Nikole Hannah-Jones on America’s “400-Year Racial Pandemic”

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Cindi Leive Hey, there. It’s Cindi Leive. I’m a journalist, editor, and Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s co-executive producer here on UNDISTRACTED. As you heard last week, Brittany is away taking care of a family matter. So while our friend is off, we’re going to go on a quick hiatus until the new year. In the meantime, though, we wanted to share with you a conversation that our team has found ourselves talking about a lot this fall as we look at the news. It’s the conversation that Brittany had with Nikole Hannah-Jones earlier this year, and it remains as relevant as ever. As you probably know, Nikole Hannah-Jones is the visionary journalist behind the 1619 Project. The multimedia effort from The New York Times, which includes podcasts, articles, books, was first published back in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. It looks at how the legacy of slavery has shaped everything about American history. The project has been incredibly successful. In 2020, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for her work, and importantly, schools have been teaching from it. But since the start of the 1619 Project, Republicans have attacked it. They’ve called it divisive. They’ve pushed legislation that would actually stop teachers from using it. And in some places, Florida, they succeeded. And then there have been the school board meetings. The “Parents Matter” rallies – all of this over teaching our actual history. Back in May, Brittany sat down with Nikole Hannah-Jones to talk about what this backlash is really about. This was just after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had sent a letter to the Department of Education asking that the 1619 project be removed from federally-funded programs. Here’s Brittany’s conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Nikole, thank you so much for joining us. I’ve been so looking forward to this conversation. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Thank you for having me on. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham So before we get into the GOP’s latest attack on your work, I actually want to talk about the work because it is so important. You really make the case in the 1619 project that our country’s defining contradictions really were set into motion that August of 1619 when that first slave ship arrived. And not on, of course, that official birth date of 1776 that lots of people like to point to. I’m curious to know what you think reframing our history in this more honest light can reveal. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Well, what I believe, and I’m going to paraphrase one of my favorite historians Eric Foner a bit here, is that we’ve been taught the history of a country that does not actually exist, and the history that we’ve been taught does not actually help us understand the country in which we live. So when we’re taught this idea of our founding in 1776 as setting forth, you know, the greatest and oldest democracy in the world and the most liberatory country the world has ever seen, that doesn’t explain how we get an insurrection on the Capitol January 6th. What does explain that right? What explains George Floyd, what explains the wealth gap, what explains why we don’t have health care as a public right in this country—that America, the America we actually live in is explained by 1619. It is explained by a country that believes that you can commodify human beings, that bases its economic systems, its political systems, on the idea that certain human beings can be deprived of all rights and all liberties, and those contradictions are at play, of course, in 1776. Because-

Brittany Packnett Cuningham yeah

Nikole Hannah-Jones The drafter of the Declaration was an enslaver, the drafter of the Constitution was an enslaver, the drafter of the Bill of Rights was an enslaver. And that means something, even though we’ve been taught that it doesn’t. But what I argue is that if you truly want to understand our country, you have to understand what happens in 1619 and the legacy of that. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham I also really love the way that the project has spawned so much more, and we’ll get into some of the latest projects. But I particularly loved the podcast. I just appreciated how captivating the storytelling was. And through that, you really connected the dots from 1619 all the way to the day and you even talk about your own family. I mean, for anybody who hasn’t listened, it is absolutely required podcast listening. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Thank you. Many younger people think the 1619 Project is the podcast, and that’s it. You don’t even know that there is a print version. That’s how they came to the project. So those different entry points and the different ways of helping people to feel the emotion of this storytelling while also delivering the facts of our history was very critical. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham OK, so we got to get into it. This dude, Mitch McConnell. He has been coming for the 1619 Project, frankly, since before it was even printed. He sent a recent letter to current Education Secretary Cardona, where he and 38 other Republicans opposed the Department of Education’s new plan for racial education programs. And specifically, he called out the 1619 Project and is demanding that it be removed from federal grant programs. So first of all, like why is he so obsessed with you? Why is he so obsessed with the 1619 Project? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones  Well, to be clear, Biden’s announcement did not fund the teaching of 1619 Project. It didn’t propose funding the teaching of the 1619 Project. All it said was it used 1619 Projects as a reference for the types of materials that educators might use. So we have to understand that what we’re seeing is gamesmanship and showmanship. Right? It is trying to tell people who aren’t reading that closely, that Biden is doing something that he’s not actually doing. And what it’s trying to do is make it seem like Republicans are pushing back against children being forced to learn something when no one is pushing laws to require that the 1619 Project be taught. But there are a lot of Republicans pushing laws to prohibit the 1619 Project from being taught. So I don’t know what the obsession with the 1619 Project is. A lot of people kind of frame it as Republicans see it as a good kind of punching bag in the culture wars. But I think when we use terminology like the culture wars, that’s a euphemism. They’re using the 1619 Project to stoke white resentment, and we need to just say that that’s what they’re doing. If the Project had not been successful, if the Project hadn’t become kind of part of the national lexicon, if educators who, only about 20 percent of educators in one poll said that they feel adequately equipped to teach and talk about slavery, if they didn’t see this as a tool that can help them do their jobs better, you wouldn’t be seeing this pushback. But it’s all part of this larger right wing effort to be able to pass laws to restrict voting, to restrict speech, all under the guise of protecting something about our country. But it really is about white resentment, and they don’t want a project that teaches that Black people were agents of history, that teach that Black people were this nation’s democratizing force, that teaches that we were the true founding fathers, that forces us to really reckon with the truth of what this country was built upon. They don’t want stories like that. And you know, when Mitch McConnell says that this project is un-American, and it’s teaching children to hate America, then I know that he didn’t read my essay. Because my essay accidentally ended up being the most patriotic thing I’ve ever written. Right? That essay doesn’t say ‘hate America.’ That essay says We are the most American of all people, Black people. My essay says that Black people somehow still believe in a country that has treated us so poorly, and it ends by me saying, I wish I could tell myself as a younger child when I didn’t think I had a flag or a country to claim that this is my country and I should claim it. So that’s not teaching a hatred, that’s teaching a profound love of a country that has never treated your people as full citizens. So it becomes very clear to me that people have not actually read the project, or engaged with it genuinely.

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Yet like, hello, you’re not even giving a sound analysis, right? Even if you disagree with it, because you clearly haven’t engaged with the material. Like you said in that letter that I talked about from April 29th, he said you are trying to indoctrinate students with a slanted story. And they wrote that Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil. It’s wild. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones It is wild because again, there’s nothing. One. I’m a journalist. I would never argue that anything is evil or good, right? Like, that’s not even what journalists do. Our job is to lay out what happened. And every time I see a tweet like this or a statement like that, I just ask them, point to the passage. Show me where we make that argument. Yes, slavery was evil. Absolutely. It was barbaric. It was immoral. And a lot of people who we want to put up on a pedestal in the American story, including at least half of our founders engaged in an immoral and inhumane human rights atrocity. That is a fact. So if he wants to make an argument that that makes us a evil country, that’s his argument to make. I’m just laying out what happened, and whether we teach that or not, it happened. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham I want to ask you about how the 1619 Project is actually being used by schools, because you’ve said that it’s been one of the most fulfilling parts of the project for you. How are educators incorporating this history and your journalism into their curriculums? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Yeah, thanks for asking that. Because as the 1619 Project becomes a conservative talking point, no one is actually talking to teachers and students and parents about how it’s being used. And I think what really gives up the game is all of these people who suddenly are so concerned about the accuracy of our history curriculum. We’re not concerned at all that as recently as a few years ago, history textbooks that kids were learning from were saying that enslaved people were workers or calling them immigrants, or all of the other ways that our history downplays slavery. So they’re not, you know, they’ve never been actually concerned about accuracy, facts or truth. This is about power, right? So they’re concerned about someone else getting to shape the narrative of who we are. Now to get to what you asked, educators are using the project in so many ways. The project has always been supplementary. It cannot and should not replace social studies curriculum. I don’t know a single teacher who was like, We’re throwing out our standard social studies and we’re only teaching the 1619 Project. That’s ridiculous. They’re using it to teach students to be skeptical of narratives. Like, if everything in the Project surprises you, then teachers are saying, ’Why haven’t you been taught these things? And what did that tell you about who chooses what we know and how we know it?’ I know there are English teachers, so it’s not just being taught in social studies, it’s being used by English teachers to teach argumentation and rhetoric, right? These are essays that are using compiling facts to make an argument. I met a teacher in North Carolina. A foods teacher and he was using the sugar essay in his food class to talk about sugar in the American diet. I met music teachers who were using Wesley Morris’s podcast episode on music, which is one of the most beautiful podcast episodes I’ve ever heard, to talk about music and the idea of the canon and the idea that all American music is really Black music. So educators are professional. They are trained. They are intelligent, and they are not teaching indoctrination. They’re using the project in a way one would hope that educators are using all kind of supplementary materials, which is to fill in gaps to foster conversation and inquiry. And that really is how it’s being used.

Brittany Packnett Cuningham To this point about education, though, what do you think has to be done for our students to get a fully honest historical education, and really what’s at stake if we downplay enslavement in textbooks? Like I really want people to get this point of what is at risk if we don’t get this right? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones I mean, what’s at risk is the country we’re living in right now. We’re living in a country where we have inequality in everything that we can measure, and too many Americans attribute that to Black culture. Black people not taking personal responsibility. Black people not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. So it’s impacting policy. It’s impacting support for policy. When a bunch of Trump supporters lead an insurrection on the Capitol, it’s because they have no actual understanding of our history. It’s because they have been led to believe that Black people are illegitimate voters. And then you see it, of course, in the media response. So the media, not understanding this history, not understanding the truth of our country and what it was built upon for years, as you know, kept saying that Trump supporters were being driven by economic anxiety despite polls, studies and the interviews they were doing themselves that were showing that it was about race and not economic anxiety. They could not see it because they don’t understand the history of their country. And when the insurrection happened, how many times did we see white journalists and pundits saying, Oh my God, this is not our country. This has never happened before. But people who have studied history saying ‘a white minority trying to violently overthrow democracy has happened again and again and again in this country.’ So I think when you, when you say, you know, what is the cost? The cost is every American, every American—I don’t care your politics, I don’t care your income unless you’re like top 1%—suffers for our inability to grapple with what our country was built upon, the way that that history still informs our institutions, our policies and our interactions with each other. We are in such a deeply divided country in such a deeply divided moment, and we don’t have the skills or the background to figure out how to get our way out of this. So that is why this matters. And you cannot dismantle corrupt systems if you don’t understand how they were built in the first place. 

Cindi Leive That was the first part of Brittany’s conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones from this past May. Coming up, they talk about how slavery continues to impact every aspect of modern American life right after this short break. 

Cindi Leive And we’re back. Here’s more of Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s enlightening conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham The 1619 project may be about the past, but it really could not be more timely. As you mentioned, your project looks at how so many aspects of current American life have their roots in enslavement, from music, to law, to education and the arts. What are some of the more surprising or overlooked connections you see between 1619 and today? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Oh, I mean, there’s so many. Of course, the establishment of the police force. And it’s not just policing, but fear, right? Why do we justify this type of policing and surveillance of Black communities? Why do we justify the type of surveillance of Black communities? And why are Black people inherently more frightening? Well, that’s certainly a legacy of 1619. When you look at who has Second Amendment rights in this country and who doesn’t. That’s a legacy of 1619. Black people have never really had Second Amendment rights, right? When you, when you look at why we’re the most unequal of the Western democracies, why we have amongst the lowest life expectancy, I mean, it truly is everywhere in our society, if you look for it. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham You’ve also talked about, you know, how last summer’s protests and the racial disparities revealed to some but well-known by others during the pandemic, have only affirmed how relevant and needed a project like this is, and I couldn’t agree more. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones Yeah, I mean, what what we saw—and it started to get said so much that it started to sound like a cliche, but it is true—is that this, you know, once in a lifetime global pandemic just really revealed the ongoing 400-year racial pandemic, and it did. So every aspect of this pandemic, Black Americans and indigenous Americans, the two groups who did not choose to be a part of America, have suffered the worst. What I hope that it did and I’m not really a hopeful person in general, was that it also showed a lot of white Americans, and I wrote about this in the reparations essay who really believe that if you were struggling, it was your own fault. That it must be something that you did…when they suddenly found themselves without work, unable to pay their bills, unable to pay their rent, I think it showed many of them that things can be outside of your control and that it’s not about- Black people are not simply suffering because we just don’t want better and don’t want to work hard. So it also provided this really tremendous opportunity. But it revealed, I mean, we lost two decades of Black life expectancy gains in a single year. That’s devastating.

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Mm hmm. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones The last time I looked at the numbers, one of 500 Black Americans succumbed to COVID, one of 500. That’s devastating. And yet we have had the least access to in-person schooling during the pandemic. So, America? Yeah, I mean, the pandemic revealed America. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham So so obviously, the debts that are owed to us are many. And that is part of the reason why you have continued to connect these dots between what happened in 1619 and the case for reparations, which you wrote about in New York Times magazine. The subtitle of your article was “If true justice and equality are ever to be achieved in the United States, the country must finally take seriously what it owes Black Americans.” What do reparations mean to you? What do they look like? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones So I think the like, how we do it is the easiest part of this. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that the most challenging part of this is getting enough political will to do what is the right thing. So I think that reparations should be individual cash payments to descendants. Anything else is not actual reparations, but also come with targeted investments into Black neighborhoods and Black schools that have long been deprived of their fair share. And they have to come with rigorous civil rights enforcement or the reparations would not be able to do as much good as they’re supposed to. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Yeah, I know you say you’re not a particularly hopeful person. But do you have any hope, or how optimistic are you about the future? Like, is it, is it even possible for us to become unburdened by the weight of the past? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones No.

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Tell me more. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones That’s the shortest answer I gave you all day, huh? [Both laugh] I think, you know, we certainly can make progress. Absolutely. I don’t live the life of my father’s generation, and he didn’t live the life of his parents’ generation. So, yes, we can make progress. Do I think that it is possible, though—this is why I argue in the essay that anti-Blackness slavery is in the genetic code of our country, in the DNA of our country. I don’t think that we can have a country that exists that can be completely liberated from that. We had a moment, and that was The Civil War, and that was when we nearly destroyed the country. And I think it was only in nearly destroying it that we could have constructed a country that liberated itself from that original sin. And we tried for about 12 years, and then we went back to, you know, our level. And outside of another Civil War moment, I just don’t think it’s going to be possible. And let me just be clear for all of the bad faith people who are going to try to slice that one sentence out. I’m not calling for a civil war.

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Right.

Nikole Hannah-Jones Obviously. But yeah, you have to somehow, like, destroy or alter the genetic code of our country in order to to purge that part of it. And I just don’t see that happening. And nothing about studying the American past, and American past as recently as yesterday, would make us think otherwise. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Yeah. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones But we have to have people who hope, right? You have got people who believe that it can happen. I just don’t happen to be one of them 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham It’s honest, and I don’t know how much this is actually about exorcising the things that, like you say, are encoded genetically in this country as much as it is about building anew.

Nikole Hannah-Jones Yeah. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham And I’m so excited about all the ways the 1619 Project continues to expand. So you’ve teamed up with the Queen Mother, Oprah, to adapt this into a docu-series for Hulu? I mean, talk about reaching new audiences. You’ve got a 400 page book coming out in November. It’s called The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. There’s a children’s picture book version coming out called Born on the Water. Ultimately, what do you hope all our fellow Americans will take away from the Project in all of its forms? 

Nikole Hannah-Jones I just want, I just want us to confront the truth of who we are. So I just, I want us to be honest about who we are as a country. That is my role as a journalist. You know, I’m not an activist, I’m not a policymaker, but I don’t think we will ever do the things that are necessary for Black people to be able to live our liberated, free whole lives that we deserve if we don’t acknowledge why our country is like it is. So how do you even build a political will for reparations when people compare slavery to how hard it was to be a Irish immigrant, right? You have to build in this huge gaping gaps of knowledge that people have so that they can even begin to understand what is necessary to correct what was wrong. So that’s my kind of larger hope. And for Black people, I just want us to – you know, Black Americans are different in many ways than other Black people across the Americas, particularly our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean, because we ended slavery as a tiny minority in a white country. And so we haven’t been able to claim, like, Jamaicans are very proud to be Jamaican. They fly their flag, they have that Jamaican identity. We’ve had to have this completely conflicted relationship with our country, like we’re not flying that flag, and that leaves us a people without a nation in some way. And I want Black folks to know that no one has the right to deprive us of a legacy, of the ownership over a country that we built, not just with our sweat, but with our minds and with our freedom fighting as the primary democratizing force in this country. So that is what I hope Black people do, that we can let go of that sense of shame that so many of us have that we don’t really feel like we have a real country or real origin, that we do, and we built this country and we have a right to claim it. 

Brittany Packnett Cuningham Mmm. We belong everywhere that we are. I’m getting chills. That is the perfect place to end it. Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you for the gift that you are and thank you for the gift of talking to us today. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones It was such a pleasure. I love being in conversation with smart badass Black women, so I really appreciate you having me on. 

Cindi Leive Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times Magazine, and the creator of the 1619 Project, Brittany spoke to her back in May, and since then the project has continued to grow. As Brittany mentioned, two new books that Nikole co-edited just came out in November. The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story and an adaptation for children titled Born on the Water. Hannah-Jones has also been busy filming that upcoming documentary series for Hulu, and in July she joined the faculty of Howard University as the newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism. 

Cindi Leive That’s it for today. But as Brittany says, never for tomorrow. 


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our lead producer is Rachel Matlow. 

Our associate producer is Alexis Moore. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, and Hannis Brown. 

Our executive producers at The Meteor are Brittany Packnett Cunningham and myself, and our executive producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow Brittany at @MsPackyetti on all social media and our team @TheMeteor. 

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