Nikole Hannah-Jones on The 1619 Project’s Reframing of American History (ep. 61)

August 22, 2019
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Four hundred years ago this month, more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in what was then the British colony of Virginia. To mark the anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America, The New York Times launched a major initiative called The 1619 Project. Through a special issue of the New York Times Magazine, along with a slew of other resources, the project centers slavery in our national narrative, tracking how the legacy of that brutal institution continues to manifest in every aspect of American life. Nikole Hannah-Jones — an award winning investigative journalist, a New York Times Magazine staff writer, and the driving force behind The 1619 Project — joins At Liberty host Emerson Sykes (@emersonsjsykes) to discuss the initiative.

Learn more:
The New York Times' 1619 Project
At Liberty: Why It's Time to Talk About Reparations

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EMERSON SYKES
[00:00:04] From the ACLU, this is At Liberty. I'm Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney here at the ACLU and your host.

Four hundred years ago this month, more than 20 enslaved Africans arrived in what was then the British colony of Virginia. To mark the anniversary of the beginning of slavery in America, the New York Times has launched the “1619 Project” with a special edition of the Sunday paper and a slew of other related resources. The goal of the project is ambitious.It aims to reframe the country's history to center slavery in our national narrative, emphasizing how the legacy of that brutal institution continues to manifest in every aspect of American life. The project has been enthusiastically received, selling out multiple print runs in the last few days. Here to discuss the project is Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning investigative journalist, a New York Times Magazine staff writer and the driving force behind the 1619 Project.

Nikole Hannah Jones, it’s a great pleasure to have you with us on the show today. Welcome to the podcast.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES
Thank you for having me.

EMERSON
So this project is quite astonishing for its ambition and scope. The 1619 Project includes several long essays, including one by yourself, shorter vignettes, works of poetry, photography, and even a curriculum for schools, and I understand a podcast series is also about to drop. But your introductory essay, I think, frames the project and introduces its core thesis. Can I ask you to start by reading a passage from your essay which is entitled, “The Idea of America”?

NIKOLE
[00:01:38] Sure: “The United States is a nation founded both on an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4th, 1776, proclaimed that ‘All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of Black people in their midst. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believe fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped this country live up to its founding ideals and not only for ourselves. Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women's and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights. Without the idealistic, strenuous, and patriotic efforts of Black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different. It might not be a democracy at all.”

EMERSON
Thank you very much for sharing that reading and also for the 1619 Project's existence. As I understand it, the project was very much your brainchild. Can you tell us about how the idea came about in what you hope it will accomplish?

NIKOLE
Sure. I first came across the year 1619 as a high school student, and I was reading a book that my Black Studies teacher gave me by Lerone Bennett called Before the Mayflower. And in coming across that date, I just was struck. I remember being very struck by the fact that I had never seen that date before, that I had never been taught that enslaved Africans had been here that long, that enslaved Africans had arrived even before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. And that date, therefore, that year, has always stuck with me, my entire life. And so as the 400th anniversary was approaching, I really was thinking about how for most Americans, this month, this year, was going to pass and they weren't going to know that this was the anniversary; they weren’t going to know this was a four hundredth year of slavery being introduced into what would become America, and it would just pass without notice. And that really bothered me.

[00:03:52] So, I pitched this project to the New York Times because I feel that the year 1619 is as foundational to the American story as the year 1776, and that we clearly, as a country, have not grappled with the legacy of one of our oldest institutions and one that I would argue, has impacted most aspects of modern American life. And this seems like a great opportunity to use the platform of The Times to force a reckoning with that.

EMERSON
Well, it's a powerful idea, and you were worried that the anniversary would pass without notice, and you've certainly accomplished making sure that that has not happened. The-the response has been overwhelming, and mostly positive, but also, of course, with predictable backlash from people on the right. Can you say a bit about the responses that you've received?

NIKOLE
I am completely overwhelmed by the response. If you're listening to this and you’ve sent me an e-mail or left me a voicemail or DM-ed me on Twitter, and I haven't responded, I'm getting to it. Of everything I've ever done, I've never received this many responses. It's been, in that way, very unexpected. I had no idea how this would land in the world. I knew what we were trying to do was evocative. I believed it was powerful, but I just didn't expect the reaction that we've received. As you mentioned, we have sold out of copies, people are posting their stories of driving miles and miles and going to several stores just trying to get a copy of the print product. And that's been very gratifying because the reason I wanted to do this was to get us talking about something that we all think we know, and we really don't, and hoping to really reframe the narrative particularly of Black Americans but also the nation itself. So the--the response has been amazing.

EMERSON
[00:05:46] Well I'm--I'm lucky. Our producer Noa Yachot is the only reason I actually have a physical copy, and I'm very happy to have one. It’s such a beautiful document and artifact that I think people will return to over time. And as you said, the messages are very powerful in reframing our national narrative. But also, it's not a reported news document, right? This information is not exactly new, but it's presented in an extraordinarily powerful way. And I'm curious about the impact that you were hoping to have on individual readers.

NIKOLE
So, the entire project is making an argument. It's definitely reported. I wouldn't call it “news,” but it's very rigorously researched and very heavily reported. But the conceit of the magazine, so there's--there's two parts of the print product. There's a special section of the newspaper, and that's really a corrective on the way that we've been taught slavery. That special section of the newspaper is a history, and we did that in partnership with the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

But the magazine's conceit is that you can take all of these modern aspects of American life, all these institutions and phenomenon in modern American life and contemporary American life, and things that you think have nothing to do with slavery, and we were going to take-- start in the present and trace those institutions back and show that all of these interlinking aspects of our society have a commonality. And that's that they developed out of slavery or the anti- Black racism that came about to justify slavery. So there are, in the magazine, there are stories about why Americans consume so much sugar. Why were the only Western industrialized country without universal health care. Why traffic is so terrible in Atlanta. Our very geography as cities. Why our politics are so dysfunctional. And then, of course, my essay speaks about our democracy itself. It really was my attempt to make this institution and its legacy real, and to really answer that claim that I get all the time, which is, “Slavery ended a long time ago. It's in the past. It has nothing to do with modern society.”

[00:08:02] And that's simply not true. If we believe that the Constitution still matters, if we believe the Declaration still matters, every year we celebrate the Fourth of July, if those things matter, then 1619 and slavery mattered as well. You cannot pick and choose which parts of our society are important and that we will remember the history in which we don't. And I think we make a very powerful argument about the ongoing legacy of slavery.

EMERSON
Well, indeed, it is a very powerful argument, and it's striking and in the expansive scope that you've taken, as you mentioned, all the different aspects and the threads that you pull through in terms of slavery's legacy in our modern society, but being from the ACLU, I wanted to focus a bit on the prevalence of law in facilitating oppression as a part of the slavery and its legacy but also, in creating some progress in freedom that we've seen since.

I mean, you talk in your piece, but also in other pieces, about the Reconstruction Amendments that granted citizenship and equal protection under the law, that was originally targeted at Blacks but then as you mentioned applied then to many other marginalized groups, the Civil Rights Acts, are all highlighted as well in terms of landmark laws that helped protect the rights of African-Americans, and by extension other marginalized folks. But one feature that stood out, in the New York Times Magazine edition, was a photo essay on Howard Law School students, and I guess the-- the premise was basically that Howard is one of the oldest black law schools and has played an important role in forming society as we have it today. But, I'm interested in your perspective about the role of law in changing society and either enforcing or challenging these types of norms that we know are deeply in our DNA as a country.

NIKOLE
[00:09:56] Yeah, I think clearly law has played an indelible role. Laws played the role of ensuring the caste system, of ensuring the institution of slavery, and the kind of systematized racial oppression of Black Americans and other marginalized groups. And so the law’s also been the means of trying to undo them. The 14th Amendment is, as you know, “Equal Protection Before the Law”; it is understanding that, yes, of course, it is important to change quote unquote “hearts and minds” but whether “hearts and minds” change or not, people who are citizens of this country, and I would argue who are noncitizens, who may not even have legal status here, should still be protected equally by the law and treated as equal members of society by the law. And so the law, of course, has been critical in moving the country and the rights of Black Americans and other groups, and protecting those rights, even when the majority of society has not wanted to.

EMERSON
Well, and there's this interplay also between law and culture, but also in the issue you--you, sort of, juxtapose law, policy, as well as artistic expression and literary expression. I was also drawn to a piece by Reginald Dwayne Betts. He has a poem. I was drawn to it in part because he's a previous guest on the podcast but also because he's an attorney as well as a poet. And so, he redacted parts of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which is signed by George Washington. His overall redaction project is about flipping the tools that are used by the government to obscure the truth, to create clarity. And I know he did that with writs of habeas corpus in a recent recent exhibition as well. But it seems like it's analogous to what you're doing, in some ways: where you're sort of taking a platform, like the New York Times, which like all American institutions has its own checkered history, but then flipping that tool and using it to provide clarity and correct the American meta-narrative.

NIKOLE
[00:11:59] Yeah, for sure. I have been extremely aware of the history of white-run media in propagating and promulgating white supremacy in this country. I mean, enslavers ran ads for their property in newspapers and in media. And when I think particularly about the New York Times, the longer part of our legacy has been that Black people have been very mistreated in the stories that have been published. And this was, in a way, an opportunity to use the paper of record as a corrective, and I have thought about that a lot: that as a lay historian, when I'm going back to do historical research like many historians, you turn again and again to the New York Times to see, how was the New York Times covering whatever was happening that you're that you're trying to research. And when I think that 50 years from now, 100 years from now, when people are coming back and trying to understand our times, that there will be this massive project in the paper of record that they will go back, and to try to view the American experience and the Black experience through that, is very powerful to me. And, of course, any one project, any one institution, cannot correct all of these wrongs that were done, but it certainly is a way to put into the record, and into the paper of record, a counternarrative to a very long and--and torrid legacy of the mistreatment of Black Americans.

EMERSON
This is clearly a project about meta-narrative and our sort of national narrative, and it's noteworthy that we do start with 1619. You know, you talked about, it's about the American experience and the Black experience. And I'm someone who's been deeply influenced, I think, not only by all of the the the history that you tell in America but also by the Pan Africanist movement, and in my previous job I spent a lot of time working in Africa with activists and political leaders.

[00:13:59] And so, I did want to just touch on the idea of the African-American story in relation to Africa and in a global context. Obviously, I understand that the the project is about American history, but I think it's controversial in some ways to start our history with slavery. And, you know, you in your article referred several times to Africa as quote, “A place we've never been,” which, of course, is true for the vast majority of African-Americans, and the fact that our--our links with Africa were systematically broken. This was not a mistake. This was a part of our story.

But to the extent that the project is about sort of reclaiming African-American identity, I'm curious about how you think about the implications of starting the story where you did. It makes sense to start there, but for me it's also not really the beginning of our story.

NIKOLE
Well, so, it's not, clearly. We know that we descend from the continent of Africa and most likely from the western central region of the continent of Africa, but I very intentionally started a 1619. I very intentionally argue that we are a new people born on these shores, because I think in the reframing of America, I'm also trying to reframe the way that we have been treated and how we have thought about ourselves: that we are never treated as full citizens in this country, that we have always been taught that somehow, our story beginning with our enslavement here is something that we should be ashamed of, that we have to find this connection which is always going to be a vague connection to a continent, or to a region of the second largest continent in the world, because we can't go and look up our specific nations, or our specific languages. That is where we have to try to find our identity. I think it's been very harmful.

[00:15:47] So it's not eschewing that connection and I say in there, “We have echoes of Africa, but we are not African.” And we are not. We are fully American. We are an amalgamated people. We are a mixed race of people. We speak English, for the most part. Our cultural institutions we created here. The original American music we created here. We have created original American names. We have created original American culture. And I want us to be proud of that. As Black Freedom Fighters said during slavery, “Our ancestors bones and blood is in this soil.” And it is great to have a sense of Pan Africanism; I definitely feel that connection to the Diaspora is very critical, but I also think that it is fine for us-- We have as much claim on this country, where the only ancestors that we can trace are on these shores. And why should we not feel pride in that? Why should we not claim the full citizenship and full identity of the country for which some of us have been here for 400 years?

EMERSON
I totally hear that; that makes a lot of sense. I think from my-- my personal journey, I think, feeling alienated as an African-America from my home country and having spent a lot of time in Africa, actually did give me that sense of ownership of America: it sort of solidified the fact that I am definitely an American, and I have every right to claim that story. So, I think it's interesting that people are coming to these stories with all different sorts of backgrounds.

You know, I am someone who I think it's, without being too braggadocious, I think I have an above average familiarity with a lot of African-American history and culture, and sometimes I find myself being impatient with people who are, sort of, smacking their heads and saying, “I had no idea America was so racist.” But at the same time this knowledge that I gained was from my parents, it was from my family. It was not in my public elementary or middle school. So--

NIKOLE
Right.

EMERSON
I think it's--it's it's fascinating to think about these stories that some of us have heard, some of us haven't heard, but we're all coming to them with our own with our own baggage, so to speak.

NIKOLE
[00:17:57] Black Americans don't have the luxury of not knowing that our country is racist. We're the most legislated against group of people in the history of this country, and from the moment we landed here, our lives have been constrained by white racism. We have never even been able to live fully as individuals because our membership in this race, that white people made, that we call Black, has meant that no matter what we do personally as individuals, we are lumped in and treated as a group. So we don't have that luxury, but what I will say is my patience for people who are surprised is better than it used to be because when you really understand, and part of what we do with the project in the special section is examine the way we are taught slavery in school, the way we are taught slavery in society.

And, if you're like most Americans, where you learn history from what you're taught in school, you're not, kind of, a history nerd like me, obsessively reading history books, then what you know is what you've been taught. And I'm not going to blame, you know, entire population because, frankly, a lot of Black Americans know very little about this history, as well. I think what I've learned, I've been studying African-American history since I took my first Black Studies class in high school. I majored in African-American history in college, and I still learn things every single day. Reporting my essay, I learned a ton of things that I didn't know, and I've been studying for two decades. So, I think there is a kind of unending amount of history that we can unearth. This project is just, clearly, the tip of the iceberg. But even knowing that if you read that 100 pages of this magazine, shoot, if you read one article in the magazine, I think for most Americans, it is already going to give them a perspective and information that they haven't had.

EMERSON
[00:19:50] Well certainly, it's all there for people to get that information, and it's presented in such a compelling way that it's clearly been attractive to people, and-- and I think the message is really sinking in. I'm interested in, sort of, a bigger picture thought about if there's any particular action. Changing the national narrative is no small feat. I mean, I don't mean to minimize that, but I'm also wondering if you also see some piece of action that you were hoping that readers might take. Is it just about deeper reflection or understanding, or is there something more tangible that you're hoping to achieve as well?

NIKOLE
Well, you know, I'm a journalist, so I just point out the problems and that other people like y’all worry about the solutions.

[LAUGHS]

But no, I think, first, if you look at, let's just take the conversation, or lack thereof, around reparations. How do you even gain traction and have a real legitimate conversation if we can't even grapple with the truth of what slavery was and what its legacy remains?

So, I think having that information, in some ways, you could look at this entire project as an argument that makes the case that something is owed. I don't know how you read the entire issue of the magazine, where we point out again and again the modern day legacy of slavery and not see that as a whole as asking the question of, “What do we then owe?” I mean, all my work is about, you know, the most deeply entrenched societal issues. I never have an expectation that people are going to read something I produce, or anyone produces, and we're just gonna get--

Oh I almost cussed, sorry.

EMERSON
That's all right. No, that’s alright.

NIKOLE
Right.

EMERSON
We’re--We're not on-- we're not out on the network news.

NIKOLE
[00:21:40] Right, that we're gonna get our shit together and suddenly, you know, have a kumbaya moment and make amends for what we've done. But we certainly are not going to take the steps to rectify and remedy this legacy, if we can't even tell the truth about it. So, I see this truth in bringing this to a large mass of American citizens who have never had it as the first step. My hope then, would be that there can be a real conversation about what is ultimately owed to the descendants of the enslaved for this history. And how do we come to a place where we can actually be the society that our founders laid out at our most idealistic place?

And I guess, the last thing I would add because if people actually read the issue with an open mind, white Americans in particular, but also other non-Black Americans, I think what they will see is that we have not been able to contain the harms of the legacy of slavery only to Black people. That everyone in our society has been hurt by this. When we're the only country, Western industrialized country that doesn't offer universal healthcare, because white Americans, surveys and polling show, are the least likely to support social programs if they think Black Americans are going to benefit from them. There are a bunch of white Americans who are suffering for that. There are millions of white Americans who have not been able to get insured, proper insurance, who have not been able to get their health care needs met, who have died because of this anti-Black racism.

So when people sit in traffic in Atlanta for four hours, wasting their lives away that is universally affecting Americans, even though the highway system was built to hurt Black people. So if you sit with this, there is a reckoning that will need to be had to understand that Black people are fully American. Black people have been those that driving force to make the ideals of our Constitution real. And if we want to be a better country as a whole, if we as Americans want to have the greatest benefits of our country as a whole, we've got to purge ourselves of what is one of our original sins.

EMERSON
[00:23:54] The thing that jumps out to me about the current reparations debate is that people are not just talking about, you know, “This happened in the 19th century, and therefore, we need to update for inflation and figure out a payment mechanism,” but that the legacy of slavery survives to today and that the harms are still recognizable and identifiable. And so I think, the work that you've done in terms of pulling these threads, as I said, is really is really important, but it also kind of jumps out to me that, unless I missed it, I think that this there is no explicit call for reparations, or at least that's not a central focus in terms of reparations in and of themselves, of the project. So, you're hoping that it leads people there but, you made the call not to include it as an explicit call within the project.

NIKOLE
So, there is no explicit call for anything in this project. There is an assessment of the legacy. I did assign initially a piece that asked that very question, “What is owed,” and it ended up uh being a piece about the wealth gap. So I think we will still have a piece that ask that question and that speaks to scholars who have been studying this and maybe comes up with a figure, but definitely talks to scholars about what is owed. But even that is going to be a question and an assessment. I don't think that it is the role of this project to call for any one thing: that's for activists to do, and that's for activists to work on, but we are certainly assessing that legacy which again I think culminates in a powerful argument that we need to figure out what is owed.

EMERSON
That makes a lot of sense, and I guess, you sort of led me into my next question, which was about how you cover so many different topics, and I'm curious if there are any that you wish had made it in?

NIKOLE
[00:25:41] Oh, God. Of course. I mean, even as comprehensive as we tried to be, and this magazine is twice as many pages as our typical New York Times Magazine, there's a ton that was left out. And some of this, I think you'll see in other sections of the magazine in the future. There's nothing on food. I think food is critical. There’s not really a story on culture. I think you could do more around a lot of the subjects that are already in there. Probably what some people may see as the most glaring omission, considering what I report on most of the time, is there’s nothing on schools or education. I think that could be some great work on college debt and college attendance.

So, I mean, there's really an unlimited number of stories that could go in, and we certainly plan on publishing more stories through the end of the year. And one other thing that is definitely going to come, if you go to the magazine, at the very end of the magazine, there is a very haunting picture of the site of the largest auction of human beings in the history of our country that was called “The Weeping Time.” And the picture is of the modern American landscape, what is there now. And we wanted to get that entire photo essay into the magazine. We went to various sites of auction spots where uh human beings were bought and sold and took pictures of what those sites look like now, kind of as a metaphor for how we have--slavery is all around us, the ghosts are there but we have allowed it to just fade into the background. And so, we're going to be publishing that photo essay in the magazine later as well.

We worked with a lot of historians. We had a big brainstorming session here at the Times before we even picked what stories we were going to put in the issue and asked historians, you know, “What should we be writing about, what do we need to make sure to cover?” Several those historians ended up writing for the issue. But I'm sure, I've heard from a number of historians since the issue published who have ideas about stories that they would like to write or other areas that they think we should cover and we welcome those pitches as well.

EMERSON
[00:27:52] Well that’s great to hear that the drumbeat will continue. So, you've talked about a few of the articles that may be released between now and the end of the year, and we know there's the curriculum for students and teachers, and there's also the podcast series that's coming out. Is there anything else that you want to highlight about what's coming next for the project? And I'm also very interested in what you're excited about working on next.

NIKOLE
I guess the only other thing we didn't talk about is we are doing an all day symposium at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

EMERSON
Wow.

NIKOLE
October 30th, in Washington D.C., and it is going to be both somber and celebratory and very much looking forward to that, so listeners should look out for announcements about that, and how to get tickets as well. As for what's next with me, you sound like an editor.

EMERSON
No deadlines.

NIKOLE
I'm trying to to to survive, you know, this project, it has consumed me since January. It has not let up yet, and I have no idea what's next day. My book editor hopes that me finishing my book is next, so maybe I'll say that.

EMERSON
Well, we look forward to whatever you put out next. I've found all of your reporting on education fascinating and illuminating and of course the 1619 Project is already a triumph, and the legend of this project will only grow in the years to come, so Nikole Hannah-Jones, thanks so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to speak with us and thanks for all your great work.

NIKOLE
Thank you, I really appreciate it.

EMERSON
Thanks very much for listening. If you valued this conversation, please be sure to subscribe to At Liberty wherever you get your podcasts and rate and review the show. We really appreciate the feedback‍.

‘Til next week, peace.

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