Why 1619 should matter as much to America as 1776

At Institute of Politics event, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses slavery’s impact

Finding evidence of slavery’s impact on modern America isn’t difficult. What’s challenging, said journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, is centering that evidence within the national memory.

“Most of us aren’t taught that history,” she said, “so we don’t know it exists.”

Teaching that history was the goal of The 1619 Project, a recent special issue of The New York Times Magazine, named for the year when a slave ship first arrived on Virginia’s shores. Speaking Oct. 7 at the University of Chicago before a room packed with students, scholars and community members, Hannah-Jones discussed why she pitched the project to her editors, and how it originated from her own readings as a high schooler.

“The conceit of the magazine is that you can look across almost every aspect of American life, whether you think it has to do with slavery or not—and through very rigorous scholarship, we were going to show you that it does,” said Hannah-Jones during the event, hosted by UChicago’s Institute of Politics.

The result was an issue that featured contributions from both journalists and scholars—one that touched on everything from health care to music to a traffic jam in Atlanta. It included a selection of literary work, including a poem by Asst. Prof. Eve L. Ewing of UChicago’s School of Social Service Administration. Most of the issue’s contributors were black—a conscious decision, Hannah-Jones said, to highlight that such a group could produce the “highest-quality journalism in the most important publication.”

Her visit to the International House was part of the IOP’s Speaker Series, a forum that invites leading thinkers to help students explore key political issues. The series’ guest list this month also features former Secretary of State John Kerry; current presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana; U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX); and Dikembe Mutombo, a former NBA All-Star who has become a humanitarian in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Our mission is to ignite in young people a passion for politics and public service and to enrich campus discourse on critical issues,” said IOP executive director Gretchen Crosby Sims. “Hosting these events gives students a chance to think about complicated topics from a new perspective, and to ask questions of provocative speakers.”

‘Centered in the American story’

Many have lauded The 1619 Project as a necessary corrective, one that more fully considers how the institution of slavery has shaped the United States. But some conservative politicians and commentators have accused it of distorting facts in service of activism—backlash which Hannah-Jones expected.

“People are not used to those who have been treated as the bottom of caste to be actually centered in the American story,” she said.

The 1619 Project opens with an essay by Hannah-Jones, one in which she reflects on her father’s decision to proudly fly an American flag outside her family’s Iowa home—despite the discrimination he faced before, during and after his military service. During the IOP event, moderated by WBEZ’s Jennifer White, Hannah-Jones revealed that the roots of the project also stretch back to when her 10th-grade teacher assigned Before the Mayflower, introducing to her the significance of the year 1619.

The Institute of Politics hosted Hannah-Jones in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit which has created reading guides, activities and other resources to help the public engage with The 1619 Project. Hannah-Jones said she takes special pride in how the work has been embraced by school districts around the country. Last month, for example, Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that every CPS high school would receive 200 to 400 copies of the magazine “as a resource to help reframe the institution of slavery, and how we’re still influenced by it today.”

At UChicago, one student asked Hannah-Jones about grappling with old texts, given the bigotry of their authors. The reporter said that her goal was not to erase those parts of history, but to push against the impulse to “deify these men.”

“When you teach about Thomas Jefferson, when you talk about Monticello, let’s call it what it was: It was a slave labor camp,” Hannah-Jones said. “Let’s talk about how he built his wealth, but let’s also say that he wrote some amazing words that really set the road map for who we are.

“I’m not arguing that 1776 doesn’t matter; I’m just saying that 1619 matters just as much. And we have to have the ability to teach both those things at the same time.”