Managing Editor Zack Abrams attended Wednesday’s event “400 Years: A conversation about Journalism, History, and the 1619 Project,” where Nikole Hannah-Jones and Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times answered questions from Columbia’s own Jelani Cobb about the 1619 Project, which reframes American history around the struggle for Black liberation. 

The August 14, 2019 edition of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to a single idea: how can we understand the legacy of slavery in America, which started with the very first time enslaved Africans set foot in America in August of 1619, 400 years before the issue ran? The ambitious project was spearheaded by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the magazine whose specialty lies in studying the modern effects of school segregation around the country. Last night, the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism hosted Hannah-Jones and New York Times Opinion writer Jamelle Bouie, who also contributed a story to the magazine, for a panel hosted by Columbia Journalism School professor and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb.

Hannah-Jones has spent much of her career writing about school segregation in America, from an award-winning series on This American Life to a widely read New York Times Magazine feature about navigating New York’s segregated school system with her own child. Her work attempts to shine a light on problems of racism we all live with and rarely acknowledge; I grew up in a white town on Long Island, one of the most racially segregated regions in the country, and I can attest to that widespread ignorance towards the history and effects of that segregation. The mission of the 1619 project is larger in scale, but not in intention, in that it discusses “all of these things that people have never thought about in terms of slavery and anti-Black racism,” as Hannah-Jones put it.

Throughout the night, Hannah-Jones gave a wry look inside the process of bringing the 1619 Project to life. “I actually got like zero pushback and, in fact, a pretty unprecedented amount of resources went into the project,” said Hannah-Jones. However, she noted that the simple version of the story obscures a more crucial detail. “It was very hard for me to build a career that would allow me to be in a position to get the time to do this project.” Though she worked hard for months as the only full-time staffer on the project (the rest had to put out a magazine every week, after all), Hannah-Jones was stunned by the widespread acclaim and viral success of the magazine, though she gave a few reasons why that may be the case:

“I think the conceit of the issue is a big part of that, which is, we weren’t telling a history of slavery. We were actually saying, we’re going to assess the modern legacy and we’re going to look at all of these things across American life that most people think have nothing to do with slavery and anti-Black racism and we’re going to show you how they are…I also think a big part of it is the time that we’re in, that white Americans realized they’re living in the same America that Black folks have been living in and want to understand, how do we get here? Why do we have someone who is a white nationalist in the white house in 2019? I think that was a big part of it…Black people are also looking for the data to back up what we’ve long known but haven’t had the public history to do.”

Of particular note to the panel was the conservative backlash to the 1619 project, which largely protested the framing of the issue since, as Hannah-Jones put it, “we moved the fringe to the center.” Hannah-Jones noted the importance of the Times‘s fact-checking process, which included a panel of historians to inspect each piece closely, to ensure that any criticisms could not dispute the facts presented.

Bouie also recognized that the change of frame was likely to provoke a conservative backlash. “By claiming that 1619 is as important to the United States’s founding as 1776, that is really going directly at not just a national myth, but it’s going at how I think conservatives have subconsciously understood themselves for at least generation, which is [as] the keepers of the founding,” he said.

Later in the night, Hannah-Jones discussed the importance of the work finding a wider audience than the typical white, affluent subscribers of the Times. “I would never forgive myself if we produced a 400-year examination of the legacy of slavery and those who have descended from slavery never see it or get access to it. So I personally fundraised money to print 200,000 extra copies,” said Hannah-Jones.

She then discussed the reason why the 1619 Project was surprising to so many people: the American education system has largely failed to teach its students the nuances of Black history. (Again, I can confirm that from my perspective.) “You learn about Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, but not actually what it did and why it was necessary. You learn about the textile mills and Industrial Revolution, but not where that cotton was coming from. You learn about Wall Street, but not that the entire financial structure rises up to support the institution of slavery,” said Hannah-Jones. “Then there’s this hundred years of missing history where nothing happens for Black America until Dr. King says, I have a dream. And then we sing kumbaya!” To help rectify this, teaching materials from the 1619 project were distributed through the Pulitzer Center and, according to Hannah-Jones, are now in use at schools in every state.

The panel discussion ended with a discussion of reparations since, as Hannah-Jones put it, “The entire project is implicitly an argument for reparations.” All three panelists stressed the importance of reparations, and all three panelists expressed their doubts about the political reality of such a result. “Now do I think any of this [reparations] will happen? Do you know me? I mean, probably not. But if we’re not agitating for it, if we’re not making a moral argument for it, then it certainly won’t,” said Hannah-Jones. “And otherwise, if we’re not going to say reparations should come, we should all just acknowledge that we accept the caste system, we accept that Black people will never ever be able to catch up, and we’re just going to continue with the country that we have. I think my work is saying we could choose to do something different.”

The 1619 Panel via Bwog Staff