Nikole Hannah-Jones retells 'The 1619 Project' amid race education pushback
The project sparked controversy for its analysis of American history.
“There's a great deal of hope in knowing that all of the inequality we see has been constructed,” Hannah-Jones said in an interview with ABC News. “That means it's not natural. It's not innate. It doesn't have to be that way.”
The show, based on the award-winning New York Times long-form multimedia project developed by Hannah-Jones in 2019, looks at American history through the legacy of slavery and how it still impacts the country to this day, centering on the contributions of Black Americans.
The first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1619, the namesake of the project: "No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed," the NYT project reads.
Hannah-Jones said she doesn't often feel hopeful about America's path toward racial justice. However, she said the series is full of hope, because she has “hope in Black people.”
“They saw those words of the Declaration [of Independence] … And they said, ‘you may not mean that those apply to me or other marginalized people, but we believe that,’” she said.
She continued, “Black Americans have fought for generations and centuries to expand those majestic ideals, not just for themselves, but for all marginalized groups in this country.”
The six-episode project, produced by Hannah-Jones, Oprah Winfrey and Roger Ross-Williams, will release two, one-hour episodes weekly starting on Thursday, Jan. 26.
“The 1619 Project” has since taken several different forms – a 600-page book, a digital collection of essays, a podcast series, school curriculum adapted from the project and now a television show.
Hannah-Jones said said these many iterations will make the highly praised and well-received project more accessible to people from all walks of life.
“I'm from Waterloo, Iowa. I come from working-class people, people who haven't any further education than high school,” she said. “They want the information, they're interested in the information, but how can they access that information?”
She said television can be “democratizing."
Hannah-Jones said it also is important to expand the project as legislators continue to restrict certain lessons on race in schools and libraries.
“The 1619 Project” has been the subject of criticism by conservative and Republican lawmakers since it was published in 2019 and has often been cited in legislative efforts against certain books or lessons on race as being racially divisive or inflammatory.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump signed an executive order to establish a "1776 Commission" "to promote patriotic education," which was later rescinded by President Joe Biden.
"We will stop the radical indoctrination of our students, and restore PATRIOTIC EDUCATION to our schools!" Trump tweeted on Nov. 20, 2020.
Critics, such as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, say that "The 1619 Project" misrepresents the founding and history of the U.S.
"This is a dark vision of America's birth. I reject it. It's a disturbed reading of history. It is a slander on our great people," Pompeo said concerning the project.
Several scholars also have challenged whether some of the project's historical analysis holds up to scrutiny. For example, historian Leslie M. Harris disputes the "1619 Project" assertion that the American Revolution was fought in large part to preserve slavery in North America. And a group of twelve scholars wrote a letter to The New York Times with their concerns that the project "offers a historically-limited view of slavery."
Hannah-Jones said “The 1619 Project” challenges the narrative of “American exceptionalism, that we are the freest, greatest country in the history of the world.”
“If you tell the American story, to tell the story of slavery, of racism, of the suppression of democratic rights, of the deprivation of citizenship rights – that is not the American story that conservatives want to put forth, and really not that many progressives want to put forth,” she said.
Hannah-Jones said she believes that some people are against the project because it brings awareness to the racial history behind long-standing inequities in American society – such as poverty, “stingy social safety nets,” the over-incarceration of Black Americans and more.
“That is very difficult for people, and particularly people in power, who benefit from us believing this narrative about America, because then it maintains the inequality in the hierarchies that we see,” Hannah-Jones said.
The series, which touches on Hannah-Jones’ own upbringing, dives into the aspects of Black American life that continue to be touched by slavery: democracy, race, music, capitalism, fear and justice.
The series ends with an episode on justice that focuses on the reparations movement, or the movement to offset the impacts of the country's racial injustices. She said she does this as if to ask the viewer to look for a way forward, a path in remedying the generations-long effects of slavery.
“We can make a different choice as Americans, we can work to try to repair the damage and become the country of our highest ideals. But it's up to us.”
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