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History of US


Nikole Hannah-Jones

The past is a mirror, said Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose landmark 1619 Project challenges Americans to reimagine our nation’s origin story. And we don’t always like what we see.
“History is not really about what happened a long time ago. History is how we think about ourselves as a society,” she told students on February 28, during one of AU’s first in-person events in two years. “You have a group of people who are used to always being the heroes in the story, the victors. And now we’re having to confront a more honest and a much uglier truth.”
Hannah-Jones, the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University, created the 1619 Project to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first Africans sold into slavery in colonial Virginia and to reframe US history by placing the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at its center. The first edition of the project spanned 100 pages in the New York Times Magazine’s August 2019 issue. It has since spawned a 20-episode podcast; an anthology and a children’s book, published last November; and curricula taught in elementary schools to grad schools across the country.
“Slavery and freedom were born at the same time here, but we only want to talk about one as being foundational to American identity—but you don’t get 1776 without 1619.” 
The project has drawn acclaim for Hannah-Jones, who received a pair of NAACP Image Awards for social justice impact and outstanding literary work in February—and ire, including attempts to ban the distribution of the 1619 Project in schools. 
In 2021, following President Donald Trump’s establishment of the 1776 Commission to support “patriotic education” and President Joe Biden’s swift dismantling of it on his first day in office, senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced the Saving American History Act. The legislation called for prohibiting K–12 schools from using federal funds to teach curriculum related to the 1619 Project and establishing the true date of America’s founding as July 4, 1776. It also called the work “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union.”  
“Now I’m a good journalist, but I didn’t know I was that powerful,” said Hannah-Jones, who joined the Times in 2015. “My argument has always been that it doesn’t really matter how you feel about the project. We shouldn’t be banning ideas, books, and journalism from schools because the entire point of education is to read things outside your comfort zone, to read things that challenge how you think. 
“The way I stretched and grew as a child and a college student was grappling with things I hadn’t thought about before,” she continued. “Sometimes I bought it and sometimes I didn’t. But that’s the point of an education—it’s not simply to affirm our worldview.”
Although Cotton and McConnell’s bill ultimately died, it has given rise to efforts at the state level to not only ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, but also critical race theory, which posits that racism is embedded in laws, policies, and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities. Nearly two-thirds of states, including Hannah-Jones’s native Iowa, have passed or are in the process of passing laws that she called “anti-history laws that make it harder to learn and talk about racism in American history.”
That’s more than a red flag, she warned—it’s the sign of a democracy in crisis.
“We’re seeing books being pulled that deal with sexuality and gender. School boards are banning texts about the Holocaust, the 1619 Project, and other histories. So let me make it plain: It is not the sign of a healthy society when you start banning books.
“We are losing our democracy and we are just allowing it to happen,” she continued. “I hope you have a pit in your stomach, because you should.
Hannah-Jones ended her hourlong lecture—cohosted by the Kennedy Political Union, the Sine Institute of Policy and Politics, and the Women’s Initiative as part of Founders Week—with a poignant call to action.
“Y’all may have heard about this little dustup with the University of North Carolina last year. I forced [them] to vote on my tenure, then I turned it down. It was one of the best moments of my life,” said Hannah-Jones, whose alma mater declined to consider granting her tenure for months before finally voting last summer. “I decided in that moment where they thought they had rendered me powerless that I was going to exercise my own power. And I told them that I refuse. I refuse to take the crumbs. I refuse to stay at North Carolina and fix this institution that has treated me and so many other Black people so poorly.
“We all have the right to refuse the direction that our country is going. We have the power to ensure that our democracy will hold. But you can’t sit and hope things will change. Everyone you’ve ever admired who did something didn’t just hope things would get better. They took action, they manifested that hope,” she continued. “So I hope—I hope—that you will all come away understanding the really grave and dangerous moment that we’re in right now, and that you will refuse to let these things be done in our name.”