Journalists like words. And when the right words are put together with data and research (well-known or otherwise), things can happen. Nikole Hannah-Jones, investigative reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of “The 1619 Project,” knows this firsthand. The project hit newsstands in late summer — marking the anniversary of 400 years that have passed since a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia in late August 1619 with enslaved Africans.
Hannah-Jones has been a person of note for a while now — she’s a 2017 MacArthur Fellow and co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a mentorship and training program dedicated to elevating journalists of color. But with “The 1619 Project,” she says “none of us who worked on this expected that it would land in the world as it did.” According to Hannah-Jones, the waiting list for copies of the project numbers in the thousands.
Hannah-Jones spoke about the project at a panel discussion on mass incarceration Tuesday night at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, sponsored by the school, the Pulitzer Center and Illinois Humanities. We spoke with Hannah-Jones on life post-project and how reframing our nation’s historical narrative on slavery has changed her trajectory. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: How has “The 1619 Project” changed your life?
A: I did not know this when I pitched the project, but this is the most important work of my life. I did not expect the reaction and the impact that it had. I am not a hopeful person, but every once in a while I felt a twinge in my cold heart to know that so many kids are learning this as curriculum. The amount of response that I’ve received; the fact that a presidential candidate mentioned 1619 during a national presidential debate and it was not career suicide. I think it’s changed me in that way.
And honestly, I didn’t realize I was patriotic until I started writing my essay. It wasn’t until working on this project that I really understood that black people should be claiming this country, and we have just as much right as anyone else, so I’ve changed in that way too.
Q: This was such a massive endeavor, was there anything revelatory to you in this project?
A: I’m the architect of it, so I knew at least the broad strokes of everything in the issue. The issue is making the argument that you can look across all these aspects of modern, American life — all these things you think have nothing to do with slavery. And through rigorous scholarship, we’re going to show you that they do. I knew that I wanted to do a story on why we are the only industrialized nation without universal health care, and I wanted that story to show that we have the stingiest social safety net because of anti-black racism that developed out of slavery. I actually did not know that our first shot at universal health care was the Freedmen’s Bureau.
In every piece, there were things that I learned, but I can’t say there was anything that completely shocked me. The day that we laid the whole magazine out — printed all the pages — I just broke down sobbing in the newsroom, which I have never done before. It was no longer abstract at that moment, and I realized that seeing this, that the weight is still there. It was certainly revelatory that these wounds are raw in all of us, no matter how much we know about it.
Q: What does life post-“1619” look like for you?
A: I’m working on a book on school segregation that I really need to finish, but in terms of the project, the one piece that’s missing is a piece that asks what is owed. If you read the whole project, I don’t think you can come away from it without understanding the project is an argument for reparations. You can’t read it and not understand that something is owed. But there’s not a piece that looks at that in the project, so I’m going to be working on a piece that is actually asking the question of: If we understand that the legacy is alive right now and that so much of the conditions of black Americans can be traced to that legacy, then what do we actually owe? What is the restitution that is owed?
Q: “The Project” came out after the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a summer hearing about House Resolution 40, which calls for a bipartisan commission to study the issue of reparations surrounding racial discrimination in this country. Have you gotten any correspondence on H.R. 40 after the publication of the project?
A: I’ve heard from lawyers and very prominent folks who are trying to figure out if there are lawsuits that can be brought for the theft of land that we talk about in the project. Ta-Nehisi (Coates’) work brought reparations into a national conversation in a way that it hadn’t been, and I think “The 1619 Project” clearly, being in The New York Times, is legitimizing that conversation.
Darcel Rockett is a writer and curious soul — the latter informing the former. Her curious nature has led her to write for news organizations in London, the Virgin Islands, Los Angeles and Phoenix. Currently, she writes life and culture pieces for the Chicago Tribune, where she’s served as a digital editor and features reporter for almost a decade.