How ‘The 1619 Project’ underscores connection between slavery and modern America

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project has become a topic of much debate in recent years. Amna Nawaz spoke with her about expanding upon that original work, the importance of looking back at how our nation's history unfolded, and its relevance today.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones's 1619 Project has become a topic of much debate in recent years.

    For our Bookshelf tonight, Amna Nawaz spoke with her about expanding upon that original work, the importance of looking back at how our nation's history unfolded, and its relevance to today.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    In 2019, "The New York Times Magazine" published The 1619 Project, with the bold claim that 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans were brought what would later become the United States, could be considered the origin of this country.

    The journalist who created and helmed the project is Nikole Hannah-Jones, a reporter for the magazine who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her work on The 1619 Project. That work went from a special magazine issue, to a special newspaper section, to a multiepisode podcast series.

    And it has now been expanded into the just-published new book, "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story."

    Nikole Hannah-Jones, now Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University, joins me now in our studio.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being here.

    Nikole Hannah-Jones, Author, "The 1619 Project": Thank you. Thanks for having me.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, why an expansion? What did you feel it was necessary to expand upon from the previous work in this new book?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    There were still so many areas of American life that we wanted to explore and other writers and historians we wanted to include that we couldn't fit into the original project.

    And it also was an opportunity to really expand on the original essays, to answer some of the critics, to really show our work and the scholarship that undergirded the original project and to make the connection of slavery to modern America even stronger.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You tackle a lot…

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    … even in this expansion, 19 essays, 36 poems and works of fiction. Issues include capitalism, inheritance, citizenship, music, justice.

    Contributors include Dorothy Roberts, Wesley Morris, Trymaine Lee, Ibram X. Kendi.

    How did you even decide what to include, who to approach, who to include?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    So, it was kind of a mix.

    There's a essay by Dorothy Roberts on how race was constructed. I knew that Martha Jones, I wanted her to write on citizenship. And then there were certain writers where, like Ibram X. Kendi, I think he's a brilliant scholar, and I didn't know what he would write, but I knew I wanted to include him in the book.

    I think one of my favorite essays and one that will probably be the most surprising to readers is the one by Harvard historian Tiya Miles on settler colonialism, Indian removal, and how the five so-called civilized tribes also engaged in chattel slavery. I knew I — we needed to have an essay that dealt with Indian removal, but we had to find the right one. So it was a mix.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There's also the inclusion of portraits, beautiful photographs, real people throughout American history.

    Why did you choose to include those?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    When we learn this history, so seldom do you see just regular Black people in the 1800s or the early 1900s.

    And every one of those photos are not of famous people. Forces you to pause before you enter the essays and reflect that these were human beings with real feelings, with the same emotions, love, hurts, wants as anyone else, which is the opposite of what slavery tried to do, which was strip that humanity from people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    This claim, this central idea to the book that 1619 could be considered the country's origin, that that's not the national narrative we're taught growing up here, and it was met with some very fierce backlash when you first published The 1619 Project, historians, politicians, state lawmakers legislating against it by name.

    Did the strength of that backlash surprise you?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    Yes, it did. Yes, of course.

    I mean, I knew that there was going to be backlash to this. This is an ambitious and provocative project. The reason the project has to exist is we have wanted to treat slavery as an asterisk. And even a lot of historians are invested in the idea of American exceptionalism. We treat the revolutionary period kind of as divine event.

    And this project was seeking to unsettle that and to say, yes, we were founded on ideals of freedom, but the practice of slavery. And if you think about 1619 as an origin, that explains really some of our most vexing problems and tensions.

    So I knew there would be pushback, but no one could predict that state legislatures would be seeking to ban the project, that the president of the United States, Donald Trump at the time, would be castigating the project and passing executive orders against the project.

    I think that's really unexpected.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    There was an update to the work published, we should note, right?

    In March of 2020, there was a clarification made. The original language suggested that protecting slavery was a — quote, unquote — "primary motivation for all colonists. You updated that to some colonists.

    Why was that an important clarification to make?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    Well, one, let me say we weren't suggesting all colonists. That was called rhetoric.

    So, for instance, if we say Americans love pizza, no one assumes that we mean every single American loves pizza. And so when I said colonists, I wasn't arguing that every single colonist had slavery as a motivation.

    But when scholars pushed back on that, then we amended it, because I think that's what a journalist should do. I think that only strengthens the project.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    More big picture, let me ask you about where we are right now, because there's a James Baldwin line that's actually in the book, cited in the chapter called "Fear," that not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed unless it is faced.

    So do you see now a greater willingness among Americans generally to face the history of racism in this country, the legacy of slavery, and to begin to do the work to change it?

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    I do.

    I mean, the response to The 1619 Project speaks to that. You wouldn't see this type of intensive backlash if millions of Americans didn't actually care about learning this history. I believe that, if we believe our country is truly great, then it can withstand the light of the truth. And it's only if you are afraid that somehow the truth will destroy our country that you try to repress it.

    So I think what we saw last year with the racial injustice protests was Americans starting to make connections and say, wait a minute. We have unresolved issues. When we saw George Floyd killed on national television, that was not just about one bad police officer. That was about a 400-year structure that would make this white officer feel he could kill a man in front of witnesses and not be punished.

    So, those connections are very powerful. And that's why we're seeing the backlash. So, I do think we're at a place where Americans are willing to excavate our history, so that we can actually try to build the country that we say we are.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The author is Nikole Hannah-Jones. The new book is "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story."

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • Nikole Hannah-Jones:

    Thank you.

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