“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written. Black Americans fought to make them true. Without this struggle, America would have no democracy at all.”So begins Nikole Hannah-Jones’s stunning and provocative essay that opens “The 1619 Project,” an initiative by the New York Times to mark the 400th year since the first enslaved Africans arrived at the British colony of Virginia. The aim of the project — which encompassed an entire issue of the Times Sunday magazine last August, a special section in the newspaper, a podcast, and a school curriculum — is to reframe our understanding of American history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the center of our national narrative.
Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the magazine who pitched the idea, did double duty: In addition to writing her piece, she oversaw the rest of the project as it took shape in the magazine — essays on aspects of American life that have their roots in slavery, and 17 commissioned works by contemporary black writers.
Hannah-Jones opens her 8,000-word reported essay with the fact that her dad, the son of sharecroppers and an Army veteran, always flew an American flag in front of their house. He had enlisted in the military in the hopes that by serving his country, he could escape poverty and finally be treated as an American. But he was passed over for opportunities, discharged for unclear reasons, and worked hard all his life but never got ahead. The display of the flag, Hannah-Jones writes,
…never made sense to me. How could this black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner?
And then, two paragraphs later, she answers her own question:
He knew that our people’s contributions to building the richest and most powerful nation in the world were indelible, that the United States simply would not exist without us.
The rest of the essay bolsters that assertion with a powerful blend of data, historical anecdotes and gut-punch pronouncements:
(The framers of the Constitution) carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery without ever using the word … they did not want to explicitly enshrine their hypocrisy, so they sought to hide it.
Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the obstacle to national unity.
We learn portions of American history that were glossed over — or omitted altogether — in schoolbooks: That in a White House meeting with five free black men in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln informed them that Congress had appropriated funds to ship black people to another country. That returning World War II veterans became a target of a particular violence from white Americans who thought black men in uniform were flaunting a dangerous pride. And that the Civil Rights movement laid the foundation for modern rights struggles of women, LGBT people and the disabled.
History through cinematic writing
Hannah-Jones employs cinematic techniques as she pulls readers through four centuries of history: Starting with a tight shot of her father; then a flashback to the arrival of enslaved people on the Virginia coast; then a close-up of Thomas Jefferson at his desk; background about the framers of the Constitution; another tight shot of Lincoln at the White House; and so on until returning to her own story, when she reflects that she is part of the first generation of black people in U.S. history to be born into a society in which black Americans had full citizenship rights.
But the essay, while pulsing with rage and sorrow, also contains lyrical passages, such as this one describing a ship carrying enslaved people:
They say our people were born on the water… the teal eternity of the Atlantic Ocean had severed them so completely from what had once been their home that it was as if nothing had ever existed before.
Our speech and fashion and the drum of our music echoes Africa but is not African.
And the kicker, which rewards the reader with this couplet:
We were told once, by virtue of our bondage, that we could never be American. But it was by virtue of our bondage that we became the most American of all.
Since the initiative launched in August, Hannah-Jones has been traveling the country nonstop, talking about the project. The project will be taught in every public high school in Chicago. and Random House will publish a book based on the series, as well as four books for young readers. Ten Speed Press plans to publish a graphic novelization.
Hannah-Jones talked to Nieman Storyboard about how she conceived of and wrote the essay, how it fit into the overall project, what she hopes readers will take away, the criticism that followed the piece, and the crucial relationship between a writer and editor. (Hint: It involves pushing deadline and editing on a cellphone from South America.) The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you give us an idea of the internal discussions at the Times that led to, “Let’s do this.”
I didn’t conceive of proposing a project until the end of 2018. But I had been thinking, of course, about the year 1619 for a very long time, thinking how this anniversary was likely to pass and most Americans had probably never heard of 1619. S I think my reporting has also tried to show this: that to look across so many aspects of modern American life, and see the legacy of slavery, is to see that it’s largely rendered invisible but that it shapes so much of who we are. I decided I was going to pitch the idea of assessing that legacy and making the argument that nothing has been left untouched by it.
One of the first conversations I had was with my editor, Ilena Silverman. I gave her some examples of American life that are related to slavery but people probably don’t think are, so I talked about capitalism, health care, politics, democracy, that sort of thing. She thought it was a great idea. We have a weekly meeting at the magazine where we talk about the stories we should do, and I pitched it. Jake Silverstein, the editor in chief of the magazine, said, “Let’s do it.”
A lot of people assume that it was hard for me to get approval for this, but it wasn’t. And, honestly, I didn’t expect that it would be, because I have a great relationship with my editors; there’s yet to be something that I’ve pitched that they’ve turned down. I would have been much more surprised if they had said “No,” or “We’re not sure.”
Could you take us through the process of conceiving and writing your essay?
My intention was that it would be a reported essay, but I didn’t really conceive of it as having a personal element. So I read widely, figured out what my argument was going to be, and then sat down and tried to write. And it was very, very hard — at times debilitating. I really could not figure out how to get into the essay, what was the proper starting place. Part of it was much of what I think of the as normal struggle with writing. But I also felt pressure. What was the right way to begin an essay representing 400 years of history? And 400 years about some of the most marginalized people in the country as an opening essay for a huge project? I literally was lying in my bed in the middle of the day, and I sent my editor an SOS text, and she called me and we talked it through, and she said, “Why don’t you start it with the story of Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration, with his enslaved brother-in-law there, too?”
I know writers have different ways of writing but if I can’t get my lede, I can’t write. I’m not one of those people who can start writing somewhere in the middle and then come back and write my top. So I said okay, I’m going to do that. But it just didn’t feel right. I could not start the story of black America with the white men who enslaved us. So it was back to the struggle.
Then I got that line in my head that starts the last section, which says, “They say our people were born on the water.” The part about my father, I put it at the end. I never really intended that to be part of the essay. I kind of wrote that section separately from the essay, after a kind of ugly Twitter argument with someone who I felt was extremely racist. And I went back to my desk, and I got a pen and paper, and just wrote that part about my dad and the flag, and it was out of anger, and it wasn’t even MEANT TO BE part of the 1619 project.
But Jake read it and said that he really felt that I should start the piece with my dad. Starting with “Our people were born on the water” was too abstract, but he said when he read about my dad he cried. He felt that personal story was a way to immediately connect people. I disagreed pretty strongly because I didn’t feel we should start the story of 1619 with a story of my family, or my story. We went back and forth, and he finally said, “Just try it.” He told me that if I really felt strongly about it, we didn’t have to do it, but I should just try it.
So I rewrote it, and once I rewrote it I agreed with him. Because, you know, this is what editors do.
Were there any issues around whether to write the essay in first person vs. third person, personal story versus big-sweep story?
I was always going to do a big-sweep story. I’ve done the personal narrative in a sweeping historical narrative before. A piece I did on choosing a school for my daughter was very personal. I did a piece on the anniversary of Freedom Summer, where I anchored a visit to my homeland, in Mississippi, with my father and my grandmother’s migration story. I won’t say I’ve perfected it, but I’m very comfortable with it now.
Did you have any models for this kind of piece?
It would be Isabel Wilkerson and “The Warmth of Other Suns.” That’s the most beautiful book of all time. I don’t believe I’ve reached that caliber of storytelling, but that kind of was the model. What she’s doing is so many different things at once. The narrative, different periods of time, telling this story of individual families, then telling the stories of individual states, then telling the stories of individual migration patterns, and then the story of a whole country and the history of race. So I think about her writing a lot when I try to do these kind of sweeping narratives — but also keeping in mind that I have this project that had to have some urgency of now.
You chose in the essay to highlight specific moments, like Lincoln’s moment with the five free black men to discuss sending them back to Africa and that they were the problem, and the beating of Isaac Woodard. Why did you choose those two examples?
The first draft I turned in was more than twice as long as what ran. There were a lot of examples that did not make it in the final draft. This is part of what makes long-form, deep research really hard. You just have so much information and it’s hard, when you’re so immersed in it, to figure out the most important examples and storytelling points. I used Scrivener to organize all of my notes, and this is where the writer/editor relationship is so important. I turned in a draft and had several discussions with Ilena, and I knew it was too long but I was like, “I don’t know what to cut at this point.” It all feels important to me; that’s why I put it in. From there it was a collaborative effort between Ilena and me, where she said some things seemed most important and suggested taking other stuff out, and I would push back. I probably spent weeks on the draft, just winnowing down or trying to distill the examples that tell the most about the argument I was trying to make. How do you make it come alive? How do you make it about not just repeating a bunch of dates and facts, but build them into a narrative?
You can build a mini-narrative around the Lincoln thing. But it’s also important because we have this idea that Lincoln was this great emancipator, and he represents the egalitarian North, and these ideas allow us to ignore all the racism that still existed. And ignore the complexity that one can be opposed to a brutal system of slavery but still not believe in black equality. Which is kind of how racism continues to operate: “Of course I think black people should have equal rights, but just not live next to me.” So with Lincoln, it was not only a narrative; it really exposed the paradox of America around race. Even those white people we hold up as examples of America, they were human; they were deeply invested in the capitalist system. There’s a narrative, but a way for us to see the hypocrisy, the struggle that black Americans have always faced.
I began the piece with my dad, who joined the military. When veterans came back from World War I and World War II, once they had that little taste of freedom, that’s where we got the Civil Rights Movement. Isaac Woodard is such a great example of a man who fights abroad and comes back and gets beaten and blinded for life. That beautiful narrative packs so much into it and allows you to make that human connection, as opposed to some lines about how black soldiers were brutalized.
What advice if any would you give journalists who want to try what you did?
If you want to do great, beautiful writing, you have to read great, beautiful writing. You study how other people write narrative, how they structure their sentences, what words they use, how they do transitions. My process is to just get the story down, and then go back and think about the writing. Structure is always the thing I struggle with the most. And structure is one of the most important things of the story.
The draft that I turned in looks nothing like what was published. It was a shitty draft; they all are. When you turn it in, you feel generally pretty hopeless, like it would never get into a form you’d be proud of. You just need to keep looking for a way to perfect it. That’s why I believe the editor-reporter relationship is the most important thing. If I didn’t have an amazing, thoughtful editor I trusted, who could both keep me calm and also say this isn’t really working, and who gave me the time to experiment and figure things out, it wouldn’t be what it ultimately is.
So, for you, the structure is hardest?
Yeah. I try to write in a structure that makes the most sense, but it almost never does. I know writers who do intensive outlining, and I don’t do any of that. I’m really more of a gut writer. I decide this is how it should go, and I jot down some notes about what I think should go in each section, and where I think a section might go, and try to think about what’s the narrative. But I don’t do a lot of outlining. I don’t do a lot of pre-writing. I just sit down and bang it out from my gut, and sometimes it works and many times it doesn’t, and then I go back in and keep trying to fix and fix and fix.
Which is what you did with this essay?
I was pretty damn close to deadline when I worked on this piece. Not only was I writing the anchor essay but I was overseeing the whole project. Almost every writer loves procrastinating. I was reading and researching as much as possible so I could avoid writing. By the time I really sat down to just dedicate time to writing, it was really close to deadline, and it was ugly.
I would guess when I turned my draft in, maybe three weeks out? And my editor was on vacation. But she didn’t want to let it go because we had worked on it together since the beginning. So she’s in Colombia, and when she could connect to Wi-Fi, she was editing on her phone. It was crazy.
But I’ve never seen a team come together and be so dedicated to a project than the magazine was on this. People just felt really such a passion for it; it was really kind of amazing.
I’m guessing some of assertions you made make white people pretty uncomfortable. Calling Monticello a “forced labor camp.” Declaring that “No people has a greater claim to the flag than us.” Did you and your editors talk about the line between making your argument and turning people off?
We didn’t have a single discussion about that. And I actually think that is the power. We were not thinking about how do we soften this, how do we make it more palatable. I certainly was 100 percent disinterested in that, and I don’t know if my editors had conversations without me, but I doubt it. In fact, I created a very short kind of index of terms that we should and shouldn’t use. I felt that the project needed to tell these stories in a very unflinching way. I needed to feel proud of what we made and not hold back about one of the greatest atrocities to occur in this country.
What was on the index of terms?
We were never going to call human beings slaves; we were going to use “enslaved” to describe a condition, not a person’s identity. Things like “forced labor camp,” “slave labor camp” instead of these very bucolic terms like plantation. We wanted to be honest about what happened. People were tortured, and used as forced labor. “Enslaver” instead of owner where we could — things where the sharpness of the language spoke to the reality of what slavery was. So much of what we’re taught about slavery is to soften the brutality and the brutal system.
I was so conscious every moment of not fucking this up. I understand what it’s like to do something like this in the paper-of-record. I also understand the ambivalent relationship that many black Americans have with the Times. I’m just thinking of every possible detail, of every possible thing that could derail what we were trying to do, and language was a big part of that. To me it wasn’t enough that I wasn’t going to use this terminology in this project, it was that nobody would and that it would be consistent, and that nobody who read it would not be able to see the argument we were making because they’d be like, “Why are you calling us slaves?” I was thinking constantly all of those types of things, what were the missteps we could make, and trying to make sure we didn’t make them.
That was a lot of pressure. How did it affect you emotionally?
When I say this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’m not being hyperbolic. It really was. To spend eight months completely immersed in the worst things that have ever happened to your people — I’m not just researching for my own essay, I’m reading everything that is being written. I’m looking at every photo; I’m looking at everything. It’s not the type of work where you go home at 6 p.m. and just leave it. These things happened to my ancestors. Some of it happened to my father. My grandparents. So, emotionally it was very hard. I cried several times working on this.
There was this moment in the newsroom — we were getting close to closing the magazine, and they print up every page and hang it on the wall so we can see how it all looks. It was the first time I could see the totality of it. And I started sobbing. I’ve never cried in a newsroom in my life. I just realized kind of this weight that — I mean, you push it down because you’re doing your job, and the work is important, but just this weight. I cried on the podcast.
People are going to think, Jesus, all I do is cry over my work. And it’s not! It’s just that this was really — it was really hard. I don’t know a black person on the project who didn’t cry at least once. All of these wounds are still so fresh and raw and are not healed, and this project was explaining all those things. It’s not something we can have some distance from, because you can look all around our society and see so many black people who are still suffering.
What kind of reaction did you want to get, and what kind of reaction did you actually get?
I honestly hoped that it would completely blow people’s minds. Certainly the average American, because they know nothing about this history, has not been able to draw the connections to modern America. We have some idea, particularly in some areas — school segregation, criminal justice — but don’t really know.
I kind of jokingly say this, but if done properly and if done to the standard I believed it could be, that this in some ways could be like the red pill in “The Matrix.” You wouldn’t be able to see your country the same and all the architecture would suddenly start to be exposed. That’s really what I hoped that people who engaged honestly with it would take away.
Have there been people whose response has not been what you wanted or expected?
I clearly believed there’d be pushback. People need to understand I’m not a historian. This is not history. It is a work of journalism that is making an argument — no more and no less. It is using history to make an argument. I certainly expected there’d be conservative pushback to this reframing of this idea that 1619 is our true founding, no one is more American than black folks, that we are perfecters of democracy. You don’t make arguments like that and not expect pushback. So none of that bothered me. History is itself constantly up for debate, constantly changing. New history replaces old history. So I was pretty sure there would be some scholars who didn’t agree with our interpretations. What was important to me was that we got our facts right. I knew people could argue with framing our interpretation but I did not want people to be able to discount our work on the facts.
But there’s been a particular group that has gone on a mission to discredit the project, and they have found academics to dispute the project even though those academics have acknowledged that they read an essay or two, and skimmed the rest. That that’s been really disheartening. I don’t think you can argue unless you’ve actually read the project.
There have been historians who have said we didn’t pay enough attention to abolition. In my essay, could I have talked about white abolitionists? Yeah, that was a choice I didn’t make. But people who are arguing that the history is bad, that we just don’t understand enough about it, that journalists shouldn’t be writing history — those are not arguments. And it’s gotten ugly. People are sending me emails, using racial stereotypes. They talk about our intelligence. They say black people shouldn’t be doing this.
Is there a single moment or line in your essay that you want people to hold on to?
It’s that in this 400th year, maybe we can stop thinking about black people as the problem. Because everything that black people have experienced has been because we have been treated as a problem — not fully American, something that needs to be fixed — and it has allowed us not to have to address the structures that have been set up, and the racial caste system.
Why is that so important for people to hold on to?
So black Americans could stop growing up with a sense of shame.