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The year 1619 marks the arrival of the first slave ship in the Americas, but it is a year that is often overlooked in the narrative of American history. “Every American child learns about the Mayflower. No American child learns about 1619,” said Nikole Hannah-Jones, domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the 1619 Project.
On Tuesday, January 28th, Hannah-Jones discussed the groundbreaking 1619 Project with a packed audience at Rackham Auditorium. The Center for Social Solutions was proud to co-sponsor the event, which was hosted by the Knight Wallace House and featured conversations between Hannah-Jones and Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit.
The 1619 Project was launched by The New York Times Magazine in August 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of slavery in America. Beginning as series of essays that examined the historical reality of slavery in America and its modern day implications, the project has since expanded to include a podcast series and school curriculum as well.
The evening started with opening remarks that acknowledged the role that the 1619 Project has played in spurring important conversations about our country’s past. “The 1619 Project is a gift if we are willing to consider its request to take a long and hard look at all we think we know and hold dear about America, history, slavery, and race,” said Earl Lewis, founding director of the Center for Social Solutions.
Hannah-Jones addressed the provocative nature of her work throughout the evening, delving into her own childhood experiences. She explained how a disregard for African American history in her school curriculum inspired her to create this project. “The 1619 Project is intended to force us to question the way in which we learn history, and to center those people who were treated as the bottom, and as not relevant, and as having not contributed anything other than our labor,” Hannah-Jones said.
Without a proper understanding of how the history of slavery has affected modern black communities, Hannah Jones argues that “you believe what society tells you, which is that black people simply don’t work as hard, try as hard, that they’re lazy.”
Hannah-Jones spoke of her hopes that the 1619 Project will challenge this misconception. “This was about telling the story that we do not get. This was about telling the story that black people were not just essentially sitting around waiting for equality and freedom to come. We fought every day,” Hannah-Jones said, receiving a deafening round of applause from the audience in response.
The 1619 Project covers many aspects of modern American society that have been shaped by slavery including capitalism, healthcare, music, and education, among others. Hannah-Jones explained that the reason for addressing so many topics of at once is to shock audiences into confronting how prevalent slavery continues to be in contemporary society.
“There is almost nothing you can look at in America today that can’t be traced back to slavery,” Hannah-Jones said when asked about the wide scope of the project.
Responding to Riley, Hannah-Jones also discussed the criticism that has been directed towards the project. Knowing that the revolutionary nature of her work would likely draw critics, Hannah-Jones explained that she went through an extensive process of consulting, interviewing, and fact-checking with historians to make sure that the articles were as accurate as possible. Still, Hannah-Jones acknowledged that some of her arguments could have been stronger and hopes that the forthcoming publication of a book, featuring an even wider collection of essays, will address some of the constructive criticism she has received.
However, Hannah-Jones claimed that there was one type of criticism in particular that came up frequently but she does not give consideration to. “If your argument is that I should have focused more on good white people, that’s not a criticism that I’m going to address,” Hannah-Jones said.
As the discussion between Hannah-Jones and Riley came to an end, Hannah-Jones addressed how the project had personally impacted her. Emotionally, she spoke of her family’s past suffering, including how her grandmother had given birth in a sharecropper’s shack because black people were not allowed to give birth in the hospital, and how her uncle succumbed to cancer because he did not have the insurance for an MRI scan. “All I kept thinking was that everyone who was gone, all the lives that are lost because we can’t purge this anti-blackness from our country,” Hannah-Jones said.
Hannah-Jones hopes that her work can bring light to this dark history, however. “Every day that my grandmother suffered, she could not have imagined that she has a grandchild who could do something like this,” Hannah-Jones said.
The discussion between Hannah-Jones and Riley was followed by a question and answer session with the audience and ended on an optimistic note.
“In my own career I refused to not write our stories, no matter when they tried to push me out of the newsroom, no matter when they tried to marginalize my work,” Hannah Jones said, maintaining that she will continue to fight for underrepresented voices in her continuing work.