Nikole Hannah-Jones was a 16-year-old high school student when the seed was planted for what would lead her to become the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the 1619 Project–The New York Times Magazine’s award-winning reframing of American history that places slavery and its enduring legacy at the center of America’s national narrative.
As a teenager growing up in a small town in Iowa, Ms. Hanna-Jones was enrolled in a Black Studies course where, she recalled, she “came across” the date 1619 for the first time as being one of historical significance. “I remember being shocked to learn that was the year the first African people were sold into slavery in America, in the colony of Virginia.”
“Every American child learns the story of the Mayflower,” said Ms. Hannah-Jones, referring to the storied vessel that carried Pilgrims from England to Plymouth, in modern-day Massachusetts, where they established the first permanent European settlement in 1620. “And yet, 1619 is an event that is completely erased from our national memory—the complete erasure of the beginning of slavery in America and the treatment of slavery as an asterisk in the American story.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones made her remarks during “A Conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones,” an in-depth virtual discussion that took place on Wednesday, May 5, with Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., University President, about her book, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
The celebrated writer noted that when she became a reporter at The New York Times Magazine, she wanted to use her position as a journalist “at the largest and most important news organization, I would argue, in the world, as a platform to place the year 1619 into the national lexicon, to try to compel a confrontation with what it means that slavery is one of the oldest institutions in the United States, and to show the way that the legacy of slavery still shapes so much of our modern society in America.”
The Office of Equity and Inclusion hosted the conversation, with support from the Office of the President, the Institute for Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, the Academic Center for Equity and Inclusion, and the Department of History.
The 1619 Project was first published as a series in the magazine in 2019, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of the beginning of slavery in the American colonies. Two years later, Ms. Hannah-Jones adapted and expanded the work into the book. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story is composed of 18 essays, 36 poems, and works of fiction.
Noting he grew up in the suburbs of Boston, MA, “in the shadow of Plymouth Rock,” Fr. Shanley acknowledged he was educated not about the birth of slavery in the colonies, but only about the landing of the Mayflower in 1620, or about the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which he described as “the narrative of freedom.”
In response to the University president’s request that she outline the contrasts between the 1619 and 1776 narratives of the nation’s origin story, Ms. Hannah-Jones said, “We all learned 1776 was the year of our nation’s founding, and that was when Thomas Jefferson penned those famous English words, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ What we argue in the 1619 Project is that there is a parallel story occurring—that the man who wrote those words, Thomas Jefferson, owned 200 human beings at the time he wrote them.”
“And while we think of the story of America and the original 13 colonies as being a story about Boston, MA, and Philadelphia, PA,” she continued, “it’s really a story about Virginia and Virginians who are enslaving human beings, even as they are writing our founding documents and deciding to begin a revolution that they argue is about liberty and freedom.”
Fr. Shanley asked Ms. Hannah-Jones to recall the controversy that resulted when a group of historians disagreed with the 1619 Project’s argument that slavery was a motivating factor for some of the colonists who joined the American Revolution. “The role of slavery in the American Revolution has been the most contested and talked about part of the entire project,” she responded. “There might still be people who disagree with that argument and I think that is fine. But I don’t believe it is factually accurate to say it is wrong.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones continued, “The man [Thomas Jefferson] who wrote the original draft of the Declaration of Independence was a Virginian whose occupation was slave owner. The father of the US Constitution [James Madison] was a Virginian enslaver. The first president [George Washington] was a Virginian enslaver. Ten of our first 12 presidents were enslavers. And yet, we have been taught that slavery could not have had anything to do with the motivations of men at that time.”
“I think that really requires a suspension of logic,” she added.
“I understand that it is difficult for us to grapple with the fact that the men who set the chart for the founding of our country and who founded the country based on the ideas of liberty and freedom could be hypocrites, motivated by depriving others of freedom.”
During the event, Ms. Hannah-Jones also took questions from the virtual audience. One query addressed whether she anticipated the intensity of opposition that occurred from some sectors to the 1619 Project, including legislation that proposes banning the teaching of the work.
“I certainly expected criticism. I don’t think you can produce any major, ambitious work and not expect that,” she said. “And I knew there would be pushback. Pushback and critique is one thing. But legislature that is trying to ban the teaching of a work of American journalism simply because they disagree with it—I could not have imagined that.”
When asked about the role higher education institutions should assume to advance conversations such as the one that took place at this event, Ms. Hannah-Jones said, “The entire reason we go to college is so we can understand the world, so that we can become critical thinkers.”
“We should teach our students and engage them in ways that lead them to be skeptical,” she added. “So much of what you should be doing is introducing your students to texts, to thinkers, to ways of thinking that completely challenge what they have come to know in the conventional way and why they have come to know it. That, to me, is the highest calling of the teaching profession.”