What a difference two years makes. When New York Times staff writer and MacArthur “Genius” Nikole Hannah-Jones published The 1619 Project in August 2019, the table-shaking collaborative special issue which challenged conventional American history “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative,” she had no idea that she and her work would become the center of a national firestorm.
“Who would think that a single work of journalism would become a Republican talking point, would be in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, would be named in legislation across the country?” asked Hannah-Jones during a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, adding: “All of that has been very weird. But of course—and I think a lot of things led to the moment that we’re in—1619 certainly played a role.”
The controversy over her work also found the investigative journalist and educator embroiled in a very public tenure battle earlier this year with her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Hannah-Jones would ultimately decline UNC’s delayed offer of tenure to become tenured faculty at Howard University.
“The last two years I have become a symbol, whether a symbol for people who like me and respect my work or a symbol for people who revile me and hate my work, and that’s been a really hard adjustment for me to make,” Hannah-Jones later added. “I have to be careful of everything that I say in a public sphere.”
Nevertheless, 1619 has also garnered Hannah-Jones a 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary (plus seven consecutive placements on The Root 100), and a book and production deal with Penguin Random House and Oprah (also first announced here at The Root). Now it has reportedly also earned her a spot on the bestsellers’ list—ahead of the book’s debut on Tuesday, November 16.
“The 1619 Project” book already has reached the top 100 on the bestseller lists of Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. Online seller Bookshop.org has set up a partnership with the publisher One World, an imprint of Penguin Random House, for independent stores such as Reverie Books to donate copies to local libraries, schools, book banks and other local organizations.
The preemptive success of 1619 in book form as continuing measures to stem its distribution and teaching in America’s classroom is no small thing; as HuffPost notes:
In 2021, Republican objections to the 1619 project and to critical race theory have led to widespread legislative action. According to Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, dozens of bills around the country have been proposed or enacted that call for various restrictions on books seen as immoral or unpatriotic. Two bills passed in Texas specifically mention The 1619 Project.
“When you look at the current movement about critical race theory, you can see some of its origins in the fight over The 1619 Project,” Friedman added.
Whether or not materials from the project—including the children’s picture book The 1619 Project: Born on the Water, which will be released simultaneously on Tuesday with The 1619 Project book—will make it to classrooms in right-wing-run states and districts remains up for debate. However, though Hannah-Jones did not originally conceive of 1619 for children, as Chicago fifth-grade literacy teacher Jess Lifshitz tells HuffPost/AP:
“Born on the Water honors what children are able to wrestle with and grapple with, and I think so many books written for children underestimate what they’re capable of,” Lifshitz says. “With all the tension that is swirling around adults, sometimes it’s hard to remember what a beautiful picture book that tells an accurate story about history can do for the kids sitting in the room.”
As for the adult compilation, readers can expect “a new origin story” from a broad spectrum of voices—and a new format including intervals of poetry reports HuffPost/AP:
Contributors range from such prize-winning authors on poverty and racial justice as Matthew Desmond, Bryan Stevenson and Michelle Alexander, to Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, to “Waiting to Exhale” novelist Terry McMillan and author Jesmyn Ward, a two-time winner of the National Book Award for fiction.
Along with essays on religion, music, politics, medicine and other subjects, the book includes poetry from the Pulitzer winners Tracy K. Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey.
Corrected: Monday, 11/15/21 at 6:55 p.m. E.T: An earlier version of this article noted that Hannah-Jones has been on The Root 100 three years in a row. She has, in fact, made our list seven consecutive years, making her one of the most consistent presences in The Root 100.