Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times 1619 Project creator: “This was about telling the story that people do not get”

Tuesday, January 28, 2020 - 10:42pm

New York Times Domestic Correspondent Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on her "1619 Project," which examines slavery and the development of the United States in Rackham Auditorium Tuesday evening.

New York Times Domestic Correspondent Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on her "1619 Project," which examines slavery and the development of the United States in Rackham Auditorium Tuesday evening. Buy this photo
Ruchita Iyer/Daily

Nikole Hannah-Jones, domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the NYT 1619 Project, compared slavery to the red pill in the movie, “The Matrix.” As Hannah- Jones described it, the legacy of slavery in America is “the coding and the architecture of everything that we see, and we have been allowing this country to pretend that slavery is marginal to the American story.” 

Tuesday night, The Wallace House hosted Hannah-Jones for a dialogue with Rochelle Riley, a 2008 Knight-Wallace Fellow, City of Detroit Arts and Culture director and longtime columnist at the Detroit Free Press. Hannah-Jones spoke to a packed Rackham Auditorium. 

The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative by The New York Times Magazine, discussing the history of slavery in America, its legacy within the Consitution, the miseducation of American youth and the modern implications of America’s discriminatory history. The project also includes a five episode podcast. The project, released in August 2019, marked the 400th anniversary of institutional slavery, when The White Lion ship brought over 20 enslaved Africans to the English Colony of Virginia in August 1619.

Throughout the talk, Hannah-Jones discussed the gruesome existence of slavery in American culture. She answered audience questions bluntly, jokingly exclaiming “no” when an audience member asked if she had a “sense that a real reckoning is happening in our communities and in our systems” because of the 1619 project.

Throughout the Magazine issue, the various essays argue the founding principles of the country  — including liberty, equality and democracy — did not come to fruition when written into the Constitution. The practice of slavery contradicted these principles because Black Americans continuously fought for their democracy, Hannah-Jones said. She argues slavery is not only the foundation of American history, but is deeply embedded in society today through the country’s education, housing, health care systems and more. 

Hannah-Jones said she was inspired to write the series of essays because of the 400th anniversary of 1619, and because she has been thinking about 1619 since high school when she took a Black studies course. She called attention to how frequently American youth learn about The Mayflower in 1620, but not about the arrival of The White Lion in 1619.

Hannah-Jones said the lack of education about The White Lion erases key moments in history, and the glorification of The Mayflower is an example of Americans choosing to remember only a positive perspective of their history. 

“(There’s) this idea of national memory,” Hannah-Jones said. “How we create a sense of our history, who we are and what decisions are made about what we learn and what we don’t.” 

Hannah-Jones said she chose to focus on themes such as capitalism, healthcare, music and mass incarceration to shock readers about the modern implications of slavery. 

While Hannah-Jones has received accolades for her work, a group of historians publicly criticized the project, arguing it failed to properly address the origins of the Revolutionary War and Abraham Lincoln’s role in abolishing slavery. Additionally, Hannah-Jones said she received criticism for her statement that Black Americans fought for democracy alone. 

The New York Times issued a response to the historians, defending the factual backing of the project. Hannah-Jones said a minority of white people helped Black Americans in the fight for democracy, but most of the time, Black people fought independently for their rights. Hannah-Jones said she would ultimately not apologize for the way she framed her argument and the organizing principle of the U.S. is slavery, not democracy — people already know about the history of Lincoln, she said.

“The pushback is about the idea that even in the telling of our own story, we have to center the white people, and that we don’t give enough credit,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Hannah-Jones also spoke about the project’s personal effect on her. She became emotional when speaking of her grandmother, who was born in Mississippi and gave birth to Hannah-Jones’s father in a sharecropping shack on a plantation because Black people were not permitted to give birth in hospitals. Hannah-Jones said her grandmother died of diabetes, her father died before he was old enough to get social security benefits and her uncle died at 50 of cancer because he didn’t have insurance and in turn, couldn’t receive an MRI. 

“All I kept thinking was everyone was lost,” Hannah-Jones said. “All lives still are lost because we can’t purge this anti-Blackness from our country. And then, I can somehow, everything that my grandmother suffered, she could not imagine that she had a grandchild who could do something like this in The New York Times.”

The 1619 Project has been adapted into an education curriculum. The project was sold and created into a series of books that go from elementary school, middle school, high school and adults. Hannah-Jones is also currently working on marking slave auctioning sites in U.S. cities and creating a photojournalism series. 

Public Health student Janae Best appreciated Hannah-Jones’s honesty and felt her thesis emphasized the pride Black Americans should feel about their place in the U.S.

“How truthful she was, how raw she was and how unapologetic she was about telling the truth that has been hidden for so long, and just reminding us of the fact that Black people have a right to this country,” Best said. “Even more so than white people do because of the fact that the country was founded based off of slavery. That was very empowering.” 

Rackham student Gabriel Gadsden applauded Hannah-Jones for her frankness. 

“Just how frank she was and just how unapologetic she was,” Gadsden said. “It was a conversation, and I think that she truly embodied that. And I think that's the conversation that we need to have about race in America. … You know, at a certain point you just can't sugarcoat it. You just have to say what it is. And if it’s going to make people uncomfortable, so be it, but that’s the best trajectory that we need to go in.”

Gadsden said he grew up with slavery as an important conversation at home. He said it is crucial to discuss unknown actors in history beyond the activists commonly discussed in textbooks.

“It's always the right time to talk about slavery and to talk about it, not just through the lens of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and these big names, but as she was addressing, was that the unsung heroes,” Gadsden said. “About those people who names are forgotten, whose plantations have been whitewashed, to bring that to the forefront of the conversation as well.”

The purpose of the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones said, was indeed to celebrate unsung Black American heroes.

“This was about telling the story that people do not get, and this was about telling the story that Black Americans were not just sitting around waiting for equality,” Hannah-Jones said. “That we fought every day.”

Reporter Callie Teitelbaum can be reached at cteitelb@umich.edu