Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ The 1619 Project comes to screens this week. The docu-series, based on her Pulitzer prize-winning collection of essays that first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, reframes the country’s history by examining the consequences of slavery and how Black Americans’ contributions to this country need to be a part of the national narrative. It’s a deeply personal project for Hannah-Jones, who shares her own African American origin story in the six-part series.
Along with her personal retrospect, the series shares the stories of the warriors who fought on the front line during the Civil Rights Movement, such as MacArthur Cotton, the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary who was imprisoned and tortured during the fight for equality, along with modern-day activists still protecting our rights today.
EBONY: When you were first putting together The 1619 Project, did you know how much of an impact it would have on America?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: I had no idea when I first pitched this project more than three years ago, everything that this would become. It’s a project on slavery and its legacy, and this is a country that has willfully not wanted to grapple with those truths. So I didn't know if anybody would care and the fact that this work has now become two books that are now a six-part documentary series is incredible. So many Americans have actually been grateful to learn this history and have wanted to better understand their country. It is deeply gratifying and surprising in many ways.
You get personal in the first episode, sharing the story of your father. Why did you decide to take this route?
When we were trying to decide how can we connect all of these episodes about different aspects of American life together, we decided one way to do that would be to tell my American story. That’s the thread that links all these episodes together, traveling through the different themes through my own family.
Each episode deals with different themes that are presented in your books.
We looked at all of the essays in the book and collectively decided which would be most powerful and impactful for this series. Obviously, democracy, which is the opening essay of the project and books really lay out the arguments for the role that Black Americans have played in the United States. The other episodes are ones that we felt would paint the starkest and most interesting picture of that role and how so many aspects of American life are actually legacies of slavery, even if we don't know it.
What do you say to people who are intimidated by our history? Why is it so important for them to learn by watching this?
I think that people are intimidated because we haven't been taught this history very well. What is critical is this history is still shaping our society in ways big and small, whether we acknowledge it or not. By not learning this history, it can be hard for us to understand some of the things that we see around us in society. I hope people understand that this documentary series is not just a historical documentary series that's talking about what happened a long time ago. Every episode is anchored in modern America, helping us to understand how this past is shaping our present and that actually helps us have a better and stronger understanding of our country.
Some of the stories shared from the past are so harrowing. How do we find joy in our history and happiness for the future?
Watching the series, people are going to feel a range of emotions, a lot of sadness and probably a lot of rage. And those are normal emotions. The history of Black people in this country is not an easy one; we have been subjected to a great deal of brutality and inhumanity that we shouldn't have been. Mr. Cotton's story is ultimately a story of triumph, of how he sacrificed himself for the rights of all Americans and actually live to see the fruition of that struggle come true. People should expect that they will feel a lot of pain, but I also think they'll feel a lot of joy and a lot of pride because the story of Black America is the refusal to die or stay in our place, and the determination that we would fight for this country's highest ideals. There are 40 million descendants of American slavery who are the greatest testament to the way that we have always found joy and a way to thrive in this society.
What has touched you most about The 1619 Project?
This is a project for every American because our story is the American story, but for Black Americans particularly. If I'm boarding the airplane and a Black flight attendant says, “Thank you for The 1619 Project, because there are things I’ve been told about Black people that I knew weren't true, but I didn't have the information to push back.” This project has allowed people not to feel shame about our history, but a deep sense of pride about everything that we've contributed to this country. That touches me every single time because, in the face of all of the opposition to the project, I'm reminded just who I did this for and what this project means to our people.
The 1619 Project premieres January 26, 2023 on Hulu.