“It’s been a really fantastical two years in ways both good and bad,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, which launched as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine in August 2019.
The magazine issue, which argued that the founding of America could be dated not to 1776 but to 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, featured essays on everything from politics to medicine to music, making the case for the centrality of slavery in each one. Hannah-Jones’s opening essay won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. A school curriculum followed, and a book, “The 1619 Project,” will be published Nov. 16 to expand upon the essays, poetry, and fiction presented in the magazine.
Backlash to the project has been intense, ranging from blatantly racist attacks on Hannah-Jones to more nuanced criticism from some historians, who have disputed her analysis of Abraham Lincoln and her argument that preserving slavery was one of the main motivations for the American Revolution. The controversy seems unlikely to calm down. In July, Hannah-Jones accepted a faculty position at Howard University after a widely publicized tenure snub from the University of North Carolina. In October the Middlesex School in Concord rescinded an invitation to Hannah-Jones to speak at the school’s Black History Month observation this coming February.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
I’m curious how it’s been for you as a journalist to become a public figure.
I think every journalist dreams of producing something transformative that people care about and feel passionate about and that is widely read and really widely debated. So that part has been amazing and really a testament to all of the people who worked so hard on the project. But becoming a symbol and facing the type of scrutiny and disinformation campaigns and efforts to discredit my work has been difficult.
Before you worked on this project, you’d written a lot about education and race. Did you anticipate just how big the backlash would be, particularly when some critics twinned the 1619 Project with the idea of teaching about race and racism in schools?
Anyone who tells you that they could have predicted any of this would be lying. I predicted there would be backlash to the project. You don’t publish a project like this in The New York Times that makes the argument that this project makes and not expect that there’s going to be a lot of debate and people who don’t like it and people who criticize it. But to have my work being banned in states, to have the president of the United States castigating the work, powerful senators trying to legislate against the work — no, I couldn’t have predicted any of that. And it’s been more than two years, and the level of vitriol against the project and myself has not died down. I was giving a talk at Harvard with Kahlil Muhammed, who is one of the contributors, and he said that this project will be probably the most legislated-against specific work of journalism, maybe literature, in America.
Do you make a distinction between the criticism from people who’ve never read the project and just hate it and the criticism from historians who disagree with your take on the role of slavery in the American Revolution?
Of course. I’ve acknowledged that my language should have been more clear and precise about the American Revolution. The original essay was 6,000 words covering the span of 400 years of history. The part on the role of slavery in the American Revolution was a tiny part — a few paragraphs — in that entire essay, even though critics have hyperfocused on those few paragraphs and tried to use those to sum up the entire project. In hindsight, seeing how critics seized upon those few paragraphs and how my writing (saying, for instance, “colonists” instead of “some colonists” or “Southern colonists”) has been used to attempt to discredit the entire project, it of course made me wish that I had consulted more books and more experts on that particular argument, that I had bullet-proofed it by providing more evidence to back up the claim in the text of my essay.
What’s been interesting to me is that all major works have criticism and all historical works have historians who say, “We think that interpretation isn’t quite right. We think this argument is too strong here. We wouldn’t have said it this way. We interpret the scholarship differently.” That is very normative to the field. None of that has ever been seen as discrediting the work, of discrediting the scholar, the way that the 1619 Project has been treated. And I would just ask: The level of scrutiny that this project has undergone in the last two years — would any work of journalism survive it? I would never argue that anything I’ve ever done ever has been perfect. But this level of not just scrutiny but attempt to discredit something because a small number of historians disagree with the interpretations of facts — that’s very revealing to me. There have been more historians who have spoken out not just in support of the project but who have backed up our interpretations of facts.
Now that you and your contributors have expanded the original pieces for the book, what did you change in response to the criticism?
With the benefit of more time, for the book I did an extensive amount of additional research on slavery and the American Revolution, and we engaged period experts to peer-review the entire book, not just my essay, and my expanded essay reflects that effort — including with something you can’t put in a magazine article: endnotes! All the original essays have been expanded, the arguments sharpened. All the essays in the book have been extensively fact-checked and then, after fact-checking, underwent multiple readings by subject-matter experts.
One thing the book has in common with the original magazine issue is that it contains not just essays but also poetry and fiction. Why was that important to you?
Nine out of 10 Black people were enslaved, and some estimates say 98 percent of those who were enslaved were illiterate, because it was illegal [for them] to learn to read and write. Which means you simply don’t have the type of documentary evidence of the Black experience, written from the Black perspective, that so many other groups have. You don’t have a lot of diaries, journals. You don’t have all of these books. You don’t have letters that people are writing back and forth. We were thinking about this lack of written record, of testimony, from Black Americans, and we just said, “Well, what if we allowed the greatest writers in America to reimagine these moments?” And so we can tell these moments from the Black perspective even though we don’t necessarily have the written stories. It became a way to give a Black voice to these historic moments.
In your essay titled “Democracy,” you write about your father’s patriotism, as exemplified by his flying the flag and his military service. And then you examine history, and end by claiming a sense of your own Americanness. Why do you think Black patriotism has endured?
Really it wasn’t until I was researching for the democracy essay and writing that I came to understand my dad’s patriotism. For Black Americans, this is the only country we have; we have no ability to connect back to a specific country outside of America. Yet we have been treated as and often felt like perpetual outsiders in the country that we played such a tremendous role in building. So I think that Black patriotism is not [one that] buys into the narrative of American exceptionalism, it’s a patriotism that says we helped build this country but we also helped democratize this country. And our patriotism is a patriotism that is a struggle and resistance and forcing our country to live up to its highest ideals. It’s a patriotism that is born in the Black freedom struggle. And that to me is a very easy patriotism to claim.
It’s like that James Baldwin quote where he says, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
Exactly. Black people have a very, very particular relationship with this country because of our experience. But all patriotism to me — no matter whose — its highest calling is to make your country a better country. That is patriotism.
Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.