Slavery is one of the oldest institutions in America and is foundational to the nation, said Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones during the Thursday opening session of the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual conference.
Hannah-Jones, best known for her work on “The 1619 Project” – a New York Times magazine journalistic project that centers slavery and Black history in U.S. history, which was produced to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what would become the U.S.
She is also in a bitter legal battle with University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, after she was offered a faculty position teaching in the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Her appointment has been the subject of controversy because the board of trustees declined to grant her tenure, though they had done so for others in the past. Hannah-Jones has said that she will not join the faculty next month unless she is tenured.
Though Hannah-Jones did not address the controversy surrounding her appointment, she did talk about her upcoming book titled The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, that includes expanded and new essays among other additional content.
The 1619 Project’s origin goes back decades, to Hannah-Jones’s youth in a Waterloo, Iowa high school. It was there that she took a one-semester Black studies elective class. The class, she said, ended up being transformative for her.
“It was the first time I’d ever gotten any type of extensive instruction on Black Americans, African people,” Hannah-Jones said. “I just understood as a teenager, opening that door just a little bit made me realize there’s so much out there that we hadn’t been taught and that that was intentional, because I had always kind of assumed if it was important, we would have known.
“And so, if Black people had done things that were important for us to know, our teachers or someone in society would have taught these things to us,” she said. “And that class really showed me that Black people had been doing lots of important things and there were lots of books written about it and there were decisions not to teach us that.”
Still, 1619 as a date was quite obscure, Hannah-Jones said. So as the 400th anniversary approached and most Americans still remained unaware of the date’s significance, she felt that she needed to do something.
“There’s not much in America that we can celebrate that’s 400 years old,” she said. “And I just really felt that I needed to do something to force an acknowledgement of that day but also to take this kind of tremendous 400-year anniversary to force a reckoning with how foundational slavery was to our society, that slavery is one of the oldest institutions in colonial America and it shapes so much of the country we’ve become.”
Despite the comparatively lengthy nature of the Times magazine piece, there was still so much left out, Hannah-Jones said. So an expanded version in book form allowed all of that to be included, such as the topics of settler colonialism and the diaspora.
“There were so many other stories that we wanted to tell that just wouldn’t fit,” Hannah-Jones said, adding that America is what it is because of the contributions of Black people and Black history.
“You would not have America or American history without Black people,” she said. “And whether it’s Black contributions or it’s white Americans reacting to trying to suppress, making profit off of, passing laws, all geared around slavery and Black Americans,” she added.
Arrman Kyaw can be reached at [email protected].