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DES MOINES — Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the “1619 Project,” feels “a deep sense of pride” that Iowa legislators were so frightened by her essay that they tried to prohibit the teaching of it in her home state.
Featured Thursday at a virtual Sussman Lecture, a program of the Harkin Institute for Public Policy at Drake University in Des Moines. Hannah-Jones spoke about reparations that still need to be made for slavery.
“We have to have an acknowledgment, a truth-telling, and talk about what repair, restitution and reparations looks like,” Hannah-Jones said.
“Reparations is the morally right thing to do, but it would actually help our entire society,” she said. “Black people would do what everyone else does with wealth: Send their kids to college, start businesses, buy homes and infuse millions of dollars into the economy.”
The 1619 Project was created by Hannah-Jones, who is an Iowa native, and published in the New York Times Magazine in 2019 for the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first- known enslaved Africans to America in 1619, over 150 years before the United States became a nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
The project won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, and the Pulitzer Center said it has helped connect about 4,500 classrooms with the curriculum.
In Iowa, House File 222 would have banned schools, community colleges and state universities from using any history curriculum obtained from the 1619 Project. The proposed measure did not gain enough support from legislators to make it past a deadline for further debate this session. Hannah-Jones thanked educators, teachers, parents and social justice activists who fought against HF 222.
One of the most contested parts of the 1619 Project is how Hannah-Jones wrote about the role slavery played in the American Revolution, she said.
“So many of our country’s founders were enslavers,” she said. “The person who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, 10 of our first 12 presidents were enslavers.”
Quoting Martin Luther King Jr., Hannah-Jones said Americans want “negative peace.”
“We have to discuss what happened, try to fix what happened, and then we can start to have that reconciliation,” she said.
Education, housing, health, life expectancy and the disparity of wealth between white and Black people can be traced to slavery, Hannah-Jones said. The 1619 Project is about how the present has been shaped by slavery, she said.
Hannah-Jones said the reason she wanted to be a journalist was to write about Black people and racial inequality. In her reporting, Hannah-Jones said she wants to get to the “why, the how and the who” responsible for racial inequality.
“You can treat it as an investigative beat,” she said. “We think of these things as a legacy of the past, but there are people today driving policy that leads to racial inequality.”
Her journalism career began as a high school student in Waterloo. She would look through her high school newspaper and wouldn’t see stories about students who looked like her, who were bused from their neighborhoods to go to a predominantly white school.
“We have to have diverse newsrooms, not because it’s politically correct, but because we won’t be accurate if we don’t have an accurate representation of America in newsrooms,” Hannah-Jones said.
Iowa has a history of being a “moderate” state, Hannah-Jones said. It was the first Midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2009. It was the first state to desegregate schools in 1868. It has some of the best public education in the country, Hannah-Jones said.
Lately, however, Hannah-Jones said she has been “disheartened with some of the turns the state has made.” Iowa is not a place she would want to move back to, Hannah-Jones said.
“It’s a white state. People of color don’t want to go there,” she said. “They come into places where there’s so much inequality and not the proper support, and they don’t want to stay.”
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