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Nikole Hannah-Jones on her 1619 Project and the power of narrative

The full episode transcript for Changing the Narrative, with Nikole Hannah-Jones.


Into America

Changing the Narrative, with Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-jones: To the more than 30 million descendants of American slavery.

Narrator: August, 1619. A ship arrives near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia, which was founded 12 years earlier.

Trymaine Lee: You're listening to the newly-released audiobook version of The 1619 Project.

Narrator: The White Lion carries some 20 to 30 captive Africans who are traded to the Virginia colonists for provisions, making them the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that will become the United States.

Lee: Two years ago, in August of 2019, the New York Times published The 1619 Project. The aim was to show us just how deeply the U.S. legacy of chattel slavery history was and still is the defining feature of this nation. The project was the brainchild of New York Times Magazine journalist and my dear friend Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Jones: We are often taught in school that Lincoln freed the slaves. But we are not prodded to contemplate what it means to achieve freedom without a home to live in, without food to eat, a bed to sleep on, clothes for your children, or money to buy any of it.

But even as a federal government decided that Black people were undeserving of any restitution, it was bestowing millions of acres in the West on white Americans under the Homestead Act while also enticing white foreigners to immigrate with the offer of free land.

Lee: When it was released, The 1619 Project took up an entire issue of the Times Magazine. More than two dozen Black journalists, writers, and thinkers contributed to this initiative, myself included. Today, Black Americans, far removed from slavery and Jim Crow, continue to be handed the economic misfortune of their forebears.

This is why, as of 2017, white households were twice as likely as Black households to receive an inheritance. And when white people inherit money, it's typically three times the amount Black beneficiaries get. Those inheritances help drive the racial wealth gap.

The life of The 1619 Project has gone far beyond one magazine. This week, Nikole published the book version of 1619 along with an audiobook and a children's book called Born on the Water. I've been a fellow at Harvard this fall teaching at the Kennedy School's Institute of Politics. My classes center around storytelling, race, and American mythology. And I knew Nikole would be the perfect fit. So I brought her up to Harvard to talk with students about the enduring legacy of 1619.

Jones: It asks the question, "How would we think differently about America and how would we be able to better understand America if we thought about our origins not in 1776 with this group of white men declaring they wanted to found a nation so that they could be free but instead thought about 1619, which is the introduction of African slavery?"

Lee: An argument like this was bound to get backlash from white, conservative corners. But in the Trump era (and even after it), the backlash wasn't just from academics and politicians.

Lee At Harvard: It's amazing. I've never seen a work of journalism with legs this long in such a powerful way.

Jones At Harvard: The controversy has been helpful in that way. (LAUGHTER)

Lee At Harvard: I was gonna say.

Lee: Controversy almost feels like too mild a word to describe how some white people have reacted to 1619. President Trump called out the project by name, saying it defiled our nation's history. And the project helped spark a conservative war against critical race theory.

Nikole herself was the subject of multiple stories on Fox News and she has endured a level of harassment that few people have had to face. As her friend, it was hard to see Nikole go through all of that. And it was strange seeing her life play out on such a big stage.

But Nikole says the controversy made her realize just how big of an impact she was making. Like earlier this year, when she made headlines again thanks to the University of North Carolina, the school where she earned her master's degree. Nikole had been hired at UNC as a journalism professor with the understanding that it would be a tenured position. But under political pressure from the school's board, the offer of tenure was rescinded. And as that situation played out, she could see that who she was and what she stood for meant so much for her people.

Jones At Harvard: I mean, (LAUGH) when I was walkin' through TSA, a Black woman TSA agent was like, "Girl, they better give you that (LAUGH) tenure because you've--"

Lee At Harvard: Right, right.

Jones At Harvard: --"worked for it." And I'm thinking to myself, "Why the hell would she care about tenure?"

Lee: And Nikole felt that support again when she later accepted a tenured position at the historically Black Howard University.

Jones At Harvard: Like, my family back home, they weren't readin' what I wrote. (LAUGH) They were proud that I was a journalist but The 1619 Project meant something to them. It gave Black folks who had a belief that they weren't bein' told the whole story, who knew that we were more than what we have been shown but didn't have the facts of it, I mean, we're all poorly educated in these stories. Not just white folks. All of us.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee and this is Into America.

For more than two years, The 1619 Project has underscored the politics of memory, revealed the forces that shape how history is remembered, and challenged America's origin story. Today, Nikole Hannah-Jones on how the project has changed this country and how she sees her place in it.

With all of the controversy and harassment that Nikole's received, some people might focus on all that negative reaction to The 1619 Project. But ultimately, as Nikole told the audience in this Harvard auditorium, it's really only the positive that matters.

Jones At Harvard: For many, many, many Americans and I would argue, far more Americans, it wasn't uncomfortable, wasn't something that angered them. It was something that made them think. It was provocative. It was a resetting for many Americans that forced them to grapple more truthfully with who we are.

And I think that grappling is empowering. And that has, by far, been the greater response to the project. But the negative response is also very predictable. When you read those opening words of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by the creator with inalienable rights, of these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," those words were written by an enslaver but those were (LAUGH) majestic words, right?

Like, those words are powerful. We just have never lived up to them for a single day. So if you believe in that kind of vaunted 1776 origin story, that's the comforting origin story. The 1619 Project is, I would argue, the more truthful but not comforting. It's not comforting at all.

Lee At Harvard: You know, we frame a lot of this as Black history. White people were there every step of the way. They were there, right? So if the response to centering a narrative and telling a truth is they're quaking and shaking, what are they afraid of? They were there.

Jones At Harvard: Well, but this speaks to, "What is history? And what purpose does history serve?" So there's history that is, of course, "What happened on what day, who did it, and why do we think they did it? What was the impact?" And then there's history of, "What do we want to remember about what happened? And who? Who do we want to remember? And what do we want to tell ourselves about what that means?"

And that second history is what this fight is about because you have people whose entire identity is wrapped up in this belief that this is an exceptionally good nation, that this is a nation that has been a force for freedom in the world.

And then you have to grapple with the fact that we're on stolen land that was taken by genocide, taken to expand the institution of chattel slavery, which was the opposite of freedom, and that we didn't want actual freedom or democracy for most of the people. Then that is deeply unsettling to people who are used to always being the hero in the story, right?

Lee At Harvard: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Jones At Harvard: And that understanding, that rendering of history is what justifies power. The fear is that you lose the legitimacy to the power because collective memory is always about power. And the people who have been the bottom of the American caste system should never be in a position to challenge that narrative and that power.

And that's what we're seeing. I mean (I think he's here at Harvard), (LAUGH) one historian who wrote a piece against The 1619 Project, what he said is that, "In this game of history, American slavery was just a blink of the eye and never before in a society have you seen people who had been enslaved vaunt to the highest echelons, including the New York Times with the approbation and support of their former enslavers." So basically--

Lee At Harvard: Wow.

Jones At Harvard: --"How dare this Black woman, who is at the New York Times, criticize the very people who allowed her to be there?" That's not a historical argument. That's not a argument about facts. That's a argument about who should have the right to shape how we think about our country. And this story is arguing that this is not Black history. This is American history, and you can't understand any of this, and that (as W.E.B. Du Bois said), "What would America be without her Negro people? Nothing."

Everything that we think of as quintessentially American, our music, our language, our food, our sound, right, our style that we export to the world, has roots in Black Americans. And yet we've been written out of the story that we produced. So that's where that anger comes from.

Lee At Harvard: And continue to be written out. And there is steep opposition to the recentering of that narrative. And I wonder in this moment we're in now, two years after the first iteration of The 1619 Project, if those of us who love freedom, and democracy, and truth, and work towards that are winning the battle over the narrative of who we are as America, right, who we've always said we were, and how we've responded, and how we've been compared to who we actually are. Are we winning this?

Jones At Harvard: No. I don't think we're winning. I think we had a brief period last year where we wanted to pretend we were ready for a reckoning. And when's the last time you heard anyone say anything about Black (LAUGH) lives mattering? When is the last time you heard any politician or anyone uttering anything about what this country owes Black Americans and how we should reckon?

We hear nothing. In fact, what we're hearing from the party that wouldn't be in power if it were not for the Black vote, saying, "If you want to win, you gotta stop talking about race. If you want to win, you can't center the base of your party," right? Which is the same thing we hear again, and again, again, and again historically: that Black Americans are the obstacle to national unity.

So we're not winning because we see all of these states passing these memory laws, prohibiting the teaching of The 1619 Project. They're calling them critical race theory laws but they're really laws that prohibit the teaching of a accurate history.

You don't see the opposition to that being nearly as organized. So I don't think we're winning at all. I think we're headed towards a very dark place because the same places that are passing the anti-CRT laws are passing the voter suppression laws, right?

We have one political party that does not believe in majority rule, that does not actually believe in a multiracial democracy. And yet the media is treating these parties as if they're both equally legitimate and both equally culpable when we know that's not true. So there are dark days ahead. And I don't think we have the urgency around what's happening in our country right now.

Lee At Harvard: How does this kind of truth telling change any of that? I mean, can we 1619 our way into better understanding and freedom in some ways? Can we policy our way out of the muck and the mire of deep, deep white supremacy that we're engaging with here? The story of 1619 and of the Black experience in this country certainly opens eyes and corrects the record. But the world that this next iteration of The 1619 Project is entering seems as dire as the one before.

Jones At Harvard: Well, yeah. You don't (LAUGH) transform 400 years of history in one work of journalism. But I will say the resistance and the response to The 1619 Project speaks to the power of narrative and that if you look at the polling last year, you were seeing majorities of Americans thinking, you know, structural racism was a primary obstacle to Black Americans.

At the height of the protest movement, seven out of ten Americans said they had had a discussion about race in their household in the last month. And people were, I mean, I've often argued in some ways, The 1619 Project was like the red pill in The Matrix, that you could go through your life, and you see all this inequality, but you don't understand what undergirds it.

And The 1619 Project shows the coding. It shows, "What are the structures that have built the society that we live in?" And that's a dangerous thing to power because if you no longer think inequality is just about individuals making bad choices, and you see that it is part of a ongoing structure that has been architected, then you have to pass policies to address the structure.

Jones: As a woman in my 40s, I am part of the first generation of Black Americans in the history of the United States to be born into a society in which Black people had full rights of citizenship. Black people suffered under slavery for 250 years. We have been legally free for just 50.

Yet in that briefest of spans, despite continuing to face rampant discrimination and despite there never having been a genuine effort to redress the wrongs of slavery and the century of racial apartheid that followed, Black Americans have made astounding progress, not only for ourselves but also for all Americans.

What if America understood, finally, now, at the dawn of its fifth century, that we have never been the problem but the solution? We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.

Lee: We'll be right back.

Lee At Harvard: You know, you've earned the respect of so many really brilliant, smart people, including myself. Not to say I'm brilliant and smart. (LAUGHTER)

Jones At Harvard: That is kinda what you said, though.

Lee At Harvard: But, I (LAUGHTER) mean, you know, it is what it is. (LAUGHTER) No, but I mean this in all sincerity. You've earned our respect. Not just those, you know, who work in the business and those who are thinkin' about these things for a living.

But you are also a human being and I wonder how you've been changed through this. Because you have this enormous success of this project that you poured your entire self into, poured two decades of experience into, tapped some of the greatest minds to contribute to. But you're also dealing with threats. You've become a proxy for everything people who hate Black people represent, right? How are you doing? How have you been changed by this process?

Jones At Harvard: Hmm. Hmm. It's been a long (LAUGH) two and a half years, for sure. Just working on the project, it was the most difficult, emotionally draining project I've ever worked on. I cried a lot makin' the project. Because it wasn't writing about someone else's community, it's not like at the end of the day, I just went home and wasn't thinking about it anymore.

I thought about it all the time. And I also felt a tremendous burden to get it right, to do justice to that suffering, to do justice to our ancestors. And then facing, you know, constant attacks, not just on the work but on my credibility as a journalist.

I became a symbol. And I think we would not be being honest if we didn't say me being a Black woman, in particular a Black woman who looks and presents the way that I do, that I didn't get a certain (LAUGH) extremely vicious type of pushback.

It's something frightening when the president of the United States, who has provoked violence openly, is tweeting about you and is talking about your work. And I could always tell when Fox News, or The Federalist, or Trump, or Pompeo has tweeted or said something about me because of what comes up in my email, on my voicemail.

And folks can say they're just words but, you know, when you're (LAUGH) just scrolling at night, checking your email, and someone has called you five racial slurs, and a cunt, and everything in one email and you've gotten ten or 15 of those at a time, it takes a toll on you. When they threaten to burn down your house, right, it takes a toll on you.

And then it was also this thing of kind of career dysmorphia, I guess I'd call it, where I've been writing about racial inequality for 20 years and most people didn't know my name. Most people didn't know what I looked like. And all of a sudden, I have people who are combing through every tweet that I make. And I can't tweet like I used to. And if you followed me on Twitter, you know that there were times when I didn't deal with it well at all, where I was (LAUGH) out there doin' battle and I didn't care if you had 12 followers or, you know, two million followers--

Lee At Harvard: Like, Nikole--

Jones At Harvard: --I was gonna--

Lee At Harvard: --you don't gotta go--

Jones At Harvard: Right. (LAUGH)

Lee At Harvard: --you don't gotta go there. Like, you don't have to do that.

Jones At Harvard: Right. But you know, (LAUGH) in my head, it's like, "This person is trying to discredit me. And I can't let it stand." Now, that doesn't make sense. But that's how, I'm a human being. So I've become a symbol to people but I'm a human being.

I'm this, like, at my core, working-class Black girl from Waterloo, where you just don't let disrespect stand. You don't let people's disrespect to you, or your people, or your work stand. But then that was, like, super toxic, too. So now I barely engage on Twitter.

So it's been, like, a steep learning curve in some ways. But at the end, I just believe so fervently in the moral drive of my work, that my work is right, that I'm working towards justice, that if power wasn't worried about what Americans having a greater understanding of who we are would mean in terms of the policies we adopt, in terms of how we treat Black Americans, power wouldn't be fighting so hard against the project. And then I just take a lot of strength from our ancestors. Like, on my worst day, on my absolute worst day, I don't know a tenth of the suffering that our folks have been through. So they built us for this.

Lee At Harvard: How much thought in the construction of The 1619 Project went into audience? Well, certainly, I know you were intentional about who was included (and I am among that number), making sure that you centered Black journalists, and Black thinkers, and Black historians. But in terms of the broader audience, was there any, like, thought and intentionality behind, like, who this was targeting? Was it for the people? Was it to educate white folks? What was your thinkin' behind it?

Jones At Harvard: So clearly, I thought (and I imagine everyone who worked on the project thought) about audience because we know who the audience of the New York Times is. The typical audience of the New York Times is white and wealthy. Where I live in Bedford Stuyvesant, unless you get home delivery for the New York Times, you can't go to the bodega and get a New York Times.

You can get a New York Post. You can get a New York Daily News. But you can't get the New York Times. So I obviously understood who would be most likely to see the project. But I also was not writing or producing the project to them. I was writing and producin' the project specifically to and for Black Americans but also to Americans no matter their race because this is all of our history and history that we need to know. But it had to be unflinching. I was determined from the beginning, you know, if white people loved it, that would be great. But if white people loved it and Black people didn't, I would have failed.

Lee At Harvard: What has made you feel the most proud, the most joyous, especially as it relates with Black folks? 'Cause Black folks have responded to this in a way that feels really special.

Jones At Harvard: Yeah. I mean, it's been the most amazing, impactful, affirming work of my entire life. And this is why I started off by saying, like, it's easy to focus on the negative. Black people don't (LAUGH) care what these white conservatives are saying about the project.

This project, to them, is empowering. I can't tell you, I mean, all over the country, and I mean, like, regular Black folks. Not people who even subscribe to the New York Times, not folks who are, like, in these elite spaces but, like, working class.

I've been a journalist for 20 years and, like, my family back home, they weren't readin' what I wrote. (LAUGH) They were proud that I was a journalist but they weren't readin' what I wrote. But The 1619 Project meant something to them. Seeing high school students who said, "I held my back more straight because I'm proud and what my ancestors went through makes me want to work harder to be successful," or I was in New Orleans and this 87-year-old (LAUGH) Black woman, like, hugged me and thanked me, and said, "I always felt ashamed of our history because they didn't teach us any of this.

"And now I know, I know, like, who we come from," that's just been powerful. And to have Black folks who are like, "I'm not gonna let anybody take away my lineage and my heritage," but also for Black folks, it's like, "We're not crazy." So when we think we see the legacy of slavery everywhere, we're not bein' paranoid. Like, it's actually everywhere.

And it is constraining our lives. But we also have the power, agency, because Black people have always exercised agency despite the odds. So I've never done anything, I think, that more powerfully affirmed why I became a journalist in my life and has (LAUGH) literally taken over my entire life. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: At the end of the conversation, Nikole took a few questions from students. After talking about 1619's impact all night, it was really special to see how the project and Nikole's approach to the work had left their mark on these young people.

Toussaint Miller: Hi. Thank you so much for being here and giving this very necessary talk. My name is Toussaint Miller. I'm a first year at the college--

Jones At Harvard: Toussaint?

Miller: Yes.

Jones At Harvard: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I like it.

Miller: Thank you. Thank you. And so what I enjoyed so much about your talk and what I related to the most is how you stand firmly on the idea of being unapologetically Black. What do you say to Black people, descendants of enslaved people specifically, or what advice would you give to those who question this privilege and richness?

Jones At Harvard: Mmm. I mean, I don't even know what to say 'cause there's nothin' more (LAUGH) amazin' in the world, right? It is hard but, my God, like, I used to, we probably all heard this growin' up, where they'd be like, "Black people are the strongest people in the world."

And 'cause I was a very nerdy kid, I'd be like, "Well, how can you really measure that," right? Like, I'm questioning it with my logical, nerdy-ass mind. But the more I've studied this and thought about you had people who were marched, shackled by foot, 1,000 miles from the interior of the continent to the coast. Many people didn't make it to the coast.

Then these people were held in pens for sometimes weeks, no access to fresh air, very little food, on top of their own feces and vomit. Many people died there. Then forced into the hulls of a ship where, sometimes, 40% of the people didn't even make it across the Atlantic, so much so that in the Port of Charleston, they were just dumping bodies of enslaved people into the port and you could see the bodies floating in the water.

And then, to make it through 250 years of the most brutal system of slavery ever engineered in the history of the world, and then another 100 years of racial terrorism, and still be here, 40 (LAUGH) million of us still be here out of 400 thousand who were brought here, you can't tell me we're not the strongest people in the world.

You can't tell me that, intrinsically. So, to me, all I ever feel every day is this great sense of pride and a great sense of the debt that I owe to all of those who came before me to allow us to be here. And there's nothing that can take that away. We have the right every minute of the day to hold our heads up because we truly (LAUGH) do come from an amazing, and resilient, and powerful people. And that's the greatest blessin' I can imagine.

Miller: Thank you so much.

Jones At Harvard: Thank you.

Lee At Harvard: And we're beautiful. And we're beautiful on top of that.

Jones At Harvard: And we're fine. (LAUGHTER)

Jones: When I was a child (I must have been in fifth or sixth grade), a teacher gave our class an assignment intended to celebrate the diversity of the great American melting pot. She instructed each of us to write a short report on our ancestral land and then draw that nation's flag.

As she turned to write the assignment on the board, the other Black girl in class locked eyes with me. Slavery had erased any connection we had to an African country. And even if we tried to claim the whole continent, there was no African flag.

It was hard enough being one of two Black kids in the class and this assignment would be just another reminder of the distance between the white kids and us. In the end, I walked over to the globe near my teacher's desk, picked a random African country, and claimed it as my own. I wish now that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people's ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.

Lee: I've you've read or are planning to read The 1619 Project, let me know how it's impacting you. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee. That's @TrymaineLee, my full name. Or write to us: We've been having a little trouble with our email so if you tried to write us recently and couldn't get through, our apologies. Everything is all fixed now. So please reach out again. That was intoamerica@nbc and the letters U-N-I dot com.

Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Joshua Sirotiak, and Aisha Turner. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Mitch Henley for his recording help this work. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll see you next Thursday.