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Times’ Nikole Hannah-Jones Discusses Reframing Slavery And Black Ascension With 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine and a 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow. (Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation) 

Nikole Hannah-Jones is The New York Times Magazine staff writer and 2017 MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow whose idea blossomed into the Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 Project marks the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans being brought to Virginia. It includes works by black reporters, novelists, poets, photographers, historians and artists, seeking to reframe American history by telling the truth about slavery.

Gabrielle Jones, digital editor with VPM News, talked with Hannah-Jones about the work that went into the project and what she hopes its legacy will be.

Answers have been edited for clarity.

Q: Why did you feel it was important to use this project to set the record straight as opposed to only retelling the history of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I decided that we needed to address in this project commemorating the 400th anniversary not just the history, but to really reframe the way that we have thought about both ourselves as a nation and the role that black Americans have played. 

The way that we are taught about slavery is that it was a marginal institution, that it was largely an issue amongst backwards southerners, and that it has had very little impact on other aspects of our society. And, that the way the things we see in our society now have little to do with slavery and the anti black racism that around that. That's just not true. And the reason why we have tried to marginalize slavery is because it is very uncomfortable, because it reveals that these lofty ideals on which our country was founded were actually not true at the time and that it took a very long time for them to even begin to be true. And, that black people have had to fight to make them be true.

So I really hoped that we could use the platform of The Times and this anniversary to kind of force us to confront the truth about our history and also to force us to acknowledge that truth in order that we might be able to do something about the lingering legacy.

Q: The project is so rich. What was behind the decision to have so many different types of content as opposed to just traditional news reporting?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: When I pitched this idea to dedicate an entire issue of the magazine just to looking at the legacy of slavery, I think that the editors at the magazine understood that: One, how often do you ever get the chance to examine the 400th anniversary of anything but also something that is so central. And I think we all just wanted to create something that was worthy of the topic and that was worthy of 400 years. And simply running a reported news story was just not going to give this history and this legacy the heft and the transformative power that we wanted it to have. So really it just kept growing bigger and bigger and bigger. 

And I think that just speaks a lot to my colleagues but also to the times that we're in. We're trying to understand why we're still dealing with these issues of race and racism, and this is just a great way to help us to see our country for what it really is. 

What's really important to me about the less conventional parts of the project, which are the literary pieces and the original artwork -- every writer on those literary pieces is black and the artworks are all created by black artists. And that is also a story of black ascension. It is a story of the descendants who are here because of everything that our enslaved ancestors went through, and I think that is very powerful. 

And if you read the issue of the magazine, the entire issue is making an argument. And when you're just doing a straight news story, you're not making an argument. You're just trying to present facts and hope that people will gain something from those facts. We wanted to do more than this. We wanted to make an argument and to really force people to think differently about something, and that's something that you simply just can't do in a straight forward news piece. 

Q: One of the pieces that stood out for me was a photo essay featuring four recent graduates of Howard University Law School who descended from enslaved Africans. In the piece, you work with genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry to share something about those graduates’ enslaved ancestors. How did the idea for this piece develop?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: This is one of my favorite parts of the project and we very intentionally ended the magazine on that piece. And the reason for that is: I was really concerned. So much of our history is a devastating history. It is a history of oppression and violence and so much of what you read in the magazine is readily laying out the systematic oppression that black people faced. But it was very important to me that we also highlight that we have survived and we have thrived and we have persevered. What our ancestors endured is not the sum of who we are as a people. So I decided that I would love if we could do a photo essay and I picked Howard University intentionally because it is such a symbol of black striving of black excellence. The law school in particular, because we've probably seen no other institution play as large a role in affording civil rights through the law as that institution. So it just seemed a really beautiful and poignant way to cap off this series by saying, look into the eyes of the descendants, we're going to tell you a little bit about where their ancestors came from, and that despite everything we are, we are still here and we are still thriving.

Q: One big theme of the project is diving into the mythology of the founding fathers as these pillars of freedom and democracy. Why do you think this mythology persists despite the contradictions between the myth, our founding documents themselves and the fact that many of them enslaved people?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I mean, that's easy, right? We want to believe a certain thing about ourselves. We have a national memory and that national memory is that we are an exceptional nation built on the individual rights of men to speak about the truth, which is that the men who were writing these words owned other human beings and deprived one-fifth of the population of all rights and all liberties. It's just a very inconvenient truth to our national narrative. It actually proved that that national narrative is a lie, and so we just don't deal with it. 

You know, think about how you are taught about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. And if we mention at all that they were enslavers, it is as an aside and not central. But the truth is 10 of the first 12 presidents were enslavers, and that is significant. That matters. That is not incidental.

The reason that our founding fathers even had the wealth and the privilege and stature to believe that they could break-off from the most powerful empire in the world at that time, was because of the profits that they were getting from forced labor of enslaved people.

 So I think we just cannot deal with the inherent hypocrisy of our founding. It goes against every myth we want to believe about ourselves. We don't want to acknowledge that we were just one of many slavocracies that existed in the new world, and that we had these lofty ideals that the founding fathers fully did not intend to be for large segments of the population. 

My argument is that they did set out ideals that could get us to be that exceptional country, but the only way to get there is to acknowledge that we are not and to try to fix the flaws that this nation was born with.

Q: Now here in Virginia, lots of tourists visit Jamestown near the site where the initial group of enslaved Africans was brought to English North America. For a long time, these places focused on the history of white colonists who lived there but not the enslaved and indentured Africans who enabled them to do things like found the world's first representative democracy. How do you think visitors to these places can hold these institutions accountable?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: I think visitors have to ask questions. ‘Why aren't we learning about this?’ ‘When are we going to talk about this part of history?’

We have to be able to just grapple with the truth and we need to really ask ourselves, why do we adhere to these myths? Why? Why are we so uncomfortable grappling with the truth. It is hard. It is much easier to tell this a lovely story of these freedom seeking colonists. It is much more complicated to talk about the ways that they oppress the rights and freedoms of others, but it is the truth. And if you're going to be doing historical reenactments, if you're going to be pretending that this is the place you go to learn history, then you have to be devoted to telling that history. Right?

Q: Media and journalism specifically have often failed in telling the truth about the role of black people in this country and the institutions that have been used to subjugate us. Was part of your idea for the project to take this opportunity to course-correct journalism as an institution in media as an institution?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. I am extremely aware that I am helping birth this project at The New York Times,  the paper of record. I am aware of The New York Times’ history and how it has covered black Americans and the racism that black Americans have faced. And I'm exceedingly aware that when historians 50 years from now, 100 years from now, want to understand our time, they will go to the paper of record. They will look in The New York Times and they will see this now. 

So I hope that other newsrooms will see that you can center marginalized people in a way that is dignified, and in a way that pushes back against their typical stereotypical narratives. And that is extremely rigorous, and that people will read that, and embrace it.

My inbox is just overwhelmed with emails from people who said, ‘I never knew any of this. I've never thought about this.’ And, I got a message from a white male, probably late forties, who said, ‘you have broken the bones of history and reset them.’ That's profound work that we can do as journalists, but we have to be willing to do that work. And you can't do that work if you don't understand the history of your country yourselves and if you don't understand the way that you continue to trade in those stereotypes, even as newsrooms. I think that that is profoundly important.

And the other thing I would add, is this also shows why having not just diverse newsrooms, but empowering your employees in those newsrooms to do big, bold and radical projects [is important]. So the first step is getting us in the door, but the second step then is allowing us to then do the big important work that we can. What I hope is other news leaders across the country will see the amount of resources the Times put into this, and the number of black journalists and writers and artists who worked on this, and maybe that will liberate them to do more of this type of work themselves.

Q: What do you hope is the legacy of the project once all the content has been released and on subsequent anniversaries? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones: You know that's an interesting question, because in general, some people call me pessimistic, I would say realistic about the ability of any work about racial injustice in this country to be transformative. But what I do hope, is for those who actually read it, who sit with it, that they just won't be able to pretend that they don't know what our country really is. And that if you understand where we came from, if you understand how that legacy still impacts [us], not just black Americans. 

There's pieces in there about why we consume so much sugar...diabetes is affecting everyone. There's piece in there about why we don't have universal health care. We're the only western industrialized nation without universal healthcare. That hurts white people too. I hope that those who read it will see that our fates as Americans really are intertwined. And that if we are honest about our history, then it will liberate us to correct our history, and maybe become the country that we can be.

So when I think about this project, I hope that it is something that when people read it, when they get it in their Sunday Times, they don't throw this away. They share it, they take it out and teach it to their children. And that we can to the degree that The Times has an influence, that we can really just reframe the way that we have thought about black Americans who I argue, because of our circumstances, are actually the most American of all.

Q: What should people be on the lookout for as you release more and more content from the project?

Nikole Hannah-Jones: We are definitely having a big live event October 30 at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. We are going to be taking the magazine and doing different events across the country. We have curriculum at the Pulitzer Center that educators and parents, anyone can download if they want to understand how to teach this to children. We're just gonna continue to publish additional works from across the newspaper. We really want to spend the rest of the year just continuing to educate and explore and prompt reflection.