Nikole Hannah-Jones said facing the legacy of slavery is necessary to teach American history truthfully, even if some don’t want to hear it.
By Ruth Steinhardt
When Nikole Hannah-Jones was in grade school, she was troubled by the way Black Americans seemed to be recurring cameo characters in her history classes—appearing during the Civil War, vanishing for a century and reappearing during the modern Civil Rights Movement, then disappearing again—rather than essential players in the story of the country.
“Without ever having to say ‘The only people who have ever done anything that matters are white people,’ that is exactly what the curriculum says,” she told an online audience of more than 700 people last Tuesday at a talk hosted by the George Washington University’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement. Professor of History and International Affairs Nemata Blyden moderated the conversation.
As an adult, Ms. Hannah-Jones drew on the work of historians she’d first encountered as a student to create the New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” an ongoing collection of essays and art about the relationship of American slavery to the country’s history. She won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for the project’s framing essay.
“I often joke that if you name anything in American life, I can trace it back to slavery—but it’s not really a joke,” she said. “It is embedded in the fibers of all of our institutions.”
The American history curriculum as Ms. Hannah-Jones encountered it framed slavery as incidental to the country’s founding: a troubling but relatively minor contradiction to the Declaration of Independence’s proposition of equality, at worst a “necessary evil,” which was resolved without question by the Civil War. It did not discuss that 10 of the first 12 presidents were slaveholders, that slavery was part of the U.S. Constitution or that the labor of enslaved Black people built the economic foundation of the country that would become the United States.
Countries like Germany can rid themselves of problematic historical relics—Nazi statues, for instance—because those elements represent relatively brief periods of history, Ms. Hannah-Jones said.
In America, she said, “it is infinitely harder.”
George Washington, for instance, is the namesake of cities and universities across the country because he was the first American president, not because he was an enslaver. But Washington was only in the social and economic position to become America’s first president “because he ran a slave labor camp where Black people were tortured into making him profit,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said.
“If we weren’t founded on slavery we could purge all this iconography of slavery and still have our founding stories to tell,” she said. “But we can’t.”
The 1619 Project was created as a corrective to this incomplete picture and accordingly has faced opposition from conservative lawmakers and academics. President Donald Trump has threatened to defund California schools for supposedly teaching it (a power he does not have) and recently railed against the project during the announcement of his own “1776 Commission” to “promote patriotic education.”
While Ms. Hannah-Jones admitted that she struggled at first with the intense, often personal backlash, she said she now sees it as proof of the project’s importance and, more generally, of journalism’s power for change.
“If no one is criticizing you, then I think the work you’re doing is not hard enough,” she said. “It’s not the type of work that is going to fundamentally challenge us and restructure our society. If the 1619 Project came into the world, and there was no one pushing back against our argument, then I would have considered that I probably failed, because my arguments were too weak and too comforting.”
She also said Mr. Trump’s opposition to the project, and his determination to make it a “boogeyman of this election,” has actually made it, and the history it recounts, more visible.
“I don’t believe the man in the White House has read the 1619 Project,” she said. “[But] he has now spread the year 1619 to all of his followers, and whether his followers read a single word of the project, they now know 1619 is a date of importance. They now know 1619 is the beginning of American slavery, and I actually think that is a beautiful unintended consequence of what he has done.”