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The 1619 Project’s Nikole Hannah-Jones unpacks anti-Blackness, history of slavery in Watson talk

Hannah-Jones joined Watson Institute Senior Fellow ZZ Packer to discuss the impact and relevance of her Pulitzer Prize-winning multimedia project

Nikole Hannah-Jones wants to reframe the way we perceive American history. 

“Our political, cultural, legal, educational systems can be traced back to slavery and the anti-Blackness that grew from it, and yet slavery is treated as an asterisk,” Hannah-Jones, who is spearheaded the Pulitzer-Prize winning The 1619 Project, said. "It’s treated on the edges of the story and not central to the story.” 

Hannah-Jones spoke with Watson Institute Senior Fellow ZZ Packer about the impact of the high-profile multimedia project aimed at bringing chattel slavery and its consequences to the forefront of American history, as well as its criticisms and its relevance today at a virtual Watson event Oct. 15. 

The seed for The 1619 Project was planted when Hannah-Jones was a high school student taking a semester-long Black studies elective. “Never before had I learned so much about Black history and Black contributions,” she said. 

“I remember feeling simultaneously angry and empowered empowered because learning just that little taste of history told me there was a whole world of history that no one had bothered to teach me,” Hannah-Jones said. “I was angry that no one had ever thought that maybe this is information we should know.”

The 1619 Project was published by The New York Times Magazine last year, 400 years after the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what is now Virginia. 

“As the 400th anniversary was approaching, I just kept thinking, this monumental, foundational moment in American history was going to pass and most Americans were not even going to know that this was the anniversary of anything. And I wanted to do something about that,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Hannah-Jones wanted The 1619 Project “to show how foundational slavery is to modern American life.” The project consists of historical and investigative essays, poems, short fiction and a photo essay. Hannah-Jones received the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her 10,000 word introductory essay to the collective. 

In addition to the praise and recognition The 1619 Project has garnered, it has also received criticism from academics and politicians. 

Specifically, Hannah-Jones acknowledged President Donald Trump criticism of The 1619 Project and his efforts to reframe how American history is taught in schools. 

Hannah-Jones said that history prioritizing American exceptionalism and patriotism erases elements of American history crucial to understanding current social issues. “Patriotic education is not about the facts. Patriotic education is about how we want to perceive ourselves as a country,” she said. 

The 1619 Project has brought about painful reckonings with ugly American realities as “people have been deeply troubled by a narrative that doesn't just glorify the founders and our founding,” she said.

In October, Professor of Economics Glenn Loury, along with 20 other academics of the National Association of Scholars, called for Hannah-Jones’ Pulitzer Prize to be revoked. Loury teaches ECON 1370: “Race and Inequality in the United States” at the University. 

The National Association of Scholars’ letter claimed that Hannah-Jones’ essay was “making a large claim that protecting the institution of slavery was a primary motive for the American Revolution, a claim for which there is simply no evidence.” 

Hannah-Jones said that her piece “doesn't claim that (the Revolutionary War) was fought solely to preserve slavery, but it does claim that it was a primary reason that some colonists, particularly in Virginia, decided to join the Revolutionary War.” 

In light of criticism to her claim, Hannah-Jones said she realized she “should have spent a little more time in that passage (on the American Revolution) showing where I got that information from the historiography that it relied upon.” 

Hannah-Jones added that she was “deeply hurt” by Loury’s calls for her Pulitzer Prize to be rescinded. 

“I don't agree with really any of (Loury’s) views on race and inequality, but I respect him,” Hannah-Jones said. “I could never imagine a Black person who has fought to get into these elite institutions and who knows how people have always tried to discredit us … I couldn't imagine signing on to a matter against another Black colleague trying to discredit their work.” 

Loury declined The Herald’s request for comment on his criticism of The 1619 Project.

Hannah-Jones said that criticism of her project, in addition to social unrest in 2020, has re-emphasized its importance in American historical memory and school curricula. 

“It’s been amazing as people have challenged the project, when one can look at America in 2020 and see the entire thesis of the project playing out in real time,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Hannah-Jones explained that in addition to analyzing anti-Blackness in American history, she wanted The 1619 Project to highlight the accomplishments and contributions of Black Americans.

“Black people have made amazing things. We have joy,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Hannah-Jones said she hopes to see The 1619 Project integrated into school curricula across the country. It has already become a part of history programs in Chicago and Washington, D.C., among other cities. 

“The most fulfilling thing in the world has been for me to go to high schools and have high school students say ‘I never knew any of this, and I never could feel proud of our history because our history was always so demeaning,’ which is how it felt to me,” Hannah-Jones said. 

Overall, she said reactions to The 1619 Project have “been really empowering."

"Clearly the breadth of the attacks against the project (and) the duration of the attacks against the project speak to the power of the project.”


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