do. As Hannah-Jones disclosed during her presentation: “We know the power of ideas.” The 1619 Project is interrogative, prompting ownership of the past that has been deliberately omitted. It is a reckoning, a story that demands to be told. Only a story with a profound ability to change the trajectory of our nation’s collective understanding of history — only a set of ideas so powerful that they could threaten institutions built on centuries of volitional, violent erasure — could stoke such immense fear, the kind that is met with federal commissions, legislative prohibitory bills and asinine hysteria.
Through our work within Michigan in Color, we prompt a similar reckoning. Communicating these stories is an endlessly fulfilling pursuit, and creating space for ourselves within these narratives is a feat too powerful to be abandoned. We urge you as readers to find a vessel to fortify your own refusal: through activism, art, storytelling or education. Let The 1619 Project serve as indisputable evidence that you can refuse to venerate a history that erases you, and that you can utilize the inherent power behind your voice to confront the discarded past, to hold it in your hands and let it sear your skin, to use that fire to demand an escape from patterns of oppression and systems of subjugation.
In the meantime, refuse to settle for anything less.
MiC Columnists Yasmine Slimani and Leen Sharba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.