Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project

On April 26th, Pulitzer-Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones was interviewed by Colby Professor of African American Studies Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, reaching an audience of more than 280. Hannah-Jones was the Keynote Speaker for the 2021-22 Humanities Theme, Freedom and Captivity.

Besides creating the world-renowned 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones is also a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, and the Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University, where she is founding the Center for Journalism & Democracy. She has spent her career investigating racial inequality and injustice, and her reporting has earned her the MacArthur Fellowship, known as the Genius grant, a Peabody Award, two George Polk Awards and the National Magazine Award three times. Hannah-Jones also earned the John Chancellor Award for Distinguished Journalism and was named Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York. In 2020 she was inducted into the Society of American Historians and in 2021 she was named a member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Townsend Gilkes, who is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of African-American Studies and Sociology and director of the African American Studies Program at Colby, began the interview by asking Hannah-Jones what first inspired her to create the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones replied that in high school, she took a black studies elective, and in one semester learned more about the history of black people than she had in her entire life. She felt angry that she’d never been taught about black people before, but also empowered, because she saw a whole new world of knowledge open up before her. She decided that she wanted to be a journalist “because my community would never be covered adequately if we weren’t among the people telling the story.” 

Hannah-Jones learned about the importance of the year 1619 when she read Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America. The book was written by Lerone Bennett, a journalist and historian who would later become the model for her career. For those unfamiliar with the importance of 1619, it is the year when the first black people were brought to British America. On August 20th, 1619, approximately twenty Angolans, who had been kidnapped by the Portugese, and later kidnapped by English privateers, arrived in the British colony of Virginia and were traded for food. This marked the beginning of two and a half centuries of slavery in North America.

Years after first reading Before the Mayflower, Hannah-Jones, now a journalist with The New York Times, realized that the 400th anniversary of 1619 was approaching. She was upset that this historical moment would pass, and no one would even know about it. “It seemed like a tremendous opportunity to force 1619 into the national lexicon,” she explained.

Thus, the 1619 Project was born. Its original form, published in August 2019, was that of a long-form journalism endeavor developed by Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine. The project’s goal is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” It contains a collection of essays and fiction by a variety of contemporary scholars and writers. Essays include “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One”, the introductory piece by Hannah-Jones; “American Capitalism Is Brutal. You Can Trace That to the Plantation”, by Matthew Desmond; and “How False Beliefs in Physical Racial Difference Still Live in Medicine Today”, by Linda Villarosa. The project also includes “A New Literary Timeline of African-American History”, a collection of poems and stories covering topics such as the middle passage, Phyllis Wheatley, and the Emancipation Proclamation. In 2021, the project was expanded into a book, titled The 1619 Project: An Origin Story.

Professor Townsend Gilke’s next question was how Hannah-Jones managed to pull together so many scholars to create the 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones responded that the first thing she did when she got the green light to go ahead was to organize a giant meeting of scholars and brainstorm ideas. “We wanted to show the way the legacy of slavery shaped modern America in surprising ways,” Hannah-Jones stated. “This project is based on decades of scholarship. Some of the greatest historians have contributed to this project. It was an opportunity to bring together a collection of brilliant minds, to reset our understanding of America.”

She added that they chose the terminology they used carefully, using “slave labor camp” instead of “plantation”, and “enslaved” and “enslavers”, rather than “slaves” or “owners”. “Perhaps if we call things what they actually were, we wouldn’t think of Gone with the Wind, this bucolic image of the mansion, but about the terror and torture going on behind it,” Hannah-Jones remarked. “Then perhaps we wouldn’t be having weddings and picnics at these places.” Townsend Gilkes agreed with the importance of the words we use, stating that “It causes people to think about how we tell the story, how we create the mythos that binds us together.” She then asked Hannah-Jones what critiques which she received was, and how she had responded to them.

Hannah-Jones replied that she had expected critiques, and had never created anything that she thought couldn’t be improved. “The 1619 Project is an argument,” she explained. “Historiography is a matter of interpretation. We can read the same document and come away with different views.” One regret she had with the project was not being more specific when she wrote “If it weren’t for slavery, some colonists would never have joined the revolution”.  She said that critics had seized upon that single line to discredit the project, and that she had later strengthened the claim in a revision of the book. She also regretted not originally including a section on indigenous people, but told Townsend Gilkes that she later added in an essay by an afro-indigenous scholar that tied things together.

The floor was turned over to questions from the webinar viewers, and one asked Hannah-Jones why she decided to include poetry and short fiction in the 1619 Project. Hannah Jones replied by explaining that it was once illegal for black people to learn to read and write. 94% of black people were illiterate at the time of emancipation. Most of is known today about the lives of enslaved black people comes from white writers. Therefore, Hannah-Jones and her team asked contemporary writers to recreate historical moments through a black lens. “It’s a reminder that everything you’re reading about was experienced by real people, with hopes and fears,” she stated. “Our goal was to force every reader to pause before every essay and soak in the humanity of the people they’ll be reading about.”

When asked about her current endeavors, Hannah Jones replied that she is working on a five part documentary series on the 1619 Project to be released next year on ABC and Hulu. She is also in the process of founding the Howard University Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will officially launch this fall. Its purpose is to train journalists to do historically trained investigative journalism. “Journalism is supposed to be the firewall of our democracy, and I don’t think it’s living up to that,” she declared. “In the tradition of black journalism, we don’t pretend objectivity in the face of threats to our rights.”

Another viewer asked if Hannah-Jones had any advice for teachers on how to respond to the current censorship on race, LGBTQ+ issues, sexuality, and so on. Hannah-Jones replied that “These times are going to take great courage. Trying to teach our children to become tolerant and informed citizens is always going to be difficult. In a profession that is already underpaid and overworked, I have to express my gratitude for people who are determined to stay in the field despite being so disrespected. But I know you know what you’re doing. Our children need you, and I am deeply grateful for the work you’re doing in these difficult times.”

The next viewer asked: “Our students are coming of age in a time of pandemic, climate change, and police brutality. Many are experiencing burnout and feeling helpless and hopeless. Do you have any advice for them?” Hannah-Jones responded, “What we are seeing is unprecedented in my life. Those who oppose equality, tolerance, and learning benefit from chaos, people feeling exhausted from having to defend so many different issues. We each need to pick a cause and defend it. Focus on one thing. Take a break and take care of yourself when you need it, but fight when you can.”

A final question came from a Colby alumni, who asked “How can we use history to improve conditions in the US?” Hannah-Jones responded that she believed everyone should study history. “How can we understand the complexity of our society without understanding the architecture that built it?” she asked, adding that Americans in particular don’t know our history very well, and that when it comes to slavery we have amnesia. “We’ve been taught the history of a country that doesn’t exist,” she declared.

“When you understand history, it’s empowering. You understand that conditions are not natural or innate, that they were created by individuals and institutions, and therefore they can be changed by individuals and institutions.”

Article written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator

This event was co-sponsored by the Office of the President, African-American Studies department, Colby Libraries, Colby Museum of Art, the Cultural Events Committee, Lunder Institute of American Art, the Oak Institute for Human Rights, the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and the Office of the Provost.