Before Nikole Hannah Jones, the creator and lead reporter of The New York Times Magazine's “The 1619 Project,” began talking about her groundbreaking journalism series to a roomful of New Orleanians at the Ashe Power House Theater Friday night, she acknowledged what she called the city’s “pivotal role in institutional slavery” and its former status as the largest slave marketplace in the nation.
But Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist who covers civil rights and racial injustice, also argued that the same people who were enslaved in the city were the ones who ultimately shaped it and its culture, in the same way “The 1619 Project” makes the case that enslaved people shaped the United States — not just physically but intellectually.
“The only reason people come to New Orleans is because of the contributions of those who were enslaved,” Hannah-Jones said. “So it's both a testimony to the atrocities but also a testimony to the resilience and the resistance of those people who I say were 'born in the water.'”
“The 1619 Project” is a collection of reporting, essays, poems and photos detailing the history of slavery, its central role in the founding of our country and its impact on all aspects of modern life — from health care to Wall Street to music. It debuted in August in a special edition of The New York Times Magazine. Its namesake refers to the year when enslaved Africans were first brought to the Virginia colony.
The series presents an argument for a shift in the way slavery is taught in schools, and the Pulitzer Center released a curriculum for all grade levels based on the project.
Selamawit D. Terrefe, who teaches courses on African-American literature and culture as an assistant professor at Tulane, interviewed Hannah-Jones at the event, which was part of the Amistad Research Center’s “Conversations in Color” series of talks by artists, educators and community activists.
Hannah-Jones said when she pitched “The 1619 Project” to her editors, she told them it was going to answer “that question that every black person always gets, which is: 'Slavery was a long time ago — why can't you get over it?'
“I was going to show that we can't get over it because we are still living daily with the legacy — and that legacy is across almost every aspect of American life that you can look at,” she said. “If you study it, if you trace the history back, it is linked somehow to slavery or the anti-black racism that developed around it. I really wanted to show that how could you understand America if you don't understand slavery? You can't.”
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Hannah-Jones said she thinks people response to the project is due partly to the election of Donald Trump, which served as a wake-up call to some white people who didn't think it was possible for him to win the presidency.
“Now people who have not had the luxury of saying, ‘Oh, I was a Hillary Clinton supporter. I'm a good person,’ are having to confront the reality that we have a country built on white supremacy,” she said.
Hannah-Jones said unlike some people, she wasn’t surprised that there were Obama voters who voted for Trump in 2016. The country was in a recession, she said, and it was natural and not uncommon for white people to align with black people when “they think it's in their best interest.”
Hannah-Jones is co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a journalism training organization, with a goal of increasing diversity in the field of investigative reporting. Her first book,"The Problem We All Live With," debuts in 2020 and will cover the history of school segregation in the U.S. Last year she spoke at Xavier University's commencement.
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Attendees at the event Friday were able to get a copy of the New York Times Magazine issue with the "1619 Project," it in, which has a waiting list of thousands, Hannah-Jones told the Chicago Tribune last month.
“Not only did we create something that was powerful, but in an age when people say print is dead, people are writing me at my house, cussing me out because they can't get a copy of the project,” she said at the New Orleans event, prompting laughs from the audience.
The popularity of “The 1619 Project” is not detached from the popularity of Hannah-Jones, who has more than 180,000 followers on Twitter. When the Q&A session was over, she joked that everyone could leave now. But hardly anyone left, instead all gathering toward the stage to meet with her.