Photo credits: Alice Vergueiro/Abraji via Flickr
One of the most revered and contentious journalists of her era, Nikole Hannah-Jones addressed the students of West Chester University through a webinar hosted by The Society, (formerly known as Frederick Douglass Society), this past Thursday, Jan. 27. Hannah-Jones was given the chance to address the controversy surrounding her work on the 1619 project, critical race theory and the U.S. education system as a whole.
To the tune of “Glory” by John Legend and Common, a song which itself addresses centuries of discrimination, West Chester University’s Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Dr. Tracey Ray Robinson, as well as Assistant Professor Sophia Vilceus, addressed the virtual audience. Vilceus told them that, when offered the opportunity to interview anyone for West Chester University’s Diversity Speaker Series, her very first choice would be the woman of the hour. Nikole Hannah-Jones is more than just a staff-writer for the New York Times (NYT). Back in August of 2019, Hannah-Jones used her platform to launch a journalistic endeavor that would not only mark the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in Hampton, Virginia, but would attempt to redefine the national conversation around slavery as a whole, what it was, who it impacted and most importantly, how it still impacts us today.
This endeavor grew into what we now know as the 1619 Project. It would be 10 essays, as well as a wide array of photographs and poems, published in a special 100-page edition of The New York Times Magazine, that would address topics ranging from “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?” in an essay by NYT podcast host Wesley Morris, to “How America’s Vast Racial Wealth Gap Grew: By Plunder,”, an essay by MSNBC reporter Trymaine Lee.
Nikole Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020 for her introductory essay “America Wasn’t a Democracy Until Black Americans Made It One,”, and New York University called the work one of the “10 greatest works of journalism of the past 10 years.” The praise and excitement for the project soon sparked a backlash from some journalists, historians and politicians. Groups of history scholars, including Michigan State University Professor Dr. William Allen and Yale Professor Dr. Steven Smith, claimed the work was wrought with “modern oversights” and asked the New York Times to cease its publication. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich lambasted the work as “left-wing propaganda masquerading as the truth.” Conversely, then Senator Kamala Harris claimed the project was a “powerful and necessary reckoning of our history.”
It was this reception and more that Professor Vilceus got the chance to discuss with Hannah-Jones during the webinar. Vilceus began by asking the author her work, what the hardest parts were and what got her through it.
“The hardest part of the work I do now, post 1619, is the way that so many people are invested in dismissing the work even without reading it” sSaid Hannah-Jones, “The work is not perfect, I think it could be improved, but we were careful with it, we understood its importance. Yet, to have so many people who haven’t read it who are bent on mischaracterizing it has been very challenging.” The journalist then went on to talk about how her resolve is built from understanding. “What keeps me going is knowing who I do this for and why I do this. I know what it means to those people. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about our ancestors, so I never lack for resolve.”
“So then what do you say to those who don’t understand the necessity of 1619?” The moderator prompted, setting the stage for one of Nikole Hannah-Jones trademark cross-examinations of historical analysis.
“We all know that slavery happened,.” sShe began “But it has been minimized to the point where we are incapable of understanding the breadth of it and how major it was. The ‘long time ago’ argument is very revealing, the Declaration of Independence was a long time ago. The Mayflower was a long time ago. The constitution was a long time ago and constitutionalists think those ‘divine tablets’ are so important. But when it comes to the uncomfortable past that challenges American exceptionalism, then we forget. Every year on 9/11 we say never forget. Yet slavery is a history we are told to forget about. We would love to get over slavery, but this country wont get over it. The past doesn’t matter when it comes to us.”
Hannah-Jones spent much of the webinar discussing the power of propaganda. “You can trace [the discussion of] critical race theory from not existing at all, to Fox News, to Donald Trump, to the Election.” The writer is likely referring to the fact that, although the term ‘critical race theory’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, its notoriety in the public sphere has been directly correlated to its starkly increased discussion on Fox News since January of 2021. “Our nuanced arguments will never be as effective as propaganda,” Hannah-Jones conceded.
As the discussion continued, the conversational lense grew, with Professor Vilceus eventually asking whether or not the eradication of racism is even possible.
“The myth of Racial Progress is an American belief that we are always moving forward,” Hannah-Jones replied solemnly, “especially when it comes to Race. Saying that “We’ve made progress” and were told to be grateful for that. Furthermore we were told that things will get even better in the future, this alleviates the need to act right now. But as we know, things don’t get better, they can go backwards or stay the same. All you have to do is look at what happened after slavery. We flirted with multi-racial democracy. And then within 12 years we reverse that, and go back to 100 years of racial aparthied, with no Bblack senators until the 1960’s.”
While many more of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ beliefs and future endeavors were discussed towards the end of the webinar, and can be found at her website (https://nikolehannahjones.com/), there is little that could be more encapsulating of this discussions tone than Hannah-Jones remarks on the future as influenced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“Dr. King popularized the idea that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. I argue that the arc is not an arc, it’s a circle, and it will just bend back into itself. It took 400 years to get here, Anti-Bblackness was embedded in every system that we had. Even states with no Bblack people, like Oregon, passed bills barring Bblack people from entry. There is only one way to even theoretically eliminate racism. We’d have to invest the same amount of resources originally used to insert racism to get rid of it. The problem with that, is that the former helped the white majority, while the latter does not.
Matthew Shimkonis is a third-year History Major. MS925373@wcupa.edu