“I just want people to know the date 1619,” is what New York Times investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones told her editor when pitching the journalistic opus we now know as The 1619 Project. Launched in August 2019, the landmark issue compiled some of the greatest writers and thought leaders of our time to commemorate the arrival of enslaved Africans on American soil—and most importantly, recognize that our ancestors were founding fathers, too.
“Like, most Americans don’t know that this date even exists,” Hannah-Jones, our number one 2020 Root 100 honoree for 2020, tells us during the first episode of our new literary podcast, The Root Presents: It’s Lit! “And if they’re forced to confront that slavery predates the founding of our nation by one hundred and fifty years, it forces you to think about it as foundational in a way that we haven’t.”
That daring but long overdue shift in the way we have traditionally been taught to interpret American history rightfully garnered Hannah-Jones the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Coincidentally, the honor was bestowed in the same ceremony a posthumous Pulitzer was awarded to her idol, Ida B. Wells, for whom the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting was named by Hannah-Jones and several industry co-founders to cultivate more Black talent in journalism.
In our conversation, the acclaimed journalist discusses the response to her groundbreaking project, the pushback from those afraid to honestly reckon with our nation’s legacy, and the outstanding debt America owes to the descendants of the enslaved. “A debt delayed does not mean that the debt is no longer owed,” says Hannah-Jones. “But that’s been really the stance in this country.”
With The 1619 Project now in school curriculums around the country–as well as in the crosshairs of our current administration, there is no doubt that her vision and tenacity have made an indelible impact upon American culture and our understanding of history. It has since also attracted the attention of Oprah Winfrey, who will be working alongside Hannah-Jones, the Times and Lionsgate Entertainment to develop The 1619 Project into film and television programming, among other mediums.
Over 400 years from the date of that fateful arrival in what would become America, what can we expect from the evolution of 1619?
“[N]othing is more important to me than maintaining the rigor and the standards and the honesty of the project. And that means that we can’t water it down,” Hannah-Jones tells us. “And we’re certainly not going to be telling Black stories through white saviors.”
Hear this and more in our inaugural episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!, featuring the fearless Nikole Hannah-Jones, now live on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public.
A transcript of The Root Presents: It’s Lit, Ep. 1: Nikole Hannah-Jones is available below: