When Nikole Hannah-Jones ‘The 1619 Project: The Story of the New Origin’ was given the green light, she didn’t want to mince words in her radical and revealing exploration of slavery and its legacy in American America. ‘today.
The New York Times Magazine investigative reporter and colleagues created a style guide to make sure they would pay attention to the language used: human beings would be called not “slaves” but “enslaved people”; “Blacks” would never be a collective name; and the “plantations”, popular settings for modern weddings and photo ops, would be called what they were: “slave labor camps.”
“When you think of the image the word ‘plantation’ conjures up, it’s ‘Gone with the Wind’, it’s bucolic, it’s mint juleps and it’s those beautiful dresses,” Hannah said. Jones, speaking Tuesday night at the California African American Museum. . “And underlying all of this is torture and the threat of torture.”
For the final stop on her “1619” book tour, Hannah-Jones joined Los Angeles Times editor-in-chief Kevin Merida for a high-profile conversation about her groundbreaking Pulitzer Prize-winning anthology series, Her Story of origin and, among other things, its intentional language. Special guest authors Nafissa Thompson-Spiers and Terry McMillan also read passages from their contributions to “The 1619 Project,” which brings together the work of many distinguished authors, including Tracy K. Smith, Kiese Laymon and Jesmyn Ward.
The sold-out event brought together over 550 people and hosted by the Los Angles Times Book Club and Ideas Exchange. The conversation was also accessible to a virtual audience.
Dismissing the idea that modern style changes are an understatement, Hannah-Jones argued the exact opposite: using the word “plantations,” for example, would make it easier to deny what happened there.
“These were camps where people were forced to work against their will for life by extreme threats of violence and coercion,” said Hannah-Jones, 45. Where children and loved ones were bought and sold, “where women were regularly raped because it made more money for the owner.” That’s what it was and we call them plantations so that we can pretend that’s not what happened, and we weren’t going to do that in this book.
“We have to stop letting the tongue hide the crime.”
The audience burst into applause.
Since its launch in August 2019 as a multimedia project – taking over an entire magazine issue, podcast and special issue and even later becoming a school program – “The 1619 Project”, which postulates that the maintenance of slavery was intrinsic to the drive for American independence, has become a lightning rod for positive and negative attention. But her roots, according to Hannah-Jones, go back beyond today’s culture wars – to the public high school she attended in Waterloo, Iowa.
Ray Dial taught an elective course called “The African American Experience”, and it was in her classroom that teenage Hannah-Jones first met in the year 1619 – in the book “Before the Mayflower” by historian and journalist Lerone Bennett Jr. She was amazed to find so much literature by and about blacks in this classroom, so much history that she hadn’t learned.
It was also Dial who introduced her to journalism.
She once approached him to complain that the school newspaper hadn’t written about black students like her who were taken by bus to white schools.
“And as a great black educator will do, he stayed very real with me and he said, ‘Either join the journal and write these stories yourself, or shut up and don’t come here and complain about it.’ “, she recalls with a laugh.
And she did. “Five years later,” she joked, those two things would lead to “Project 1619”.
But how did it come to be, asked Merida; how did she convince a legacy institution like the New York Times to invest time and resources in its ambitious and radical case?
“Ancestral intervention,” said Hannah-Jones, a self-proclaimed “agnostic,” who added that she was only half kidding.
“It was so strange on this project because I just feltthing, like an act of intervention, ”she explained. “Because there is no reason for this project to exist as it is, knowing everything we know about the industry” – a project that has historically been centered, owned and dominated by white people .
The power of the project, she continued, was in its refusal to do this: editors and writers weren’t worried about whether that would make “the typical New York Times reader” uncomfortable. Nor was their intention to simply study history; instead, they explored how the past still shapes America.
And on a “small” level, as she described it, the project was an answer to a question often asked of blacks: “Slavery was a long time ago, why not? do you not remit? ”
“Black people have to constantly answer this question in a country that cannot overcome slavery,” she said.
As ambitious as she knew the project was, Hannah-Jones had no idea that it would become such a broad cultural force. “You can produce something powerful and people still won’t care.”
But she couldn’t be more wrong.
The project sparked criticism and debate among some historians after its publication. The following year, Hannah-Jones received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her introductory essay. Republican lawmakers lobbied to ban “Project 1619” from classrooms and even former President Donald Trump weighed in, prompting Tory leaders to come up with an alternative agenda.
This summer, following a long public battle for tenure, Hannah-Jones announced that she would not be teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her alma mater, and instead accepted a position. permanent at Howard University. (“Howard was one of those rare cases where racism worked in my favor,” she said with a laugh.)
Merida asked her, “What has been your personal care throughout this process? “
Hannah-Jones stopped and smiled. “I don’t have one,” she said.
“I don’t really know what it looks like because I feel like I’ve been brought to this moment and I can’t rest right now,” she continued. “All I have worked on throughout my career has been to be in this moment… and I think a lot about my direct ancestors, like my grandmother who was born in a cotton plantation, who studied secondary, which I guess has all the dreams, hopes, ambitions I had but I was born into a world where she couldn’t fulfill any of them.
“I have to work on debt service because I have a great debt to my own direct ancestors and to our collective ancestors,” she said, before finally conceding, “My personal care is bourbon and job.”
At the end of the event, the audience gave Hannah-Jones a standing ovation.
Jacques Bordeaux was among them.
68-year-old retired Los Angeles teacher was known as “Mr. Black History” in classrooms, sees “The 1619 Project” as a complement to “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and “Caste” and “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson.
“The fact that they were all written by black women just proves that excluded voices, when heard, have a very powerful story to tell,” Bordeaux said. “And I think that’s what she did tonight: explain why the stock market is necessary, how much there is antipathy to the truth and why, as a country, we will never get to where we are. want to go until we are faced with this truth about ourselves.
The next Los Angeles Times Book Club event will take place on December 9, when best-selling author Ann Patchett discusses “Those Precious Days” with Times columnist Steve Lopez. Register for the virtual event, which will be broadcast live on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook at 6 p.m. PT.