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Nikole Hannah-Jones explores 'A New Origin Story' in '1619 Project' book

Nikole Hannah-Jones stands for a portrait at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on July 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)
Nikole Hannah-Jones stands for a portrait at her home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, on July 6, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

In 2019, when The New York Times first published its special magazine issue of “The 1619 Project” — it was a sensation.

Created to illuminate the arrival of the first Black people brought to the British colonies for the purposes of enslavement, the issue tells a story of how Black Americans were instrumental in creating what we know as the United States.

The project was the brainchild of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her essay.

Now, Hannah-Jones has extended her work in the form of a new book. “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” expands versions of those original pieces through journalism, historical accounts, criticism and imaginative literature.

The book comes as school boards throughout the nation, including Hannah-Jones’ home state of Iowa, are making moves to ban “The 1619 Project” and other works like it from being taught.

School boards banning books isn’t new, the former education reporter says, but the sheer amount of state legislation against “The 1619 Project” and the “larger conservative boogeyman that they’re calling critical race theory” is in some ways “unprecedented.”

“I think we should not underplay how dangerous this is,” she says.

Since the project was published, Hannah-Jones says she’s spent a lot of time thinking about these bans against a piece of American journalism. A lot of the outcry points back to the racial reckoning last year, she says, when multiracial and multigenerational people everywhere from rural areas to massive cities filled the streets in support of Black lives.

Protesters questioned narratives that have been taught throughout U.S. history and demanded answers as to why society was still structurally unequal, she says. That’s when efforts to suppress Black history and deny slavery and anti-Blackness as part of the country’s foundation gained steam, she notes.

That’s because race has always been the original wedge issue in the U.S., Hannah-Jones says. Race is “a tool to stoke white resentment. It’s telling white voters who aren’t necessarily all conservative, either, that it’s gone too far,” she says. “They’re coming for your history.”

Shielding people from the truth about Black history in America is a way to delegitimize the struggle for racial justice, she says.

It’s why the backlash to “The 1619 Project” was — as Hannah-Jones puts it — “quite predictable.”

Interview Highlights

On people who do not believe the history laid out in “The 1619 Project”

“I think in general, when you work in the realm of journalism that I do, which is trying to really excavate the racial inequality and the anti-Blackness, that, of course, I argue is embedded in the United States, that there’s always going to be a segment of the population who just doesn’t want to hear it, who doesn’t want to believe it, who are impermeable to facts. But I don’t think that that’s most Americans. We’re human, so the backlash gets a lot of attention. But there would not be a need for a backlash if millions of Americans had not embraced the project and wanted to learn and said, ‘I’m seeing my country in a way and understanding my country in a way that I never did before.’ Those are the people that I’m trying to reach, people who have an open mind.

“If you’ve had a chance to read the book, I know it’s a long book, we took so much care. It has almost a thousand endnotes. We cite our sources. We don’t steer away from the controversies. We really stare into them with careful scholarship and writing expand in those areas. For those Americans who did start to say, well, there’s so much criticism, maybe they did get these things wrong. And I also think it’s important that this is an origin story. That’s what we call it. We are making an argument. Every American doesn’t have to ultimately come away from the project saying we agree with their arguments or we agree with every argument.

“But I think what they’ll come away with is a profoundly different understanding of their country and, I hope, a desire to be much more skeptical of origin stories in general, of the myths that we have told ourselves about our country. And I think we just have to have a more honest conversation about the country that we are so that we can build a country that we want to believe that we are.”

On a line in the new book in which Hannah-Jones states she is part of the first generation of Black Americans born into a society with full rights as citizens

“Two things kind of helped me make this connection. One, for most of my career, I was writing about education and I did a lot of reporting on school segregation and school desegregation orders. When I first started reporting on these court orders that were forcing school districts to integrate, I was shocked that many of these districts didn’t comply or begin to comply with these court orders until the 1980s or the 1990s, and that there were still school districts right now that are being ordered by the court to integrate. And it made me realize I was part of a school integration plan that my hometown implemented to avoid a court order. And it just gave a sense of how recent all of this is.

“And then I was thinking about my dad. My father was born into a thoroughly apartheid state. Mississippi was the most apartheid state in the country — and that’s my dad. My dad was in his 20s when the civil rights movement was being waged when it was legal to discriminate against Black people in every aspect of our lives. It was explicitly legal to discriminate against us just because we descended from American slavery.

“When I made that connection, I realized that in some ways, Black Americans of my generation are almost like a first-generation immigrant because we are the first generation who had the full rights of citizenship. And we’re so often compared to other groups and we’re told, ‘well, look, these people came here with nothing and they’ve succeeded, why haven’t you?’ And so when I made that connection, well, actually, we’ve actually made astounding and remarkable progress considering that 10 years before I was born, it was legal to discriminate against Black people in housing, schools [and] education. And myself being biracial, 10 years before I was born, it was illegal for my parents to be married in 10 states. So this is a recent history. The civil rights movement is often used against Black people in a way to say, you all have your rights now and look what you’ve done with them. When instead we need to be saying, what does it say about a people who only had full rights of citizenship for a generation — and that matters.”

On applying human truth that once you see something, you can ignore it but you can’t unsee it

“I would like to believe that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. But these laws that are being passed across the country, the historian Timothy Snyder calls them memory loss because that’s what they are. They are trying to control our collective memory. They are trying to erase from our collective memory the understanding of how foundational slavery and anti-Blackness are to our country. I always kind of liken ‘The 1619 Project’ to the movie ‘The Matrix.’ If you’ve watched ‘The Matrix,’ you know once he takes the red pill, he can see all of the coding that has created this society that he lives in, the environment that he lives in. But some people don’t want to know that truth. And so they take the blue pill and they are willing to live a more comfortable life where they don’t have to know the truth because the truth is so discomforting.

“I think that’s where we are in our society. Some of us say ‘once I’ve learned this truth, I never want to go back to not knowing. I want to keep learning more and more, and I want to use that truth to pass policies that can make up for all that’s been done.’ But then you have other segments of the society who say, ‘No, we don’t want our society to change.’ I don’t know which side is going to win — and that worries me.”


Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Chris BentleySerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.