Special: The Washington Week Bookshelf: “The 1619 Project”

Dec. 11, 2021 AT 11:07 a.m. EST

The New York Times Magazine’s Nikole Hannah-Jones joined Yamiche Alcindor to discuss her new books “The 1619 Project.” She also discussed the politics and history of race in America as well as how this history continues to impact the nation today.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

- Welcome to the Washington Week Bookshelf. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. We're continuing our conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones. She's a Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and the creator of The 1619 Project. We will explore the newly released bestselling book, The 1619 Project, and the bestselling children's book, Born on the Water. Nikole, thank you so much for being here. First question, 'cause obviously the project was such a success. It obviously got a lot of a conversation going. What do you want readers to now get out of these books?

- Well, what I hope that readers will get out of the books is just a different understanding of the country in which we lived. Of course, we all know that slavery existed in the United States, but we're really taught of this history as if it is marginal to the American story. Slavery is treated like asterisks and certainly, Black contributions to our society are treated as segregated history as if it only impacted Black Americans. So I'm hoping that people really just be illuminated about what the country was really built on, and why we have so many of the tensions that we have today. And then I think it's important for people to know that The 1619 Project is not just about the past, but it really is about helping us understand how the legacy of slavery shaped so much of the society that we lived in. And then lastly, Born on the Water, which is the children's book, the picture book that we released along with the adult book, it's an origin story for Black American descendants of slavery. So many of us grew up in this country feeling, we don't have a flag to claim or land to claim. Any connection to an African country has been pursed, and that's a very demeaning origin story. So we really seek to give Black American children an origin story that they can be proud of.

- And you've been writing about race for more than 25 years, you said. And you said that you still learn stuff while you were reading this book, while you were putting this together. So what are the things that stuck out to you that stick with you?

- Yes, every single essay in that book, I learned things. And I think I learned something new really on every single page because this history is so vast. I've been studying it even longer than I've been writing about it. I have a degree in African-American studies, but I learned, I'll just tell you about some of my favorite essays in the book, Michelle Alexander and Leslie Alexander, I wrote this essay about the Haitian Revolution and how the Haitian Revolution had an impact on United States and really on this fear of Black Americans as this internal enemy. There's an excellent essay in there by historian Tiya Miles about Indian removal and settler colonialism, but also something I think that will surprise many kinds of lay historians, which is that the five so-called civilized tribes, and that's what Europeans and White Americans called them. They, of course, were always civilized, engaged in chattel slavery. So, there's an excellent essay by Dorothy Roberts on the creation of race. In America, the first thing we do in this country is check a box from the moment we're born. We have a box check about what race we are, and when we die, there's a box check about what race we are. But where does that come from? Where did this concept of race come from? And Dorothy Roberts has an excellent essay that talks about that. So I just think every essay in the book will teach you something, even if you are a scholar of this history.

- I feel like I learned something when I was reading the book myself. And part of that is also this idea of the myth of racial progress. Talk a bit about that in what that term means, but also if you could connect it to what we saw, when you think of the protest after the death of George Floyd and sort of where we are. Some people calling it sort of another reconstruction area where we're pulling back on the idea of a racial reckoning.

- Absolutely, so that's an essay by Ebro Max Kennedy, and it's the second to the last essay in the book. And what he really does is examine this very optimistic American view that, yes, things with race were bad in the past but we've overcome that. And things aren't where they need to be, but they're getting better, and so in the future, we will eradicate racial inequality. And that myth of progress, that progress is inevitable, that America is just a good country that's always moving forward is false. It's not born out by history and it's certainly not born out by the reality that we see in our country right now. And so that essay really says, progress only happens if we make it happen, and too often in this country, we haven't been invested in the long-term work that it takes to eradicate a 400-year system of racial cast. And I think we can obviously look at last year when we had those racial protests, the largest protest for black lives really in the history of the world. And you saw that they were multi-racial, multi-generational, and everyone felt we were on the cusp of some transformative change. Well, here we are a year later, and many of the allies got tired real fast when they saw you couldn't destruct a 400-year system in a few months of protest. And instead, we had an election that was ran explicitly against racial justice, where the Biden administration isn't really talking about racial justice right now, none of those policies got passed, and instead, Republicans really steered into this notion that we've talked too much about racial injustice and now White Americans are the ones who are being victimized. So all of that can be born out if you studied the history and particularly Ebro Max Kennedy's essay, I think really is a searing indictment of where we are in this country. And this kind of obscene optimism, that things will be okay, even when millions of Americans are suffering and they're not.

- So, I mean, sort of that optimism being burst came from the idea that there was such a backlash to the 1619 project, you yourself had been wrongly targeted just for doing journalism. What's that backlash for field revealed to you, and what does it mean that there are some pushing for students and people to learn a redacted version of American history?

- Well, I think what it shows is the power of narrative that we've all been indoctrinated into this idea of American exceptionalism and that any inequality we see in this country is simply because Black Americans, indigenous people, Latinos, just simply haven't wanted to take advantage of the bounty of this country and what the 1619 project and other works, and the works that it relied upon really showed Americans was that this is structural, that we have a country where people do not have their opportunity, that there's a long legacy, a structural racism. And as you know Yamiche, we saw that in the language of the protest, but also in the polling, I've looked at a lot at the polling, try to understand what happened. At the height of the protest, even 45% of Republicans were saying, the structural racism was a primary obstacle at the Black Americans. That is transformative, so this pushback is in response to that, the 1619 project in seeking to unsettle the narrative of power. Also of course, unsettles powerful people. And so they have had to push back against that because once Americans started to understand the way that racism is embedded in the structure, then they will support policies that try to make our country more equal. And there are many people who are invested in us maintaining the status quo.

- When you're talking about people maintaining or wanting to maintain the status quo, you also write about the most successful or the only successful coup in American history. Some people might not know about it, it was in Wilmington, North Carolina. Talk a bit about that and how it connects possibly to January 6th and the movements we're seeing now to try to restrict voting.

- Absolutely, so you will recall that when January 6th happened, we saw a lot of people in the pundit class, so we're saying, oh, this is not America. This is not something that can happen here, but those of us who study history know that it has happened and it's happened more than once. So in Wilmington, there was a after the Civil War, a biracial party called the fusion party that came together and they defeated the white supremacist ticket, and they engaged in biracial governance. And the response to that was a coup, a violent overthrow of a democratically elected biracial party and the reinstatement of white supremacy. It destroyed a prosperous black community. Wilmington had one of the wealthiest black communities in America at the time. And there was a violent overthrow of governance. And then we saw a wave in North Carolina and across the south of efforts to restrict and deny the black vote, which lasted for more than a hundred years. So, when we compare that to January 6th, we saw a multiracial coalition of voters who deliver the election for Joe Biden, ousting a white nationalist president in the sense that, because it was heavily black city and strong turnout among black voters in places like Philadelphia and Wisconsin and Detroit, and then Latino voters and indigenous voters in places like Arizona, that because of that, this was not a legitimate election because black and brown people are not legitimate voters, and therefore this election had to be overthrown. So it's not identical to what happened, but the echoes are certainly there in those same anti-democratic tendencies, when it comes to people of color, asserting their citizenship are what got us January 6th. And I think is what has gotten us where we are right now.

- Yeah, we're also having this conversation amid a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color, people who are working class folks that have to still go out and drive buses and work at grocery stores. You have several essays about medicine and healthcare. I might wonder if you could talk a bit about sort of the connections there, the history of racism in healthcare, how it connects to what we're seeing now.

- Absolutely, so I think many of us journalists, scholars, activists, when the pandemic first hit, we were anxious to see the racial data because we knew based on history, not only who were going to be the people who were working the jobs that would most exposed them to the Corona virus, but also who gets inferior healthcare in this country, and so who would be most acceptable to being sick, getting sick and not being treated in a proper way and dying. And of course, the data bore that out, so we have a long history of really a dual system of medicine in this country where Black and Brown Americans are less likely to live near hospitals, less likely to have access to primary care, less likely to have access to insurance, and so they aren't, if they're sick, they would have to present themselves at the emergency room as opposed to their physicians and then of not getting equal treatment. And so one of the essays in the book, of course, opens with a black woman physician who videotapes some of her last moments on this earth because she was not being treated the way that she knew medically, she was supposed to be treated in the hospital and she ultimately succumbed to Corona virus. So these things are all connected to this legacy of believing the Black Americans are not worthy of the same medical treatment, that black people don't feel pain the same, that black people have different lung capacity, all of this type of medical racism has exacerbated a pandemic that already was impacting black people more than anyone else.

- We talked a bit about Born on the Water, but you're talking about black people being worthy. Part of that, that sort of sense of confidence, it comes sometimes from giving children something to believe in, as a youngster, as young people, how does this book you think teach maybe young African-Americans, maybe young people in general that black people are worthy?

- Absolutely, you know, this book that Renee Watson and I co-wrote together is the book that we wish we had when we were children. When we were searching for our place in the American story, our point of pride, and couldn't find it in the books that we were learning, so what this book teaches us is one, that we had at culture, we had lives, we had knowledge, we had love before we were ever brought to the United States in the hall of a ship. Our story does not begin with white people enslaving us. And I think that was so important because you can't understand the depth of what was lost until you understand what we had. But then it also talks about how black people resisted, always resisted slavery, always fought back, always asserted their humanity. And in the most devastating circumstances created an amazing culture and also were the primary advocates for democracy in this country. And I think that is a legacy that black children specifically can be proud of and the story that we don't get, but that every American should take great pride in that even when we had a country that did not live up to its founding ideal, Black Americans thought those majestic words and they fought to make them true, not just for our own communities, but for all Americans.

- Yeah, and in talking about asserting humanity, I wanna just ask you, you are a reporter who has had to weather so much. How are you doing as a reporter? How are you doing as a human being when you've been through such sort of painful episodes, when you think about UNC, but also when you think about sort of just being targeted by people who are attacking you for exposing the truth about this country?

- Well, Yamiche, I know you know, how this is because you yourself have stood up as such a model for our young girls, I've told you before that how much it meant for my daughter to see you standing up to the president when you were not treated with the dignity and respect that you deserve. And I know that you also understand that this is our mission and nothing that they can do will dissuade us from doing the work that we know that we are called to do, so I'm doing just fine. One thing about studying my ancestors here, I know you take great pride in your Haitian ancestors is that we know we are built for this, that our ancestors and everything that they endured, built us to do this work. So, I have my low moments just like anyone else, but I am always, always anxious to wake up in the morning and just keep doing the work that I know must be done.

- Yeah, well, you are a gift to this country, to this world, with all of the work that you are doing. I think the message we are built for this it's one that I will be marinating on. So thank you so much, Nicole Hannah-Jones, we'll have to leave it there tonight. I really appreciate you coming on and sharing your reporting and make sure all of you to buy the book, 1619 Project and Born on the Water and sign up for the Washington Week newsletter as well, it's on our website. We'll give you a look at all things Washington. I'm Yamiche Alcindor. Thank you so much for joining us. Good night.

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