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Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses ‘The 1619 Project’

| Wednesday, March 16, 2022

“Race is, and has always been, the oldest wedge issue in America,” journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said.

Dissecting that issue has been the goal of her long-form New York Times project “The 1619 Project.”

Hannah-Jones ’98 returned to Notre Dame on Tuesday evening to discuss the controversial “1619 Project” for the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy’s 2022 Red Smith Lecture. 

The event also served as the Initiative on Race and Resilience”s inaugural Sojourner Truth Lecture and a part of the University’s Kathleen Cannon, O.P., Distinguished Lecture Series. Mark Sanders, professor of English and Africana Studies at Notre Dame, moderated the discussion.

Hannah-Jones has spent her career investigating racial inequality and injustice. She has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” a Peabody Award, two George Polk Awards and three National Magazine Awards. She has worked as a staff writer for The New York Times since April 2015 and helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting in early 2015.

Hannah-Jones recalled her inspiration to become a journalist when she realized that Black girls like herself were not represented in newsrooms.

“Black women reporters were unicorns,” she said. “And as a Black girl, I also understood how important it was that those of us who are marginalized be able to write some of the stories about our own community.” 

Hannah-Jones explained how growing up, she only saw Black people in the newspaper in the crime record, though she knew that was not representative of her community.

“If we are erased from the story, if we are marginalized in the story or if the only place we appear in the story is in the crime log, then that drives how voters respond,” she said. “Narrative drives policy.”

This perceived lack of representation relates to her worries about the journalism industry at large.

“My biggest fear about journalism is that we are wholly unequipped for the danger our democracy is in right now,” Hannah-Jones said. “Because our political reporting class comes from upper class families, tends to be white and tends to be male, they actually believe that our democracy will hold. They don’t actually believe that our democracy has failed, despite what experts on democracy say.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses “The 1619 Project” with Professor Mark Sanders, stage with spotlightKathryn Muchnick | The Observer
Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses “The 1619 Project” with Professor Mark Sanders.

This belief trickles down to the American public.

“I don’t think most American voters understand the danger that we’re in,” she said.

Because of that, she insisted our democracy is still fragile.

“We believe that we are the oldest continuing democracy in America,” Hannah-Jones said. “But we’ve only had democracy since 1965.”

The goal of her work, especially “The 1619 Project,” is to understand what that recent democratization means for America today.

“What the project at its heart tries to do is explain our country to itself,” Hannah-Jones said. “People talk about the project as if it’s a history, but it’s not. It’s actually about America right now. And it just uses history to help explain how we got the country that we got.”

Hannah-Jones discussed how she sees most coverage of racial inequality as superficial, covering the suffering people of color face without an explanation of its origin.

“It’s a cataloging of maladies. It’s a listing of bad numbers,” she said. “My coverage is trying to show that this sh*t is orchestrated.”

Hannah-Jones insisted that long-form investigative reporting is uniquely suited to do that.

The widespread protests following the death of George Floyd in May of 2020 inspired Hannah-Jones to write about the history of racism in the United States. 

She saw a massive hole in the demands of many protestors.

“If we’re gonna have a reckoning, you cannot just deal with policing,” Hannah-Jones said. “You have to reckon with the forced poverty and [economic] disadvantage that impacts almost all Black people … You have to deal with what hurts Black people the most.”

In fact, Hannah-Jones worked to reframe slavery as an economic issue in “The 1619 Project.”

“We think about slavery as just a racist system,” she said. “Slavery was an economic system. Slavery was founded to exploit human beings for labor and to argue that you can do anything to compete for profit.”

Through photographs, poetry, essays and over one thousand citations, “The 1619 Project” examines and reframes slavery’s legacy in America.

She used this historical reframing to make the case for financial reparations for modern descendants of enslaved persons. Though Hannah-Jones recognized the highly controversial nature of reparations, she insisted that they were necessary. Despite public support for racial justice, she pointed out that most white Democrats continue to oppose reparations.

In response, Hannah-Jones questioned: “So you put the Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, but you won’t actually pay the debt to help Black people matter?”

“The 1619 Project” has faced tremendous backlash, particularly from conservatives and from historians who point out flaws in the project’s accuracy. Despite the discomfort, Hannah-Jones views this as motivation.

“If the work didn’t matter, if it wasn’t unsettling power, I would have failed. You don’t get into journalism to make powerful people comfortable,” she said.

She gained some of this sense of resiliency during her time as a student at Notre Dame, where she faced discrimination and isolation from her white counterparts. In 1996, she wrote a letter to the editor sharing her experience of being called the n-word for the first time in her life on the University campus.

“What this place taught me was … that there would never be a point where I wasn’t going to have to prove myself,” she said.

Hannah-Jones reflected on her time at Notre Dame and the motivation it helped her create.

“Race can be an amazing motivating factor in your life,” she said. “You can come into these elite institutions and you can beat people at their own game.”

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