RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:
The past is never past. This phrase, which is a remix of a passage by the famous American writer William Faulkner, is basically the tagline for this show. But it isn't just a tagline. It's kind of like a guiding principle. Here on THROUGHLINE, we're constantly trying to understand the mechanics of history - its limits, the way it oscillates between the light and shadows, darkness and hope, and ultimately how the past and our interpretation of it has shaped the world we live in today.
RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:
This task can be especially challenging when it comes to the history of the country we live in, the United States. The complex, murky, painful and beautiful history of this country has always been ammunition for the political battles of the present. This is because the story we're told about the past shapes the way we view the world and our role in it. So history becomes something we're always updating and fighting over. Whose stories are being told? Whose are being left out?
ARABLOUEI: Who gets to decide what stories we teach our children? Who gets the final word on truth? There's a battle waging across this country over these questions, and there's one person who, for the last few years, has been at the center of it.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: My name is Nikole Hannah-Jones. I'm a reporter at The New York Times and the creator of the 1619 Project.
ABDELFATAH: In 2019, Nikole Hannah-Jones conceived and curated the 1619 Project, a collection of essays by scholars from different disciplines that reframes the origin story of the United States. It contends that the date 1619 should be at the center of our national history. It's the date the first people of African descent were forcibly brought to what would become the United States. And it says that the only way to fully appreciate the vast complexity of American history and identity is to understand the legacy of slavery and racism experienced by Black Americans and the powerful role Black Americans have played in our democracy.
HANNAH-JONES: We have a country that was founded on these ideals of individual liberty, of inalienable God-given rights, which is unique to the world to have a country actually founded on those ideas. And we were not unique in the world in not giving most people rights. We were unique in the world, though, in saying that we were a country based on individual rights while depriving so many people of any rights. That - to believe in that founding narrative requires a great deal of historical amnesia. We just can't think about those contradictions. We just can't think about those hypocrisies because if you do, then you have to upend the entire identity of America as an exceptional nation and an exceptionally free nation. So that forgetting becomes necessary because that's the only way you can maintain that belief in American exceptionalism. But of course, if you're Black, if you're Indigenous, you can't forget that. How can you forget? Everything about your experience is a reminder of that, and so that forgetting is just not possible.
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ARABLOUEI: Nikole began her career as an investigative journalist at The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. For years, she covered everything from education to housing, eventually becoming a prominent reporter at The New York Times. She also became one of the most influential voices on Twitter, and her clever and actually really funny Twitter handle, Ida Bae Wells, is a play on a name, the name of a journalist from the early 20th century, a name that gives us an insight into how Nikole Hannah-Jones views her own work as a journalist.
HANNAH-JONES: There's no bigger influence on me than Ida B. Wells. I remember discovering her autobiography and just being shocked that a Black woman who had been born right around the time of the Emancipation Proclamation could be so audacious, so confident and so assured in kind of the moral nature of her work. She was a feminist, a suffragist, a civil rights activist and an investigative reporter who challenged not just mainstream white America, but also Black men who didn't believe that Black women should be leaders when it came to fighting for civil rights. So it's just really hard for me to overstate what a kind of North Star she's been for me.
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ABDELFATAH: Nikole Hannah-Jones' platform is astronomical compared to anything Ida B. Wells could have imagined. The 1619 Project started out as a special issue of The New York Times magazine. It took over the entire issue in August of 2019 and sold tens of thousands of copies. It's now in development to become a TV show and was just released as a book, with lots of new material that didn't fit into the original magazine publication.
ARABLOUEI: In the beginning of the book, there's a photo of a man. He is young and wearing a military uniform while standing in front of a Jeep. The look on his face is a combination of pride and the shyness that often accompanies young adulthood. He is Nikole's father, a man whose complicated relationship to his identity as an American was the inspiration for her opening essay.
HANNAH-JONES: My dad, as I talk about in the essay, was one of the smartest men that I knew - a voracious reader, a very astute observer of the world, a history-lover like myself. But he was also a Black man born into apartheid America and never had the type of opportunities to live up to the potential that he had. And when he passed away, he really had believed that his life hadn't amounted to much. Just the thought that this man who didn't think his life had amounted to much, that all of these people will see his name and know his story and know the influence that he had on giving me the opportunities to be in a position to create something like the 1619 Project - it has been deeply emotional for me.
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ABDELFATAH: When we come back, how Nikole Hannah-Jones discovered the significance of the year 1619 and how that set her on a path towards a new American origin story.
MANJARIN SUSAT: Hey, this is Manjarin Susat (ph). I am currently in Oklahoma City. And you guys are all listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Part 1: An Alternative Origin.
ARABLOUEI: The fundamental argument being made in the 1619 Project is that the Black experience has to be at the core of the telling of American history. And according to Nikole Hannah-Jones, this is precisely because many of us were taught that the United States started with the colonial struggle for freedom against the British Empire, leaving out the fundamental role of Black and Indigenous people. Growing up in the 1980s, Nicole herself was largely given this narrative until she was 15, when she came across a different origin story for the U.S. that went back further than 1776 - over a hundred years further.
HANNAH-JONES: So I first came across the year 1619 as a high school student. My high school offered a one-semester Black Studies elective course, and I learned more in the three months of that course than - about Black people, not just in America, but across the Diaspora - than I'd ever learned in my entire academic career. And as a Black girl who, I think like most kids, believed that if it was important, we would be taught it in school, the absence of learning about Black people led me to believe that Black people had not accomplished much of note for us to learn about and that that's why we were invisible.
So taking this class led to a - really an obsession to learn more, and I would ask my teacher to give me books to read outside of the class. And he gave me Lerone Bennett's "Before The Mayflower," which is where I first came across the date 1619. I'd never been taught it in school. I'd never been taught it from a movie, from documentaries I'd watched on television. And I just was shocked that Black people had been here that long and that slavery had been here that long, right? It's literally one of the oldest institutions in the English colonies. So I've thought about that date and both the power of the date and the power of the erasure of that date since I was 16 years old. So that's 30 years.
When I began to think of it as an origin story I think started to come over time, when I continued to study racial inequality, to do historical research, to try to understand why we still see so much racial inequality in our society today, why Black people - conditions remain as they are. And it just became clear that slavery was the root of so much in our society. And so I couldn't give you, you know, an exact moment when I started to understand that 1619 was an origin - that it was not just the start of the African presence in the 13 colonies, but that it was an origin of so much that would define America in ways good and bad.
ARABLOUEI: I'm curious. What was it about your early education, as someone growing up in United States, that preceded the shock you felt to discover how much older slavery was in the United States? You mentioned that a second ago. What was it about that 'cause I think it's an experience many people have encountered in the education system here in the U.S. and the way we're taught history?
HANNAH-JONES: I mean, Africa largely didn't exist in my education. We clearly knew there was a continent, but we weren't taught that there were kingdoms, that there were centers of learning, that Africans were contributing anything to the world. We learned about Europe. We learned some about China, almost nothing about the Middle East and really nothing about Africa. I was telling a friend the other day, I remember the moment when I realized that Egypt was in Africa. And I was in the classroom, and I was playing with the globe, and I saw Egypt at the top of Africa, and I was like, oh, there's two Egypts. That's literally what I thought as a child...
ARABLOUEI: Wow. Wow.
HANNAH-JONES: ...Was that there must be two Egypts.
HANNAH-JONES: And it's not that a teacher said Egypt's not in Africa, but, like, the images of Egyptians looked white.
HANNAH-JONES: And the way we talked about Egypt was as if it was somehow part of Greece or Rome or European. And I just was like, wait. Egypt's in Africa?
HANNAH-JONES: And think about - no one ever taught you that, but there was an understanding of that. And where does that come from? It is both the absence of information and then how we are taught certain things. And it was that understanding that history is managed and manipulated and our understanding of history, our national memory, is manipulated by those who are in power - I think that liberated me to come up with a different narrative and to try to study that which we had not been taught.
ABDELFATAH: When you took the idea to the folks at The Times and were like, this is the project, what was your pitch to them, and what was the goal of the project?
HANNAH-JONES: My pitch was very informal, honestly. I had been obsessing about this 400-year anniversary that I just knew from past experience was probably going to pass with little acknowledgement or without the proper attention that something so important needed. So I think what I said when I went into the - we have a weekly ideas meeting where editors and writers toss around ideas. And I think what I said was, do you all know that this year is the 400th anniversary of American slavery? And no one in the room knew that, which I was not surprised by because most people had never heard of the date 1619.
And I said, well, this is the 400th anniversary of slavery this year, and I think we should do an entire issue of the magazine dedicated to excavating what that means. For instance, did you know American capitalism had its roots in slavery? Do you know - and I went through a list of a couple of things. And that was the pitch. I didn't write anything out. It was just very conversational. And immediately, Jake Silverstein, the editor-in-chief of the magazine, said, we should do it. Absolutely. And that was it.
ARABLOUEI: Wow, that's amazing. I mean, I'm still trying to understand. I'd be interested in what you think is happening right now, not just in media but in the country, that people are more - at least in some places, are more open to these ideas or these frames, looking at history.
HANNAH-JONES: Well, I mean, as someone who studies history, it's always hard to figure out why things happen as they happen in the moment. But I would say that there may have been a different response had I pitched this project under the Obama administration...
ARABLOUEI: Ah, interesting.
HANNAH-JONES: ...Where many people in mainstream media kind of bought into this idea that we had reached the post-racial mountain - right? - that we hadn't solved racial inequality, but certainly we had banished the type of racism of Old America. And then Donald Trump wins. And Donald Trump wins on a campaign of white grievance and saying things that hadn't been appropriate in polite company for some time. And so I think a lot of gatekeepers in mainstream media understood, like, something is happening that we didn't think was happening. And there's some smart folks who want to excavate that, and I think that they were open because of that. So I think that played a big part in it.
You know, when I first started in journalism in 2003, most newsrooms had a race beat, and then they all went away.
HANNAH-JONES: And then newsrooms, because of what was happening politically, began to create these beats again. So I think it was really the kind of cultural schizophrenia that was happening in our country that was not surprising to people of color but seemed to be very surprising...
HANNAH-JONES: ...To newsroom gatekeepers that created these types of opportunities.
ARABLOUEI: Since it has come out, 1619 has almost become, like, a buzzword for people who - either to attach all their hopes or fears to, and I think it's easy to lose sight of what is actually in the project, what it actually says. So we want to actually dig into some of the arguments that you're making in the book, in this sort of expanded version of 1619 that's in the book. And I think one of them that's interesting to us is, instead of plantation, you use the term labor camp. Can you describe why that was important and why language in general, in terms of the way we describe things, particularly from the past, are important?
HANNAH-JONES: Yes. So I'll start with the second part of that question. Language is important - particularly in the past, but, of course, in all contexts - because it can either clarify or obscure. It can either justify or explicate, right? And one of the things I did early on was I created a guide on language, so the language would be uniform. And that said, we won't call human beings slaves. We're not going to use the euphemism of a plantation. We don't use blacks as a noun. And that language was important because when you call someone a slave, you're saying that's who that person was. But slavery was a condition. And of course, the entire reason people were defined as slaves was to strip them of their humanity, to treat them as something that could be owned, not as someone - a human being. So it was really important to me to not continue to dehumanize people who had been dehumanized, but also to force an understanding that these were people who had a condition forced upon them. But this was not their identity.
Plantation - I think the usage of the word plantation is why we have weddings on the sites of torture, on the site of forced labor, on the sites of places where human beings, through extreme violence or the threat of violence or coercion, were forced to labor for life for no pay, where their children were bought and sold away from them - that we can see these as vacation sites, that we can have these kind of bucolic images of "Gone With The Wind" in a way that you would never see on a concentration camp in Germany. So that language then facilitates the erasure of what happened in these spaces. But if you name them what they were, which was - these were slave labor camps. These were forced labor camps - then that gives us the proper image and context for what we're talking about.
To me, you could not do a project like this and allow the language to obscure the atrocity that slavery was. In fact, I wanted the language to jar you and to force you to do this little switch in your head, that, my god, the plantation was not "Gone With The Wind." The plantation was everything that was happening off camera that you could never see. We have largely used language to obscure those things, and this clearly is an effort to challenge that understanding.
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ABDELFATAH: In addition to the success of 1619, it's also been the subject of scrutiny and criticism. When we come back, we talk to Nikole Hannah-Jones about the debates triggered by her project and what they tell us about the ongoing battle over American history.
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RENEE LYLE: My name is Renee Lyle (ph), and I'm calling from Laramie, Wyo. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Part 2 - The Pushback.
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TUCKER CARLSON: Kellogg School districts are now using The 1619 Project from The New York Times, for example, as a curriculum. That project is the work of an out-of-the-closet racial extremist called Nikole Hannah-Jones.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: All right, The 1619 Project creator defending her racial curriculum against the push to stop it from being taught in our kids' schools.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: This is a lie. They're trying to equate critical race theory unfounded by any fact with what facts we have known for hundreds of years.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Take our history, turn it upside down and empty it, and we lose any sense of what we have as an American identity.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: All men are created equal, and the history of America is the long and sometimes difficult struggle to live up to that principle. That's a history we ought to be proud of, not the historical revisionism of The 1619 Project, which wants to indoctrinate America's kids and teach them to hate America.
CARLSON: Many parents understandably deeply resent this. It's deranged. It's racist. The Cultural Revolution has come to the West.
ARABLOUEI: 1619 was mostly met with praise when it was first released, but it was also the subject of criticism for its framing of early American history and the role slavery played in it. Some of those critiques came from pundits, others from historians who took issue with particular portions of the project and from politicians, including the former president.
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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, will destroy our country.
ARABLOUEI: Were you surprised by the level of pushback that came towards The 1619 when it was released, the aggressive response, particularly from the right? Were you less about surprised by it at all, but the level at which it came? And how did you deal with that initially, just on a personal, emotional level?
HANNAH-JONES: Of course I was surprised. No one could have expected the level, the longevity, the extent to the pushback. I certainly expected pushback. I mean, this is a project in The New York Times arguing that slavery is the foundational American institution, that our founders were, many of them, if not most, hypocrites who said they were founding a nation on the idea of freedom while engaging in slavery. You don't make that argument in The New York Times and not expect pushback.
The duration of it, though, the level of the vitriol, the fact that the president of the United States was...
HANNAH-JONES: ...Castigating the work, that sitting senators are trying to prohibit the work from being taught, the fact that the project is banned in state law in several states in this country and likely will soon be prohibited from being taught in schools in several others - no one could have predicted that.
I've been writing about racial inequality for 20 years. It was only when I created a project to unsettle the established narrative, our collective understanding of our country, that I've become the center of this type of campaign. And I think that speaks to how powerful collective memory is and how collective memory is used, how it is managed, how it was manipulated to maintain powerful people in power and that that's actually what they find dangerous. So how have I dealt with it has depended on the day.
HANNAH-JONES: There have been some really difficult times in the last two years, efforts to discredit not just the work, but me as a journalist, threats of violence.
HANNAH-JONES: We had a president who openly stoked violence, who was tweeting about my work. And that just sends a different type of person into your inbox and into your DMs and onto your voicemail. But at the same time, I understand that you would not see this type of organized pushback against the project if the project had not been immensely successful at achieving its goals, which is leading people to have to think differently about their country and, therefore, think differently about what is demanded of our society today if we want to live up to our highest ideals. So I, in some ways, take it as a badge of honor that two years out, you can still see daily people trying to discredit the project because that's a measure of the power of what we were trying to do.
ABDELFATAH: How do you characterize their - like, what is the pushback, and what is it reflecting in terms of the ideology on the right that 1619 has been used by senators, by the former president as sort of a rallying point?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, you can't disentangle what's happening around The 1619 Project right now with last year's so-called racial reckoning. You know, last year we saw the largest protests for civil rights and Black lives in the history of the world. You saw all-white communities participating in Black Lives Matter marches. And people were evoking this 400 years - right? - this narrative of this is a 400-year struggle. They are invoking the year 1619, and they are making these connections to what happened, not just to George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, but the material conditions of Black Americans back to this legacy of slavery. And the narrative is what changes the policy, of course.
So we know that if people start to think differently and understand their country differently and understand that inequality in their country differently, then they will support policies that are reflective of that understanding. If you think Black people are the - you know, more likely to be stopped by the police because they're more criminal or that Black people are more likely to be poor because they just don't want to work hard, then you support a different policy than if you think that what happened to George Floyd is because Black people, since the institution of slavery, have been a target of a particular type of policing - or that the reason that George Floyd and so many others were struggling against poverty is because of this long legacy of history and anti-Blackness, then you support policies that will address that.
So it's not incidental that you see, after this summer of racial reckoning, this massive backlash against The 1619 Project, against so-called critical race theory, against a teaching of a history that tries to help us understand the inequality that we see today because, of course, there is the fear that that will lead to policy that is more progressive and that will unsettle some of that economic supremacy, that will unsettle kind of our traditional holders of power.
So this becomes part of that campaign, and Republicans decide they are going to run for reelection on this belief that, hey, these folks want to make you feel bad for your history. They want to blame you for the society that we live in. They want you - look; they're taking down Christopher Columbus. They're attacking all of these white people that we have valorized. They're taking something from you, and they're not going to stop just by taking your heroes. They're going to take things out of your pocket. They're going to tell you that you're bad. That's very successful. If you look at history, the way that you break up these multiracial coalitions is you drive into the oldest wedge issue in America, which is race. And we were warned about this. And when we were told, they're going to use 1619 in the presidential campaign, it sounded like the most ludicrous thing I'd ever heard. Like, who's going to use a work of journalism about slavery in a political campaign. But they have. And they have managed to turn it into a very effective wedge issue.
ARABLOUEI: That's interesting you bring it up because one of the criticisms of The 1619 Project from the left, particularly from socialists or, you know, Marxists, has been that looking at American history through a racial lens, strictly, leaves out the kind of really important dimensions about class and about multi- kind of racial and multistructured kind of movements against economic power structures in this country. That was a criticism laid at 1619 but just, more in general, about taking kind of a racial lens at looking at history. How do you respond to that critique?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, one, The 1619 Project is a project about the legacy of slavery. So I never understand this critique that the project didn't address every other issue that have been used to divide people in society. It's not a project about women and gender. It's not a project about what happened to Indigenous people. It's not a project about class. It is a project about the legacy of slavery. And slavery was a racial institution. So I don't think that that is a justified critique. And I think, really, people who accuse The 1619 Project of race essentialism are themselves trying to be class essentialist because the truth is, if you study history, there has not been very successful long-term class-based movements that have not been destroyed by race.
And in the end, every example that they can give about class movements, those class movements always end because white people in the movement choose their whiteness over their class solidarity. This is what the slave codes that follow Bacon's Rebellion are about is saying, we have to divide Black and white people who are all struggling under a white elite from each other. And we do that by creating in Black people a distinct class that even the poorest white person can never fall below. So if you look at history simply on a class basis, you can give examples, very short-lived examples, of cross-racial solidarity. And then you can show how each and every one of those movements is destroyed by racism.
And further, if you remove the class element - so if you look at poor people who are Black and white - Black people are still worse off in every measure than people who are white and poor who have the same income. So how does one describe that? How does one explain the disparity in class, within class, without looking at race? So I think the project is open to all types of critique, and I would never pretend that the project is perfect in every way. But I don't think the fact that we didn't focus enough on class, when class is racialized in this country, is the right argument.
ARABLOUEI: The one thing I was going to ask about is the - sort of one of the central arguments in the essay around the American Revolution and it being, in part - at least in part or not, largely about American colonies trying to preserve slavery. There came criticisms from a number of historians, a number of prominent historians, about the veracity of that claim. For the most part, you stuck to that argument. My question is, how did you choose to respond to that in the book? And why did you choose to kind of stick with that point of view of that argument?
HANNAH-JONES: So I'm going to push back a little bit on that framing.
HANNAH-JONES: I would say fewer than a dozen historians have come out against that argument publicly. And I can't speak to the whole profession and how many people have not said anything.
ARABLOUEI: No, that's fair.
HANNAH-JONES: But it's a small number of historians, and not even all of them are experts in the period of the American Revolution. We have more historians than that who wrote for the project. We have far more historians than that who agree with our framing of the American Revolution, who have also written publicly about that. And yet they never get brought up, and no one ever talks about all of the historians who publicly supported the facts that we argued in the framing about the American Revolution.
Now, why did I stick with the argument? If you've seen the book, then you see the copious amount of end notes from historians of the period of the American Revolution that that argument relies upon. We tend to think about history as being settled, right? There's these facts. This happened on this date. And this is who did it. But history is - it is a field of consensus, and consensus does not mean that that's actually what occurred. And for a long time, historians didn't even deal with slavery in a revolution that was largely led by slaveholders.
But you have - for the last 40 years, have had historians who are really trying to excavate the role of slavery, and they have come up with scholarship that says that slavery played a prominent role, particularly for Virginians, South Carolinians, in joining the revolution. And it is that scholarship that my project or that section on the American Revolution is based on. So why did I leave it in there? - because I think it's right.
ARABLOUEI: I think one of the things you just pointed out is that history isn't settled. And there's arguments made about history, right? Like, people have perspectives. And one of the arguments I've read you made is that, look, for most of American history, it's been one kind of type of person who's been able to make that argument - right? - white men, for the most part, historians - and that now as a Black woman living in the 21st century making this argument, you're making a historical argument - right? - like, that you're making an argument. Like you said, this is - history is like a collection of historical arguments that finally people settle on. And it's not ever settled. So sounds to me like that's part of what this is about as well, is that there's historical argument being made, just as there has been in the past...
HANNAH-JONES: I mean, this is history as told from the bottom. So do we think that enslaved people were inanimate objects during the period of the American Revolution, that they were no different than the cattle? They were just kind of doing their work and not asserting themselves in the conflict, not understanding that there was - the issue of slavery was at play here - right? - not actively engaging in what was happening. This is about focus. It's about - if you're not interested in what they were doing, then you don't focus on it. But that's not objective history.
And these wars within the profession have been ongoing. If we think back - if you're a history nerd - to when Annette Gordon-Reed, in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, asserts that Thomas Jefferson had a relationship with Sally Hemings and had children by her; that work was castigated. Scholars of Jefferson said, there is no way; that's false. Thomas Jefferson absolutely did not have children with Sally Hemings, and there is no proof that it happened. It is now the historical consensus, including even Monticello, that he did.
I'm not arguing as a non-professional historian that I could never get anything wrong because of course I could, because historians also get things wrong. What I am saying, as I've said many, many times, is I did not sit down at my desk one day and say, let me make up something about slavery and the American Revolution - that I wrote that because there was scholarship that backed it up that I thought was compelling and that I believed.
ABDELFATAH: You have this book coming out. And it's much longer than the original project. And I'm assuming that part of the motivation is also that you can fit more of the nuance, maybe fit more of the things that ended up not making it into the original project into a longer book, and that you can spend more time - I don't want to say responding to because I - that's assuming that you're responding, in part, to some of the things that - some of the criticism that came along - but definitely fleshing out things that weren't able to be fleshed out in the original project. I mean, is that fair to say? Do you think that that is partly what the book is able to do that maybe the original project just didn't have the capacity to do as a magazine feature?
HANNAH-JONES: Yes, absolutely. I mean, let me be clear. There was valid critique to be had of the project. And where the critique was valid, we listened to it. And we consulted more experts. And we did more research. And with a book, yes, you can be much more nuanced. You can add much more detail. You can add endnotes so people can actually see the sourcing on the arguments that you're making. And as with anything, which happens with academic publications all the time, you publish something; you get the feedback on it. And then you revise it, and you improve it, which is a very normal thing. It's just that the "1619 Project" has become so politicized that people are like, oh, you revise; oh, you must have got it wrong in the first place. No, we just - revision is part of a normal process.
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HANNAH-JONES: The beautiful thing about this is having had a chance to publish and now having more space, you could sit and think, OK, what were the things that I really wish could have been in there that weren't? And when the project came out, I had so many conversations with historians, with regular people. And I listened to their feedback. And I read more and studied more myself because I had more time. And that also changed, in some ways, the argument that I was making. And that's what's so exciting about this, is even if you read every single word of the original project, every essay in there has been significantly changed and all of them made much better.
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ABDELFATAH: What's at stake in the battle for history? - when we come back.
LEAH CHANG: My name is Leah Chang (ph). I'm calling from London. And you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7, BYLINE: Part 3 - The country we have.
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ABDELFATAH: History and its accurate telling is at the heart of what Nikole Hannah-Jones is aiming for in 1619. It sparked an intense debate about what story we should be telling ourselves about this country. But the debate doesn't end there. Questions are often put to someone like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who does the work of storytelling and observation, questions like, what are we supposed to do with this history? How can pointing out the darkness of the past be productive? How are we supposed to feel about it? And what's the point? According to Nikole, these questions miss the point.
HANNAH-JONES: I don't know why it should matter whether it's pessimistic or optimistic. It is what it is. It's trying to make an argument about our society. And some people have - you know, a criticism of the project is that they do feel it's not hopeful enough. It's too pessimistic. I'm completely unconcerned with that. I don't think it's true. I don't think you can read to the end of my essay, where I say Black people have made astounding progress despite every obstacle and that we have a right to fly the flag and feel proud of the country that we helped build, and think that that is a pessimistic essay. But I don't think that's a relevant question. This is the country that we have.
And the last two essays in the project - one is by Ibram Kendi on progress, which gets to this notion that Americans, we need to just believe that we're always moving forward, even if the evidence is to the contrary and that that belief that we are better than we used to be and we're getting better, you know, in the future then alleviates us of the need to do something right now about all the inequality that we see. And then the final essay is on justice. And it says, OK, we've taken you through this whole history. We've shown you all of the ways that the legacy of slavery has hurt Black Americans, has corrupted our society. And it says we have a choice, that if you know it's all been created, then you know that it can be undone, and we are not captive to the past. We can't do anything about it, but we don't have to be held captive to it.
But we do have a choice to make. And to me, that's tremendously empowering because we can decide whether we will be the country of our highest ideals. Black people did not, until the end of the Civil War with the Reconstruction Amendments, believe in the Constitution. The Constitution laid out no vision for us as citizens or us as free individuals. But they did believe in those opening words of the declaration. And the declaration, which is a succession document, but the beginning graph says, we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. Of these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Black people took those words and turned the declaration into a freedom document. And I think that is the work that Black Americans have been doing since those words were written. And what we are calling on is the rest of America to join in the struggle to perfect those really majestic words of our founding.
ABDELFATAH: You know, I wonder what you think is - in the present, what is at stake in revising and reexamining the past? And do you think that we as a country can move forward without a shared, agreed-upon narrative about the past?
HANNAH-JONES: Why it matters to me is we have learned the history of a country that does not exist. And because we've learned a false history of a country that does not exist, we are unable to understand the country in which we live and to create the country of our highest ideals. So I don't know that there can ever be one single uncontested shared narrative. But I do think we are a nation that is exceptional in ways that we should not be proud of. We have an exceptional amount of income inequality. We are the only Western industrialized nation that does not guarantee health care for its citizens. We are the only Western industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid leave when you have a child. We have the stingiest social safety net of all of the countries that we like to compare ourselves. We incarcerate more people than any country in the world. These are legacies of settler colonialism, and these are legacies of African slavery. And until we are honest about that upon which we are built, we will never become the country that we believe ourselves to be.
So I don't know if there is one collective unifying narrative about America. I think that The 1619 Project can be a unifying narrative, but only if you believe that Black Americans can be heroes of the story and that Black Americans are just as American and that a white American can see themselves in the struggle to make this a democracy and a land of equality just the way we're expected to see ourselves in white founders. So can we get there? I don't know. I don't think that is the concern of a journalist, is whether we can have a single unifying narrative. I think the concern of the journalist is to try to help us understand the society we live in and to get as close to the truth as possible.
ARABLOUEI: You know, one thing I'm thinking about here, kind of circling back to the beginning of our conversation, is - and I know this is like asking you to imagine things - how would you know? But what would it have meant to you as a 16-year-old version of yourself to know that that thing you discovered about 1619 would now be entering classrooms - right? - so another 16-year-old will actually be coming across this through a curriculum?
HANNAH-JONES: Oh, my God. Never - never in my wildest dreams could I imagine any of this. I did not even have this type of ambition for myself. I just wanted to write about Black folks for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That was my highest ambition. I had no idea anyone would ever know my name or that anyone would be discussing my work or even, you know, that my work would be considered so dangerous that it would be barred in state law. So I think - when I think back to that very nerdy 16-year-old who had very little confidence and very little exposure to all that would be possible in the world, I would just like to go back and give her a hug. And - I don't know. I think it would have made all of those times when I was very unsure of myself, when I felt very small, have been worth it. So I'm just grateful.
I talk a lot about how between this book and - you know, we also have a children's book that I co-wrote with Renee Watson called "Born On The Water" that's coming out on the same day that's an origin story specifically for Black American children who descend from American slavery - how much I wish I would have had texts like that when I was a child. I wouldn't have had to spend all of those years sitting in the classroom feeling completely inferior, feeling that Black people had never accomplished anything of worth, believing that the reason we weren't in the story was because we didn't do anything important and how differently my concept of myself would have been had anyone bothered to teach us any of this. So I'm just grateful, mostly, and honored.
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ARABLOUEI: This has been really, really fantastic. Thank you so much.
ABDELFATAH: Thank you so much.
HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. I really enjoyed the conversation.
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ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.
ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.
ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me.
ARABLOUEI: And me. And...
LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.
LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan-Levenson.
JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.
VICTOR YVELLEZ, BYLINE: Victor Yvellez.
ANYA STEINBERG, BYLINE: Anya Steinberg.
YOLANDA SANGWENI, BYLINE: Yolanda Sangweni.
ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.
ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann, Tamar Charney, Adriana Tapia, Miranda Mazariegos, Deb George and Keith Woods.
ABDELFATAH: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...
ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.
NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.
SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.
ARABLOUEI: Special thanks to Gilly Moon for mixing this episode.
ABDELFATAH: Also, we want your voice on our show. Send us a voicemail at 872-588-8805 with your name, where you're from and the line, you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And we'll get you in there. That's 872-588-8805.
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ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.
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