“My dad always flew an American flag in our front yard,” begins the award-winning essay that kicked off New York Times Magazine’s landmark 1619 Project.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of the 1619 Project, grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, in a redlined neighborhood “along the river that divided the black side from the white side of our Iowa town.” Her father, a veteran, was the son of Mississippi sharecroppers — his mother had moved to Iowa during the Great Migration of 1940s “only to have her hopes of the mythical Promised Land shattered when she learned that Jim Crow did not end at the Mason-Dixon line.”
“That my dad felt so much honor in being an American felt like a marker of his degradation, his acceptance of our subordination,” Hannah-Jones writes. “… [But] my father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag. He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.”
In roughly 7,500 words, Hannah-Jones goes on to soberly, compellingly recount the history of Black people in America, beginning in 1619 with the first shipment of African captives to the colonies, and ending with a discussion of Black Americans’ contributions to the nation over the last four centuries: enslaved labor that was the foundation of the United States’ economy and created the county’s infrastructure; an appreciation for the ideal of liberty purer than any of the founding fathers, fueling fights for civil rights that have served to benefit all American minorities; thankless and even often punished military service; and original music, art and speech, forming the only uniquely American culture.
“It is common, still, to point to rates of black poverty, out-of-wedlock births, crime and college attendance, as if these conditions in a country built on a racial caste system are not utterly predictable,” Hannah-Jones writes near the end of the 2019 essay, titled “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One.” “But crucially, you cannot view those statistics while ignoring another: that black people were enslaved here longer than we have been free.”
“What if America understood, finally, in this 400th year, that we have never been the problem but the solution?”
One of the most accomplished Iowans working in journalism today, Hannah-Jones will discuss her life and career — including the indelible 1619 Project — in a free virtual lecture on Sept. 22, presented by the University Lecture Committee at the University of Iowa.
Growing up in Waterloo (regarded as one of the most segregated cities in the country), Hannah-Jones “got hooked on journalism when she joined her high school newspaper and began writing about students like her, who were bused across town as part of a voluntary school desegregation program,” according to her website.
Racial equity in public policy, including in education and housing, has long been a focus of her journalism career, whether writing for the News & Reporter in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Oregonian in Portland, Oregon, or ProPublica in New York City. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and daughter, serving as a domestic reporter for New York Times Magazine.
In 2016, she co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a training and mentorship organization for reporters of color, named for one of Hannah-Jones’ personal heroes.
Her work in print and radio has earned her numerous honors, including a 2016 Peabody Award, 2017 MacArthur Fellowship and numerous National Magazine Awards. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary earlier this year “For a sweeping, provocative and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project,” according to the Pulitzer committee, “which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”
Her work often explores the paradoxes at the heart of American exceptionalism — “forcing us to confront our hypocrisy … the truth we would rather ignore,” as she puts it — and explore the ways racism and classism are reinforced in law. Recently, she has focused on the ways COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Americans of color, specifically Black people.
“There’s a reason why Black Americans get these diseases that normally only hit older Americans: Because Black people live in a much higher stress environment,” she explained in an MTV News interview in April. “We are the most segregated of all racial groups … It is not accidental that Black people are the most likely to live near toxic sites, the most likely to live in polluted neighborhoods, the most likely to live in areas where there is a lot of highway and freeway traffic. And so what that means is Black people have been intentionally placed in the most vulnerable positions.”
Hannah-Jones’ Sept. 22 talk — titled “In Conversation About 1619 and the Legacy That Build a Nation” — begins at 7 p.m. central time on the University Lecture Committee’s live lectures portal. University of Iowa assistant professor of history Dr. Ashley Howard will moderate. The online event is free and open to the public, no pre-registration required.