After a year of professional milestones born from her work on the history of slavery in the United States, Pulitzer Prize-winning black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said she had her eyes clear on her mission to force a judgment on the self-image of the nation.
the New York Times Review the writer began last year in a long title fight with her alma mater in North Carolina – the dispute ended when she announcement in July that she would take her talents to a historically black university — and shut it down as a national bestselling author.
“I’ve gone from just being a journalist to being kind of a symbol for people who either love me and my work or insult me and my work,” she said.
Hannah-Jones recently spoke with The Associated Press in an exclusive interview about the ongoing controversy over the 1619 Project, a groundbreaking collection of essays on race that first appeared in a special issue of the New York Times Magazine in 2019. Now in book form, the project has become a touchstone for America’s reckoning on slavery and the repercussions for black Americans.
“The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” and “Born on the Water,” an illustrated storybook collaboration with co-writer Renée Watson and illustrator Nikkolas Smith, each spent consecutive weeks atop the list. Times bestsellers since their release on November 16. A television documentary on the works is due out later in 2022.
Still, Hannah-Jones said the backlash from her work is proof that the United States is nearing a critical crossroads on its global standing as a democracy.
“I think we’re going through a very scary time,” she said in an interview at AP headquarters in New York.
“People who are much, much smarter than me, who have studied as much, much longer than I have are ringing the alarm bells,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think we need to ask ourselves…narrators, storytellers, journalists: Are we sounding the alarm in the right way? Are we doing our job to try to maintain our democracy?
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
AP: If anything, what has this past year taught you about where we currently are in our country, in terms of racial justice and our consideration of history?
Hannah-Jones: For me, it just reflects what I’ve always understood about this country. And it is that the steps forward, the steps towards racial progress, always come up against an intensive backlash. That we are a society that deliberately does not want to deal with the anti-Blackness that is at the heart of so many of our institutions and very much of our society itself.
Can you indicate any progress in how the discourse has developed or evolved?
Certainly the fact that very powerful people are so preoccupied with a work of journalism called The 1619 Project that they seek to discredit it, that they seek to censor it, that they seek to ban its teaching, speaks to the fact that ‘there are millions of Americans who want a more honest account of our history, who want to better understand the country we live in, who are open to new stories.
Do you think this country is on the verge of making progress on issues of racial justice, and in particular on education?
Many mainstream media outlets have been caught up in the Republican propaganda campaign, which has tried to confuse teaching more accurate history, teaching structural racism, with trying to make white kids feel badly in their skin or guilty. And a lot of the coverage was driven by that. … I hope there will be a serious examination of the role that we as media have played (in) highlighting and legitimizing what was a propaganda campaign.
The 1619 Project is now a book. For people who don’t understand, how is this different from what was published in the New York Times Magazine?
We all know that the 1619 project has undergone considerable scrutiny. … I think those who had questions can now go and see the source material, see the historiography that underlies the work. For anyone who comes here with an open mind, it’s going to be deeply surprising. They will learn so much about the history of their country, but also about the history that shapes modern American life so much.
Some people would say that this is all diary-driven work.
And they would be right.
Why are they right?
Because it is. The agenda is to force a reckoning with who we are as a country. The agenda is to take the history of enslaved Black Americans from being an asterisk to being marginal to being central to how we understand our country. When people say that, however, I know they mean it in a derogatory way. I’m just being honest about the nature of this work. … We were taught the history of a country that does not exist. We have been taught the history of a country that makes us unable to understand how we achieve an insurrection in the greatest democracy on January 6th.
What issues do you see dominating our politics in 2022?
I try never to predict the future. And I’m not a political journalist either. … We as Americans are going to be strained over the next two years to decide, what are we willing to sacrifice to be the country we believe we are? And what rights do we consider fundamental in this country? And do all Americans deserve to have those same rights? I don’t think we know the answer to that. But I think what is important for us to know is that we decide.