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Iowa native behind ‘The 1619 Project’ urges slavery become central in America’s story
‘The 1619 Project is about the silences of history and trying to fill in those silences’
AMES — Through her work on “The 1619 Project” in its many iterations — and again Wednesday evening on the Iowa State University campus — Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones argued for making slavery central to the American story, rather than just an asterisk.
“What we think of as history actually often is memory,” Iowa native Hannah-Jones told a crowd of about 1,000 in Iowa State’s Stephens Auditorium. “Because what happens is all these things in history occur, we just don't learn about most of them.
“And what we do learn about is shaped by power — people who have power, people who get to decide what narrative of America we're all going to learn. And those narratives left out people like me.”
As a child growing up in Waterloo, Hannah-Jones said she assumed she wasn’t learning about Black people because they didn’t do anything worth learning about.
“Clearly, if we had done things, somebody would put it in a book, or it would be in the museums that we go to, or you would see it on television, or when you look at all the monuments in a park or in a city, there would be monuments of Black people who have done things that were important.”
Her world and those of millions of other American children, Hannah-Jones said, was shaped not just by what was taught, but by what wasn’t.
“By the silences, by the absences,” she said. “Ultimately, ‘The 1619 Project’ is about the silences of history and trying to fill in those silences with information.”
Hannah-Jones, a staff writer with the New York Times Magazine, launched “The 1619 Project” in August 2019 as a series of essays in the publication, paired with a six-episode podcast.
As an ongoing initiative to reframe American history by incorporating slavery and its legacy, Hannah-Jones last year published a book, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” — an anthology of essays, poetry and pictures expanding on the original piece.
The project — which dives into the economics of slavery, its brutality of and its impact on music, art, and women, among other things — has incited a wide-ranging response. While some educators are incorporating it into their curriculum, some lawmakers are angling to ban them from doing so.
Iowa is among the states that considered legislation to bar teachers from using “The 1619 Project” or similar curriculum that “attempts to deny or obfuscate the fundamental principles upon which the United States was founded.”
Hannah-Jones during her talk Wednesday addressed the backlash head on.
‘What happened to Iowa?’
“What the hell happened to Iowa anyway?” she said, inciting laughter and referencing the state’s role in making Barack Obama president in 2008 through his caucus victory. “It showed the country that white people would vote for a Black president. If one of the whitest states in the country could vote for a Black man, that meant that he was electable in the United States.”
She took a serious tone in expressing concern not just for Iowa but for a country — including all races and ethnicities — “indoctrinated into a white supremacist society and a white supremacist ideology.”
“It's been very distressing to see what has happened in a state like this,” Hannah-Jones said. “My home state, they tried to ban me. I wish more of my home state, I wish for our country, that we would stop having such a stingy view of each other.”
When asked what Iowans can do to support her project and its ongoing work, Hannah-Jones urged the audience to vote — and to support educators, who “just need to do what you are in the classroom to do.”
“I know that's easy to say because I know that educators are being punished, are losing jobs,” she said, speaking specifically to a teacher who posed the question. “So I guess my answer is going to be more to your community than to you. Because you have to be free to do the work that you are charged to do in the classroom, but the only way you can do that is if your community will stand up for you and support you.”
In arguing for reparations for those impacted by slavery, Hannah-Jones said the entire country is suffering for its past.
“My argument is that all of us get hurt by the history of racism, not just Black people,” she said. “Black people might hurt the worst. But we all suffer for it. And until we confront the truth of that and decide that we're going to choose to be something else, we will continue to suffer from our past.
“So, yes, justice requires reparations. But justice also requires atonement for an entire nation, so that our entire nation can become a great nation.”
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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