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In August 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched an ongoing initiative known as The 1619 Project, a nod to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving in the present-day United States. At the core of the initiative, a collection of essays explores the profound impact that slavery has had not just on the early days of our country, but on shaping multiple aspects of modern society: capitalism, healthcare, music, city planning, nutrition, education, and more. The 1619 Project also includes many subsidiaries, including original literary works, a podcast, a symposium, and a curriculum from the Pulitzer Center in addition to reader responses and many behind-the-scenes expositories. All in all, it’s a massive multimedia journalistic endeavor that leverages the media as an opportunity to examine history in a way newspapers a couple decades ago couldn’t have even dreamed of.
That’s just one of the reasons that the Center for Social Solutions is proud to be a co-sponsor of Wallace House’s upcoming event, “The 1619 Project: Examining the Legacy of Slavery and the Building of a Nation,” which will bring the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, to campus. Moderated by Rochelle Riley, the Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit, the event is free and open to the public on Tuesday, January 28, from 6:00–7:30 PM at the Rackham Auditorium (and livestreamed), and is one of the 2020 Annual U-M Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium events held at the university. Lynette Clemetson, the Director of Wallace House, expects “a wide-ranging conversation with Nikole about the 1619 Project, from exploring the history at its core to the process of reporting it to the public response to the work, both negative and positive.”
Wallace House at the University of Michigan plays an important role on campus by fostering excellence in journalism through civic engagement and the promotion of the free press. One of the programs housed there is Wallace House Presents, which organizes several public events throughout the year. “So much is consumed these days on devices without real connection,” says Clemetson. “By convening people around important works of journalism, we want to encourage open, civil conversation around complex topics.” Given that mission, The 1619 Project was recognized by the Wallace House as an ideal subject for one of these events. “The premise of The 1619 Project is to push people to examine the painful legacy of slavery. It is ambitious, thorough and designed to prompt thoughtful engagement,” says Clemetson.
One of the challenges of creating boundary-pushing events is the controversy that it can entail. Since The 1619 Project’s launch, amid many positive responses some critiques emerged regarding the framework of the project and the decisions made regarding what aspects of history were examined and how they were presented. The New York Times published and responded to a letter submitted by a group of prominent historians that succinctly captured the core complaints and requested corrections, and while the NYT refuted the request it did elaborate on why it did so and explain parts of its process and the foundations for some of the stances the project took. As one of the event sponsors, the center’s perspective, as expressed by our founder and director Dr. Earl Lewis, is “[m]atters of fact are just that. Historians and journalists engage in fact presenting and interpretation.” The event organizers have planned to address the critiques and some of the specific concerns presented within the course of the interview at Rackham.
Besides offering a prime example of the spirit of Wallace House Presents, the event also highlights another valuable Wallace House initiative—the Knight-Wallace Fellowships—of which Riley is a former participant. This program accepts up to 20 accomplished journalists annually to provide them with a year-long deep dive into new knowledge and ideas to address the challenges facing the journalism industry. An event like this one, explains Clemetson, “push[es] them [the Fellows] to think ambitiously about their journalism.”
However, everyone in the audience, whether a journalist or otherwise, will find valuable takeaways from the event. A main motivation for Wallace House Presents, according to Clemetson, is showcasing for the public how journalists do their work; “[w]e want to help the public understand the rigor, guiding principles and detailed process that goes into strong reporting and high-quality, factual storytelling,” she reflects. It’s a critical goal in the context of the digital misinformation and “fake news” skepticism characterizing contemporary society. This event also highlights a unique perspective on journalism. “People often think of journalism as reporting on unfolding, current, or breaking events,” Clemetson says, “[b]ut ambitious journalism can also help us to revisit and think critically about the past. Examining what we think we know about people, events and institutions ultimately helps us to move forward.”