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Journalist shares mission, story behind The 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones kicks off Diversity Lecture Series

GRCC — The truth cannot destroy us, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of the The 1619 Project and a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, told an audience of more than 600 during a virtual event Monday evening.

Hannah-Jones was keynote speaker for the 27th Annual Diversity Lecture Series at Grand Rapids Community College. The question-and-answer formatted event was titled “Crossroads: Academic Freedom and (the) Ivory Tower.” B. Afeni McNeely Cobham, chief equity and inclusion officer and executive director for the Woodrick Center at GRCC, and equity fellow Leslie Neal interviewed Hannah-Jones. 

The journalist addressed the pushback The 1619 Project has received from conservative activists and politicians since its publication in August 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.

An initiative from The New York Times, the project “reframes American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” according to the project’s introduction. “Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” 

“This work is a testament and a testimony to our ancestors and to all of us who are here because of what they bore. I pray that this work does honor to them and  justice to them,” said Hannah-Jones, a professor at Howard University.

Part of that justice is recognizing truth, she said.

“The truth of our history is shaping our society whether we acknowledge it or not,” she said.  “We can try to bury it and erase it and we see the impact of that. We see that in the inequality we still have today. We see that in the fact that we had an insurrection on our Capitol and that there are people that believe there are legitimate Americans and illegitimate Ameicans.”

She continued, “The past is shaping our society whether we acknowledge it or not. But if we acknowledge it, we will not be destroyed by it. What may destroy it is this desire to keep repressing it.”

America ‘Cannot Hide Its Sins’

People have accused her of hating America, Hannah-Jones said, but she asserted her work is about showing truth as a way toward progress.

“What I do believe is a great country cannot hide its sins. It can’t try to cover up the crime. We have to own up to the crime and we have to atone for it. That’s what makes a country great. I hope that 20 years from now people will say that this work tried to get us closer to the truth of who we are so we can become who we want to be.”

There’s a glaring dichotomy in people’s attitudes toward race, she said, saying America is “obsessed with race.”

“From the moment we take our first breath to the moment we die we are being categorized,” she said. “We are obsessed with race, but we also want to negate its existence and its power and the way the structure of race has ordered not just our society but our opportunities and the lives that we live.”

Addressing Inequity in Education

Hannah-Jones, a native of Waterloo, Iowa, was raised in a segregated area. She was bused to a white school from second grade until she graduated from high school.

“I often say that really gave me a bus-window view into the landscape of educational inequality. I could see from the bus that as we got closer to the white side of town all of the sudden you started to see that the neighborhood got nicer; the roads were paved; there were more parks; there were more places to shop. From an early age, I questioned why that was.”

She said she knew the stereotype in society was that Black people didn’t want to work hard. “But I saw how hard people in my family and my community worked, so from a pretty young age I started questioning why things were like they were.”

‘The past is shaping our society whether we acknowledge it or not. But if we acknowledge it, we will not be destroyed by it.’

– Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The 1619 Project

When she started studying Black history, she learned a counter-story to the public narrative, said Hannah-Jones, who considers journalist Ida B. Wells her “spiritual godmother.” She learned of Black people who have made myriad contributions to society.

Hannah-Jones has spent the bulk of her career covering school segregation and inequality. As part of her research, she spent a year in Detroit Public Schools in its poorest high school. From that experience, she said, “I came to have an understanding of the role that literacy plays in a way I never had before. In some ways it’s common sense: literacy is the linchpin of all academic success and if you are struggling to read you will struggle in all of your courses.”

In her hometown of Waterloo, Hannah-Jones recently launched the 1619 Freedom School, a free, community-based after-school literacy program “where students improve literacy skills and develop a love for reading through liberating instruction centered on Black American history.” It opened in January. 

“It’s already become the most important work of my life,” she said. “For me to be successful and not reach back into my community would mean that I had failed in life.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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