1619 Project creator Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses Waterloo schooldays, ‘reckoning’ with slavery and hopes for the Biden presidency

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the journalist and Iowa native behind the 1619 Project. — contributed photo

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke to the University of Iowa community about her renowned 1619 Project in a free livestream hosted by the University Lecture Committee Tuesday evening.

Originally published in New York Times Magazine in August 2019, the collection of essays, poetry, short fiction, photos, podcast episodes and classroom curricula that make up the 1619 Project has been both both celebrated and criticized for “reframing American history” by centering Black experiences.

“The entire reason the 1619 Project had to exist is because we [mainstream American society] had not wanted to treat slavery as central to the American story,” Hannah-Jones said Tuesday. “We wanted to treat slavery as an asterisk.”

Tuesday night’s talk was the first University Lecture Committee event of the fall semester series, all of which the program will host virtually. At the end of the Zoom lecture with Hannah-Jones, the committee awarded her the Notable Iowan Award for her journalistic achievements.

Moderated by UI assistant professor of history Ashley Howard, the lecture focused on the 1619 Project’s conception and response, as well as the legacy of slavery in the United States to date.

Hannah-Jones spoke briefly on how to improve modern Black-white disparities and called for Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to pass a reparations bill should he win in November. She also expressed adamant support for universal health care, universal college, universal basic income and universal child care.

Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, a city she noted held a significantly higher Black population than the rest of the state: Black citizens represent around 4 percent of Iowa’s population, and 15 percent of Waterloo’s. She recalled being bused to school from second to 12th grade as part of a “voluntary desegregation program.”

It was at Waterloo West High School that Jones entered the African-American studies elective would provide the spark of inspiration for what became the 1619 Project. In this class, she heard for the first time about the history and accomplishments of Black Americans, an experience she called “transformative.”

“I felt simultaneously angry at all of my education that no one had thought we should know this stuff,” Hannah-Jones said. “I learned more about Black contributions in that one semester than I had in my entire academic career.”

Jones first saw the year 1619 in the book Before The Mayflower: A History of Black America by Lerone Bennett Jr., lent to her by her teacher. Bennett identified August 1619 as the month in which the first shipment of African slaves arrived in the Virginia colony. Learning about this date was “powerful,” Hannah-Jones said, “that’s why it never got taught.”

That same teacher also pushed Jones to join her high school newspaper. Following graduation, the budding journalist said she “got the hell out of [Waterloo]” and went on to pursue degrees at Notre Dame University and the University of North Carolina, eventually joining the New York Times staff 2015.

In late 2018, as the 400th anniversary of that ship’s fateful arrival approached, Hannah-Jones recalled that she was determined to make sure the year would not remain forgotten, saying, “I wanted to do a project … to force not just an acknowledgement of that date in history, but a reckoning of the ongoing legacy of slavery.”

Published in 2019 and later converted into a podcast, the final project consists of essays, articles and photostories detailing the history of slavery in the United States and its lasting influences on modern institutions, from schools to sports to health care. Hannah-Jones received a Pulitzer Prize for her introduction to the project in 2020.

While Hannah-Jones noted that the “overwhelming response” has been positive, some have criticized the 1619 Project. Historians have taken issue with the assertion in Hannah-Jones’s opening essay that colonists’ desire to preserve the institution of slavery triggered the American Revolution, calling it controversial at best, factually incorrect at worst. Hannah-Jones and the editor of New York Times Magazine have stood by her work, but conceded that she may have overstated that point.

While most academics at least respect the intent of the project to draw needed attention to Black history, Republican politicians have condemned its very premise as “un-American” and “revisionist history.” Around a year after the 1619 Project’s debut, President Donald Trump (who decried it as “ideological poison”) announced he was launching his own, state-sponsored education project called the 1776 Commission, designed to promote “patriotic education.”

On Tuesday, Hannah-Jones said the sustained efforts to delegitimize the project were “not normal,” noting that the project’s thesis that “anti-blackness is foundational and in the very DNA of our country” is anything but anti-American.

“No one has fought harder to make this country a democracy that lives up to its founding ideals than Black Americans,” Hannah-Jones said. “When we aren’t centering Black Americans, we actually don’t understand our country.”

Due to intensified attacks over the past few weeks, Hannah-Jones said she’s had to take a step back from engaging on Twitter. Still, she sees this work as monumental and encourages educators of all races to incorporate the Black history detailed in the 1619 Project into school curriculums to ensure a further understanding of Black voices in American history.

“My job is also my mission,” Hannah-Jones said. “I became a journalist not just because I was interested in writing stories, but because I understood how important it was for Black people to be in charge of the narratives that were being written about us … to really show the way that power is wielded against Black communities. That is what I hope that my work at its best does.”

The next lecture in the fall UI lecture series will feature comedian Bertice Berry and NPR journalist Eric Deggans, and will take place on Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.

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