“We’ve been taught the history of a country that doesn’t exist.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones is today’s Ida B. Wells, both fearless females and groundbreaking African-American journalists (Hannah-Jones’ Twitter handle is Ida Bae Wells). In addition to being a feminist and suffragist, Wells was a prominent anti-lynching activist. Hannah-Jones, too, is challenging America’s foundational, ubiquitous and deadly white supremacy identity.
At her Chicago Humanities Festival lecture, at the Symphony Center just north of Ida B. Wells Drive, Hannah-Jones spoke to an enthusiastic, appreciative, multiracial crowd about her seminal, Pulitzer Prize-winning work The 1619 Project, first a New York Times Magazine supplement and now an expanded book.
Hannah-Jones was interviewed by Joy Bivins, former Curatorial Affairs Director at the Chicago History Museum and currently the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Interdisciplinary artist Avery Young opened the program with a spiritual song-poem, describing Black bodies—“nothing but bronzed silk for skin” and “onyx lambs’ wool” for hair—before iron was wrapped around those human beings.
Young invoked enslavement because that’s what Hannah-Jones’ monumental project, an anthology of essays, poems and photos by many notable creators first published in 2019, is about, as the introduction notes:
“In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment, it is finally time to tell our story truthfully.”
That assertion, currently misinterpreted and dismissed by trolls as Critical Race Theory, frames the United States’ founding on the original sin of slavery, and how enslavement, segregation, discrimination, racism and the lie of “separate but equal” influences every aspect of American life, including education, housing, healthcare, wages, and more. She said, “we can’t get over slavery because our country hasn’t.”
The 1619 Project was mentioned at both impeachment trials, and Hannah-Jones was (and is) consistently attacked with attempts to discredit and delegitimize her and her output by GOP lawmakers and the former guy. But she just wanted to redress the history often seen through racist-colored glasses, saying “we are shaped by what we aren’t taught as well as what we are taught.” She also wryly noted that “Republicans don’t buy my book, but they sell it.”
She was born and raised in a Black, working-class community in Waterloo, Iowa, where her African-American history teacher first shared the date of 1619 with her, a year that predates the founding of the country by over a century and a half. She read all she could about the topic, and felt “angry, but empowered” finally knowing about the ships that landed here well before the Mayflower. The history she had learned beforehand “wasn’t explaining the world I was living in.”
Speaking out via journalism came early to her. She published her first letter to the editor at age 11, and she’s been questioning the status quo ever since. “I don’t think the ancestors gave me this platform to not talk about this shit,” she quipped, one of many bittersweet jokes of the afternoon. She wanted to know more and combat erasure by uncovering African-American history rather than just wearing Africa medallions and Kente cloth. She wanted to portray captured Africans as more than empty vessels. She wanted to document those who would debase, demean and degrade people of color in the past, which brought the same shameful treatment down on her from modern racists.
Hannah-Jones’ alma mater, the University of North Carolina, initially offered her an endowed professorship that had come with tenure for her predecessors, but declined her tenure due to her project and sometime backlash. She decided to join Howard University instead, as the Knight chair in race and journalism although she will share that work with “the constellation of HBCUs.” She will proselytize there alongside another award-winning writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who, among many outlets, writes for Black Panther comics and for The Atlantic, including his must-read essay “The Case for Reparations.”
But had there not been pushback, “I would have failed this project,” Hannah-Jones said. She added that the book is both a testimony and a testament, and that “the role of a journalist is to discomfit power.” She likens her research, project creation and eventual dissemination to the premise of the Matrix movies: “take the red pill to see the architecture that built this society. Become Neo and start resisting this shit.” (She added that she loves the film franchise.)
She somehow remains energized for this work—“I’m built for the weight of this”—and now not only has to fight existing segregation, plus inequalities in income, incarceration and healthcare, but also the growing conservative legislation against teaching Critical Race Theory, which is a rare, graduate-level study and not infiltrating kindergartens as some would have you believe.
Hannah-Jones is illuminating American apartheid and deconstructing the mythology of American exceptionalism. “We believe in Thomas Jefferson’s ideas, even though he didn’t,” she said.
But she doesn’t believe in plain hope, because it can lead to inertia. She thinks it will be difficult for this country to give up the settler colonialism mentality from those who “never stopped punished Blacks for the audacity of being free.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones was pleased to visit the Windy City, and was proud that Chicago Public Schools was the first district nationwide to make The 1619 Project part of its curriculum. Nearby Evanston is also the country’s first city to move towards enacting reparations. A documentary about the project is currently being filmed, slated to be released next year. She said she also is proud knowing that her ancestors built this country.
In what is hopefully an ongoing advocacy for more accountability when sharing history, white supremacist reminders are being razed or removed around the US. More accurate representations are being raised instead. Chicago’s former Balbo Drive, originally named for the fascist Italian aviator, was recently renamed after Ida B. Wells. The 1619 Project is another new and necessary monument.
The Pulitzer Center offers many free resources to teach The 1619 Project, including podcasts, a reading guide, lesson plans, history flashcards, and more.
Upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival events include virtual programs plus an in-person event with photographer Annie Leibovitz on December 7.
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