Nikole Hannah-Jones: Anti-History Laws Are Right’s Attempt to Control Our Historical Memory

Amid a right-wing attack on teaching critical race theory, we speak in-depth with Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which reframes U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as the foundational date for the United States. The project launched in 2019, and has been expanded into an anthology of 18 essays along with poems and short stories, even as several states have attempted to ban it from school curriculums. “We should all as Americans be deeply, deeply concerned about these anti-history laws because what they’re really trying to do is control our memory and to control our understanding of our country,” says Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones’s new book that she co-edited is out this month, titled The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, along with an adaptation of the 1619 Project for children, Born On The Water. Hannah-Jones describes the role of her own teachers in opening her eyes beyond the usual curriculum that excluded the history she has now uplifted. She also discusses the trial of the murderers of Ahmaud Arbery, and how she felt when she won the Pulitzer Prize on the same day as one of her heroines, the formerly enslaved pioneering anti-lynching journalist, Ida B. Wells.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman in New York, with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hi, Juan.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Hi, Amy. Welcome to all of our listeners and viewers across the country and around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine. She is the creator of the landmark 1619 Project, which reframes U.S. history by marking the year 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as the country’s foundational date. This month, two new books that she co-edited are out, The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and an adaptation for children, titled Born On The Water. It was on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans landing in colonial Virginia in 1619 that The New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project as a special issue in 2019. It has now been expanded as an anthology of 18 essays along with poems and short stories that examine the legacy of slavery, dedicated to the more than 30 million descendants of American slavery. Many argue the 1619 Project has changed how history is taught and discussed in the United States. Just last year, then-President Donald Trump announced his proposed 1776 Commission at the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. in direct response to the 1619 Project.

PRES. DONALD TRUMP: Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.

AMY GOODMAN: Many states have banned the teaching of the 1619 Project as part of the right-wing attacks on critical race theory in schools. Earlier this year the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill, where Nikole Hannah-Jones went to graduate school, initially denied her tenure even after it was unanimously approved by the faculty. The board typically rubber-stamps tenure for professors who win such approval from their peers and it reversed the decision after protests from alumni, faculty and students and ultimately offered Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure. But she declined and instead announced she would join the faculty at Howard University, one of the country’s most prestigious historically Black universities and helped launch the Center for Journalism and Democracy.

Tonight, Nikole Hannah-Jones will visit her high school alma mater in Waterloo, Iowa, where she will talk about her two new books with her former teacher Reverend Ray Dial, who was the teacher who first introduced her to the date 1619 as the year a ship carrying enslaved people first arrived in what is now the United States. She writes that when she first read the date, it appeared to be glowing three-dimensional numbers rising from the page as an exhilarating revelation started to sink in. Nikole Hannah Jones, welcome back to Democracy Now! Congratulations on your new books as you join us from Des Moines on your way to Waterloo. Can you talk about that moment in high school? What a difference a school teacher makes?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Absolutely. Thank you for having me on. Mr. Ray Dial is the teacher who changed my life. He is the teacher who both introduced me to how vast Black history was, even though we hadn’t been taught hardly any of it. He is also the teacher who introduced me or suggested that I join my high school newspaper and write the stories that I wanted to see. So I opened the preface for the new 1619 book with that because that was a transformative moment for me. I had no idea that Black Americans had been here this long, that we had a lineage that went back almost as long as the English people who got all the credit for it. That number stood in to me for an erasure and really made me understand as a young 15- or 16-year-old that the history we are taught is not necessarily what’s the most important things or all there is to know, but it’s what someone has determined that we should know and that there’s so much more out there, particularly if you’re members of marginalized communities, that never gets into the history we tell ourselves. That erasure is very powerful.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the 1619 Project itself? It is comprised of 18 essays and 36 poems and works of fiction. Talk about your decision to use this format to tell the story.

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, the book, is an extended version of the original that published in August of 2019. All of the original essays that were in that first project have all been significantly expanded. Then we have added eight additional essays written by a range of some of the nation’s most renowned historians, from Dr. Carol Anderson to Dr. Martha Jones to Dr. Dorothy Roberts, and they’re covering a range of subject areas such as Indian removal and settler colonialism, citizenship, the creation of race, the Second Amendment. So it is really giving an even broader understanding of how the legacy of slavery shapes our modern society.

In addition to that, we have also doubled the poetry and short fiction that was in the original project in what we call a literary timeline. We asked some of the great American writers to reimagine all of these periods in American history involving Black people and race and to write them from a Black perspective. That is actually one of the most profound and powerful parts of the book. Then the third aspect of the book are these archival photos that launch every essay. The photos are of regular Black people, not famous people, through time, from the beginning of photography all the way until a couple of years ago. It is a way of forcing the reader to pause and consider the humanity of these 31 million descendants of American slavery, to really focus that everything that you’re going to read about, all of the brutality, all the horrors, all the violence, but also all of the resilience, all the love, happened to real people. I think that the format is beautiful and it’s powerful and people I hope will get a great deal from it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: At the core of the book is an attempt obviously to link the past to the present. Could you talk about how we continue to see the legacy of slavery in current U.S. institutions whether it is the government itself, the education, housing?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Absolutely. The entire premise of the 1619 Project is that the legacy of slavery was not banished along with the institution of slavery in 1865, that slavery is one of the oldest institutions in our society. The English settled Jamestown in 1607 and by 1619, just 12 years later, they are engaging in African slavery. That is 150 years before they even decide they want to become their own country. That slavery shaped everything, nearly everything, about the country that would ultimately be established.

For instance, we have an essay on citizenship which talks about the 14th Amendment and how the reason that we have birthright citizenship in the United States, where every person born on this soil has automatic citizenship is because Black Americans generationally were not citizens of this country even though they were born here. After the end of slavery, they pushed very hard for a constitutional amendment that would guarantee them citizenship and all people born on the soil citizenship. So we can thank Black Americans for that.

It talks about the creation of race and how these ideas of an inherent race and that one race is superior to another, and the fact that on every single form that we have for the government we have to choose a race, including our birth certificate, our marriage certificate, our death certificate, that that is also a legacy of 1619.

We have an article that talks about the Second Amendment that is by Dr. Carol Anderson out of Emory and really argues that our obsession with guns—we have more guns than almost any society in the world and we have the highest rates of gun violence and that is also a legacy of slavery. That the Second Amendment, while we like to think of it as allowing citizens to form militias to ward off government tyranny, it also was allowing them to form militias to suppress slave rebellions, because enslaved people were constantly rebelling. It looks at why someone like Philando Castile in Minneapolis, who is a legal gun carrier, can be killed for carrying a gun and whether or not Black people really do have a right to bear arms in this nation.

So every single essay in the book really makes these modern connections. Slavery has influenced our society in so many ways, but we have really invisibilized that. We’ve lost that connection and understanding. What I argue for the Project is the narrative of 1776 does not explain the insurrection on the capital in January. It does not explain George Floyd and why a white police officer could feel that he could kill a man in front of witnesses and would not have to worry about facing any consequences. And it certainly does not explain why we have a political party right now that is trying to instate minority rule. That is the legacy of 1619.

AMY GOODMAN: Your work has become the target of right-wing backlash. Last year the Trump administration threatened to pull federal funding from schools that used the 1619 Project in their curriculum. Tennessee’s education Commissioner Penny Schwinn recently signed an emergency measure to regulate the topic of race and gender in classrooms that includes financial penalties for educators who violate the law. This is after Tennessee’s Republican governor signed a law prohibiting critical race theory from being taught in the state’s schools. Then you have other states including North Dakota, Tennessee, Florida, Idaho and Texas that have passed similar laws. I want to play a clip of Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott signing into law the 1836 Project earlier this year. The name is a reference to The 1619 Project and marks the year Texas seceded from Mexico.

GOVERNOR GREG ABBOTT: The 1836 Project promotes patriotic education about Texas and ensures that the generations to come understand Texas values.

AMY GOODMAN: Now you and others responded to the announcement of the 1836 Project by highlighting the fact that Texas had fully legalized slavery in its constitution and was guilty at the time of lynching Black and Mexican Texans. If you could talk about this movement around the country, what it means for history of the United States, and for what children and everyone learns?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Yes. One, I think it is quite revealing that the argument is if we teach a truer history that actually reflects the facts of what happened, that that will raise children not to love their country. I think that says a great deal about what we actually think about how much this country has lived up to the idea of exceptionalism. If a patriotism has to be based on propaganda that really diminishes and tries to erase from memory the difficult parts of our past, it doesn’t seem like that is a genuine patriotism.

But I think that we should all as Americans be deeply, deeply concerned about these anti-history laws, because what they’re really attempting to do is control our memory and to control our understanding of our country. When Texas seceded in 1836, it seceded in order to form a slaveholding republic. If you don’t teach that, then children are not able to understand all of the inequality that they have today.

Timothy Snyder, the historian, is a historian who studies authoritarianism. He talks about how these memory laws that we are seeing being passed all across the country, including in my home state of Iowa where I am right now, where first they tried to pass an anti-1619 Project law which failed and then they came back and successfully passed an anti-critical race theory law which has educators in the state that launched my career where I was educated afraid to teach the work that I have done. What they do is when you start to see these memory laws, you start to see nations that are veering towards authoritarianism. The idea of banning books, the idea that politicians will use the power of the state to prevent the teaching of ideas that they do not like, it is not incidental, Amy. And I know you know this, that the same states that are also passing these anti-critical race theory laws are also passing laws to make it harder for citizens to vote. They are passing laws that actually pull back on democracy. They are passing laws that make it harder for women to choose their own reproductive health. All of these things are related, and whether you love or hate the 1619 Project, we should not be accepting a society where the state has the power to control what text we learn from and what ideas we can understand, and more importantly, how we understand the truth about our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikole, when you won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for your introductory essay to the 1619 Project last year, you wrote, “Ida B. Wells and I were awarded the Pulitzer on the same day.
How can I not believe that the ancestors intervened on this moment? I will sit in the truth of how she, how they, cleared a path for me, how they endured so that I and the #1619Project could be.” Of course Ida B. Wells was formerly enslaved and went on to be a crusading anti-lynching journalist.

She received a special posthumous Pulitzer citation for her outstanding and courageous reporting. You are the co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. Can you talk about her pioneering role and what this meant to receive the Pulitzer on the same day so many years later?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Absolutely. I have long said and claimed Ida B Wells-Barnett as my spiritual godmother. She was honestly the first example of a Black woman doing the type of journalism that I wanted to do, which should tell you how un-diverse or non-diverse the field of investigative reporting is. I didn’t actually know living examples of Black women investigative reporters when I was young.

She was a pioneering investigative journalist who really brought the scourge of lynching to a global audience. She would go into towns where a Black man or woman had just been lynched and she would interview people and she would document. She was actually one of the early data reporters because she started to collect data on how many lynchings were occurring, what were the reasons given for the lynchings and then what did her reporting show.

She also was a true intersectional woman. She was a suffragist and had to fight both for women’s rights to vote and against the racism within the suffragist movement. She was a civil rights activist. She was a cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People where she had to fight against gender discrimination as a Black woman. So in so many ways, she was just this pioneering woman who fought for civil rights and equal rights across many fronts.

And she was a woman who was largely reviled by white media. I have in my Twitter bio that I am a slanderous and nasty minded mulattress because that is what The New York Times, where I work, called Ida B. Wells while she was engaging in her anti-lynching crusade. So I take great strength from knowing that the attacks on me and the attacks on my work are really just part of a lineage of what happens when Black women and Black women journalists dare to challenge power and challenge authority. So to receive the acknowledgment for this work about the Black experience on the same day that Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who like so many Black journalists never received the acknowledgment that they deserved, was just deeply gratifying because I do my work in service of them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nikole Hannah-Jones, I wanted to go back to your mentioning the preface of your initial exposure to African American history in a high school class with Mr. Ray Dial. You’re going to be talking with him this evening, how he initially exposed you to the history that had never been given to you previously. This would have been sometime in the late 1980s. I guess the fact that you had a class at all was no doubt due to the struggles of Black and brown people from the prior generation.

I am old enough to recall some of those struggles of the 1960s and 1970s and particularly, for example, in 1977 was when the ABC miniseries Roots played on national television based on Alex Haley’s book. It premiered and had record audiences across the country because back then, basically the three television networks dominated all of television. It created a similar national debate over race to what the 1619 Project has done for this generation. But within a few years came the reactionary Reagan era, and capitalist America as it has repeatedly throughout its history began to rebury all those lessons so that another generation had to resurrect it, as you and others have done now in recent years. I am wondering how you feel that this time will be different in terms of not reburying this history in another few years?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: First, let me correct the record. I’m not quite that old. I was in high school in the 1990s. It is a very sensitive subject when you get to be a woman my age. I think that there are a couple of differences. One, let me say clearly, we are in a moment of backlash right now. We know that there were the textbook wars in the 1980s, that Reagan really tried to do some similar things to what we are seeing now, that there was a conservative backlash against the teaching of more inclusive and honest histories. We are seeing that as we speak, This is what we’re talking about. We are seeing a wave of actual laws across the country that are trying to censor how we can talk about racial inequality and the history of racism and really the histories of people who are not white in general. I think we have to be very concerned about the echoes of history and what that means because otherwise, we just are going to have to keep relitigating this path again and again and see this kind of perpetual backsliding.

I think the difference now, though, is we just have more democratic access to information. There aren’t only three news stations anymore. There are all of these different modes where people are able to get out information and access information that they did not have before. I am doing my work not from a small publication somewhere, but from The New York Times. It is not going to be possible I think for powerful people to completely erase the knowledge that folks are getting. In fact, you wouldn’t be seeing all of these laws being passed if millions of Americans were not embracing this and wanting to learn more and really wanting to confront the truth of who we are.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Specifically, about this resurgence and the greater attention now to antiracism occurring in corporate America, occurring on university campuses, specifically a lot of university administrators and corporate leaders are increasingly talking about diversity, equity and inclusion. They even have a new acronym that rolls off their lips, DEI. There’s all kinds of new research projects, foundation funds, plans to diversify staffs, and yet most of these institutions continue to pursue exploitative connections to the mass of Black and brown communities around them. What in your view are the pitfalls of this current type of wokeness that we have to be vigilant against?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: If you follow me on Twitter at all, you know that I would never use the word “wokeness.” I think it is meaningless and I think we should never be taking the language of conservative propagandists which is what this wokeism is coming from. But what I’ll say is one thing that I do have in common with conservatives on this is I do think that DEI is generally not great. Not for the reasons that they say; I just think it tends to be extremely superficial, that we don’t actually see much transformation, that all of these corporations that last year with Black Lives Matter, all of these institutions including Congress, who were saying that this was going to be a transformative moment, they did a lot of performance. DEI trainings and turning your square on Instagram Black, that’s performance. If we look more than a year out, what types of structural change did we see at any of these institutions? The answer is almost none. So I tend to not really be that interested in those trainings. I don’t think that they are harmful like the right would have you think and I don’t think that they are harming individuals or making individuals feel that they don’t have a right to free speech but I do think in general that they are ineffective and that many organizations use them as a shield against having to do the actual work.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikole Hannah-Jones, you write about your dad in the introductory chapter. We started in Waterloo. Let’s go there again. You talk in the end of the first chapter of The 1619 Project by saying, “We were told once by virtue of our bondage that we could never be American, but it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.” Can you talk about your father and your feelings about him flying the American flag outside your childhood home and what you came to understand?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Sure. My dad was born on a cotton plantation into a sharecropping family in Greenwood, Mississippi. He was born in 1945 at a time when Black people had virtually no rights of citizenship in Mississippi. Mississippi was nearly a complete apartheid state. He was a Black man who did not get full rights to citizenship in this country until he had lived into his twenties, and of course, the full rights of citizenship did not come with equality for my dad. So when I was a teenager—and my dad was a military veteran. Black people serve in the military at the highest rates of all racial groups, and he was very proud of his service and he flew a flag in our front yard. The flagpole was probably 15 feet but in my mind it was 100 feet tall. I didn’t understand why this Black man who had lived the life that he had lived would display his patriotism so outwardly. It seemed to me almost demeaning to do that, to show such outward pride in a country that had never treated him with basic dignity.

I work through this in the essay on democracy, which is the opening essay for the book, which is really talking about the unparalleled role that Black Americans played in democratizing this country, that Black people through centuries of resistance have worked to force this country up to its founding creed. I came to understand that my dad’s pride was not in that kind of performative flag-pin-wearing patriotism that says America is exceptional and America is the greatest nation in the world, but it was a pride in saying our ancestors built so much of what made this country prosperous. Our ancestors’ blood is in this soil. Our ancestors have fought in every war this country has waged. And our ancestors are the reason we have the semblance of democracy that we have and no one has a right to take that heritage from us.

It goes back to that line that you just read. Black people were not given citizenship in this country until the passage of the 14th Amendment after the end of slavery and were not given rights of citizenship until the passage of the civil rights bills in the 1960s. Yet because Black people were the only forced immigrants to this country, because of the Middle Passage where we were forced to lose our language, our connection to a home country—any other group who immigrates here, they can bring food from their country, clothes from their country. They can write back to family members. They can go back and visit. Black people had that completely erased, which means this is our country, and we are a product of the New World in a way that no other group of people are. I wanted us to be able to claim the heritage of the land that we built.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Nikole Hannah-Jones, you are a much-decorated journalist. You have won two Polks, the Pulitzer, the Peabody. Yet you have argued that the media are failing the country during a time when they are needed the most. Can you tell us how and why that is?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Yes. This program is called Democracy Now! and I think our democracy is in danger. If you look at the report that just came out yesterday that listed the United States as a democracy that is backsliding for the first time in the history of that list, if you look at the more than 150 scholars of democracy who have signed open letters saying we are losing our democracy and it is eroding, if you look at the fact that Republicans are passing laws to so intensely gerrymander in their favor that they can maintain power for decades without winning the majority of the vote, if you look at the wave of voter restriction laws that we have not seen since Jim Crow.

And yet the political reporting class—not all of them, clearly, but too many of them—are still reporting on this as if we’re just engaged in normal horserace politics. They’re trying to report with this view from nowhere that legitimizes a political party that actually is making it pretty clear that they don’t believe in democracy. I am very concerned about that. As a Black journalist, as a journalist who comes from the tradition of journalism that couldn’t pretend to be objective and couldn’t pretend that all of our institutions will hold in the face of authoritarianism, I think that we are ill-prepared for the moment that we are in. I think too many political reporters just have too much faith in our political systems and there is no evidence to back up that faith.

I just hope that before it is too late, enough of us get an understanding that we can’t cover what is happening in our country right now as politics as usual, and you cannot dismiss all of these scholars of authoritarianism who are raising the alarm. We’ve got to do better. We know that reporting, the press, is the firewall of our democracy, and I don’t think the firewall is holding right now.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about this moment that you’re talking about. You have got the inquiry into the riot, the insurrection of January 6th being led by a House panel. You’ve got the three trials, the Rittenhouse trial that just wrapped up, not guilty on all counts for Kyle Rittenhouse, who killed two people and critically wounded a third. You’ve got the Charlottesville white supremacy trial. And you’ve got that jury in Brunswick, Georgia, now that is determining the fate of three white men including a former police officer, a Georgia D.A. indicted for protecting him, but these three white men charged with hunting down and murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. We are in the closing arguments now and a nearly all-white panel of 12 jurors and three alternates are hearing the rebuttal from prosecutors today. Yesterday the defense attorney Laura Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, the former cop, blamed Arbery’s own actions for his own death. This is what she said.

LAURA HOGUE: Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long dirty toenails.

AMY GOODMAN: That drew a gasp from the courtroom. Ahmaud’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones left the courtroom briefly. Can you comment on what she has said and what these trials are about?

NIKOLE HANNAHJONES: Even for someone who doesn’t tend to get shocked by the way that Black Americans can be dehumanized in the legal system and in society at large, that was just a shocking, shocking moment. I really do hope that the viewers and listeners will get the 1619 book because what we are seeing, it’s laid out in that book, this idea that Black people are a separate and distinct group of humans who are inherently suspicious, who just their presence is a lethal weapon. So even if you have three men, men who are armed who are chasing down an unarmed person, that that is legitimate.

The idea that random white citizens have the authority to stop and question a Black person and if that Black person does not comply, they can use lethal force, that is a legacy of the slave patrol, which deputized all white Americans with the ability to question and stop and detain Black people and make sure that they were not in white spaces where they weren’t supposed to be. All that we’re seeing—Charlottesville, the insurrection on the Capitol, George Floyd, the Rittenhouse trial, which of course goes to a long legacy of white people who fight for Black lives will receive the same poor justice that Black people receive—I think we have to decide if we’re going to grapple honestly with our country or not.

The kind of defining tension, the defining divide of American life begins in 1619 with the introduction of African slavery. Even our very democracy, the idea that we are the oldest continuing democracy in the world, was predicated on excluding Black people, was predicated on a democracy that for the first 200 years was a democracy of white men. And now that we have a democracy that includes all kinds of people of color and women, our democracy is very frail. So I think that we are in scary times. We are in times where it is going to require a great deal of courage on behalf of our fellow Americans. And I am, frankly, just not seeing enough of it.

AMY GOODMAN: Nikole Hannah-Jones, we want to thank you so much for spending this time with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine, creator of the landmark 1619 Project. She is the co-editor of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and the adaptation of the 1619 Project for children, titled Born On The Water. Best of luck tonight in Waterloo. Next up, the world-renowned dissident and linguist Noam Chomsky on President Biden’s foreign policy. Stay with us.

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