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With The1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones Reminds Us How We Got Here

The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist discusses the project’s latest iteration on Hulu, the case for reparations and what books are currently on her bedside table.

by Abigail Glasgow

Nikole Hannah-Jones of the 1619 Project

"You cannot tell the story of America without telling the story of Black America,” opens the trailer for The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ New York Times series, podcast, and book that, on January 26, launched in its latest iteration as a six-episode docu-series on Hulu. After nearly four years in the public eye, the project—which traces the experiences of Black Americans to their original enslavement in 1619 at a coastal port in Virginia—has inspired curriculums, won Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize, and even incited legal tension between her and former employer Chapel Hill following a host of backlash from right wing critics.

A week before 1619 came to Hulu, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis rejected an AP African American History course currently being piloted in select high schools nationally. The day after the docu-series’ release, the video of Tyre Nichols’ murder by five (now former) Memphis police officers circulated social media. Our colonial history remains a modern reality, and the work of the 1619 team—including Oprah Winfrey who touts an Executive Producer title, award-winning director Roger Ross Williams, and Emmy-nominated Shoshana Guy as showrunner—demands we question how we got here as a society and what we can collectively do to repair our centuries of harm.

Here, Hannah-Jones discusses the project’s reception, reparations, what story she hopes to write next, and why she generally sticks to nonfiction:

Did you anticipate that the 1619 project would evolve into what it has? What has surprised you most about it?

I wish I was the visionary who could have foreseen all of this. I’m a print reporter, so I always think in that way. When I first pitched the project, I did have an idea for a podcast but had never thought about film. So I've been surprised by everything it’s become. What surprised me most is how much thirst there is, that there are so many people who want to understand our country better. All of these different iterations of subject matter are hard and painful and something that we as a nation haven't wanted to grapple with; and yet, people are wanting to grapple with it. The extent to which they have—you know, it's been four years since I pitched the project, three and a half years since it published—and people are still wanting to take it in, to see it through its iterations. And then, of course, I always expected that there would be some pushback to the project, but the ferocity and the duration of it has been surprising.

In the democracy episode, you say narrative drives policy. What kind of policy could you see coming from the project?

As Americans, we rarely support policies just because that's what the research says is the right or most helpful thing to do. We often support policy based on a political narrative; it's not about facts. Look at an issue like gun violence. Most Americans actually support gun control, and yet, that’s not what is setting policy. When I say narrative drives policy, it comes from a deep understanding as a journalist that understanding the need for a policy or who that policy will benefit depends not just on what the data or experts tell us, but from the narrative around those policies. And journalists play a huge role in creating whatever those narratives are—look at crime or environmental policy. If we can provide people with a different narrative of how our country came to be and why we see collectively experienced inequality, we can start to change the policies to address [that inequality]. The most obvious policy that I am hoping to influence coming out of this documentary series is around the issue of reparations. Many people don't support reparations because they have no understanding of the history. They don't understand that so much of Black economic suffering is not about what individuals are doing, but is a matter of policy.

I think one of the most powerful quotes is when you say Black people have never been the problem, but the solution. Tell me more about what you mean by that.

From the beginning of Black people being brought to the United States, we've been posed as a problem. If you go on Google and search “the Negro Problem” or “Black problem,” you will see reams of studies going back decades that are trying to resolve “what is wrong with Black people.” That comes, of course, from this psychology that developed around Black people during the time of slavery—that we are an internal enemy. That we were brought here as forced laborers and so we were untrustworthy, always trying to rebel, problematic. And then at the end of slavery, when we no longer could be used for free labor, we were treated as a problem because “now what do we do with all of these Black people who were never meant to be here as citizens or part of the democratic process?” We see this [sentiment] in everything from crime to welfare to educational policy. It went from there being something wrong with Black people as a race to where I think we are now, which is this belief that there's something culturally wrong with Black people. So, “we no longer can say Black people are genetically inferior, but we can say there is some pathological, cultural issue.” This is why Black Americans suffer from the worst outcomes of nearly every indicator of wellbeing.

I'm trying to turn that on its head and say, actually, these are the people who believed in these ideas of America the most, with the most veal and fervor. They fought for democracy and equality. Black Americans support social safety nets and common good programs at the highest rate. If we looked to Black Americans for a vision of America, we would see people who have always tried to improve this country for all marginalized people. We haven’t been a problem, we’ve been a solution. So much of this project is trying to subvert narratives that we almost breathe in like oxygen—we don't question them, we don't quite know where they came from, it's just part of our culture. [The 1619 Project] tries to make us stop and say, “Why do we believe that? Why is our country like that? Why does this happen?” So much of what we're trying to do is use language, imagery, and history to subvert an accepted narrative.

What was the experience like collaborating with leading thinkers and artists like Dorothy Roberts, Jesmyn Ward, or Reginald Betts?

You know, journalism tends to be a solitary profession. You go out, report your story, write your story. And then finally after laboring by yourself over it, you hand it over to an editor. What's been so beautiful about this project, and all of its iterations, is how collaborative it's been.

I don't know the medium of television. So getting to work with Shoshana Guy, Roger Ross Williams, and all of the producers as we report, write, outline, and structure together was just such a fulfilling experience. And so fitting to have that experience on a project like this, because [1619] is a collective telling. One single person could not tell this 400-year story of now 40 million descendants. It had to be collective. To put the weight of this work on any one person's shoulders would have been too much. Now, we all have ownership over it. It's been one of the greatest experiences of my career.

I imagine this project has been as difficult as it has been successful. I'm wondering how you navigate the gravity of what you're covering and the emotions that come with interrogating our racist history?

You know, I've written about these issues really for my entire career. They’re why I became a journalist. I let myself feel the pain because I think you have to tap into that emotion to do justice to the subject matter. I'm always reminded of why I'm doing this work. It is hard, but it is necessary. When you do this ancestral work, when you spend so much time looking at slavery archives, talking to civil rights workers who were beaten and tortured, even thinking about my own family—my grandmother was born on a cotton plantation and had a fourth grade education—I can't really complain. I'm blessed and honored to be able to do this work in this way. I write about really heavy subjects and I've kind of been cast by the right wing as some angry woman, but I laugh a lot. And I think that comes from knowing the work I do matters. So, joy is easy for me.

What haven’t you covered yet that you’d like to explore? Either as a part of the 1619 Project or otherwise.

I've always wanted to spend time writing about what is owed to the Civil Rights generation, particularly. In 2014, during the anniversary of Freedom Summer, I went down to Mississippi and interviewed all of these veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. It was the first time it hit home [for me] how much people who fought to democratize America lost—and they never stopped paying for it. They lost their homes and land, they gave up their college educations to fight and were blackballed from jobs—some decades after the movement was over. So many of them live in poverty or next-to poverty. They were fighting a war, it was just an internal war.

I've always wanted to do something that demonstrates how we owe a pension to the people who literally helped democratize our country. If you fought in World War II, or Vietnam, or anywhere else under the guise of ensuring democracy in another country, you get benefits for that. But the veterans of the Civil Rights Movement get nothing. Their bodies were often wrecked from being beaten and abused, but they don't get free healthcare or a pension. No one makes up for everything that was taken from them. So that's a story I'd like to pursue. And if I'm going to do it, I need to do it soon, because we're losing so many people from that generation.

Well, I certainly am going to be reading that whenever you do tackle it. Let’s get into some of our Culture Diet questions. How do you get your news?

The first thing I watch in the morning is the news—I watch the morning show every day. I check the New York Times and Washington Post every day. I try to read my hometown paper, the Waterloo Courier. And then of course, I get a lot of news from Twitter.

What books are on your bedside table right now?

Right now I'm rereading Black Reconstruction by Du Bois. I'm also reading a fiction book, Nightcrawling, which I rarely do. It feels like a luxury that I don't have time for. I'm usually reading books for information, so I mostly read history. I listen to fiction when I'm out walking. But after we wrapped the documentary series, I took off the last two weeks of the year and I asked people to give me recommendations for the best fiction they’d read that year.

Besides the 1619 podcast, what are your favorite podcasts?

I don't really listen to podcasts, and I always feel so exposed when I admit that. But I mean, I think of podcasting as radio, which I do listen to. I did devour In the Dark, and of course listened to Serial when it first came out. I basically like investigative podcasts. And the This American Life episode on Harper High is still one of my all time favorites. So I guess I occasionally listen, I'm just not a regular.

Are you a TV person? Any shows that have kept you up at night?

I love Snowfall. For one, it's based on real events—how the CIA spread crack in Black communities. It tells the story through white agents, the Latino drug cartel, and the Black family that basically helped spread crack. It's really multi-dimensional, the writing is great. It’s a show that also defies every racial stereotype, so I love that.

Do you have any favorite social media accounts that you follow? Any fellow journalists or activists that you go to for information?

Honestly, the people that I'm most interested in following now are people who are helping us understand the current threats to democracy. So, Anthea Butler, who tweets and understands a lot about white Christian nationalists. Oddly enough, David Blight is an amazing Twitter follow for his analysis of what’s happening in the country right now, even though he's a historian. And then I just love following Soledad O'Brien because she has such sharp critiques of how media is failing us in this moment.

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