'The 1619 Project' Isn't Going Anywhere
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It started with a simple fact: “The first group of enslaved Africans were brought here over 400 years ago,” Pulitzer Prize winning writer Nikole Hannah Jones can be overheard saying in the trailer for Hulu’s documentary adaptation of The 1619 Project. In 2019, The New York Times released an ambitious and expansive project including a series of essays and poems that meditated on the year 1619, not only as the beginning of chattel slavery in the country that would eventually be known as the United States of America, but as the year, Jones and the project would posit, that American democracy was founded.
As with anything that forces America to contend with Black Americans' role in constructing this country, The 1619 Project has drawn strong reactions from people across the political spectrum. Public schools across the country have banned the project, along with other books that have been deemed to be teaching “critical race theory.” The 45th President of the United States opened a 1776 commission as a counter-project aimed at giving students a "patriotic education."
Critics on the left have proposed that the project has erased the involvement of indigenous communities, that it romanticizes the American project, and that any criticism from historians is lumped into right wing hysteria. “Be wary of asserting origins: they tend to shift as new archival evidence turns up,” scholar Michelle M. Wright says.
Now, with The 1619 Project expanded into a documentary, Jones and the project have once again not only confronted America’s history, but the critics, too. The six-part series analyzes how slavery is embedded into the DNA of the United States and provides a chance for viewers to visualize the impact: in what we wear, what we listen to, how we see ourselves and what we believe in. Ahead, BAZAAR.com caught up with Hannah-Jones about the documentary, the backlash, and more.
What was the original vision you had for the project, and how did you picture it being received?
My original vision for The 1619 Project was to force a reckoning with our country and the fact that slavery is one of the oldest institutions in America. Black Americans have contributed a great deal to this country and yet we've been treated as marginal to the American story. I really wanted to reframe the way that we thought about the United States, and these ideas of liberty and the practice of slavery, and to force the year 1619 into our national lexicon.
[Originally], I just hoped people would read it. I had no idea how it would go out into the world, but I knew it was a project. It was published around the 400th anniversary of the first Africans being sold into the Colony of Virginia. So I just hoped that with the platform of The [New York] Times, the readers would engage with it, would read it, and would be forced to really reckon with how poorly we've been taught to think about this history—and how that history is shaping our society.
Why did you decide to expand the project into docu-series?
We were extremely excited when Lionsgate approached us at The Times to do a development deal based on this project. We understand the strength of the medium. There's just many, many more Americans and people across the globe that you can reach when you produce television or you produce film. So when we signed the development deal with Lionsgate, for us the most obvious first iteration would be a documentary series based on the book. I think in our minds, in some ways, the podcast was a model for that.
Some critics have accused the project of erasing the indigenous population. How would you respond to that?
What I'll say is, we didn't have a particular essay on settler colonialism and the theft of indigenous lands in the original project. And I agree, I always knew that that was a hole in the project, which we addressed in the book expansion. There is an essay called “Dispossession,” because of course you can't have the expansion of slavery without first the theft of indigenous lands.
However, I think the idea that there is an erasure is not really a fair critique. This is a project on African slavery, and it's okay to tell the story of African slavery in the United States. I certainly wouldn't expect a story on the history of indigenous people to center African people. So we both addressed what I think was a valid criticism—that the project did not acknowledge or really deal with settler colonialism—but also really unabashedly said, This is a project about African slavery and that's who we center.
Some historians over the years have come forward about the project, saying that it gets basic facts wrong. How do you continue to reengage with the project in that regard?
Right. I always put the critique from historians of the project into two buckets. There's legitimate critique, and then there's critique of people who just think we focus too much on slavery and centered Black people too much. For the legitimate critique, we responded. And if anyone looks at the original project versus the book expansion, you'll see that we answered that critique and that we revised in reference to that critique. There are 1000 endnotes in the book that back up our arguments. I think all ambitious works should face critique and should respond to it.
How do you gauge what is legitimate critique and what is not? Of course, the project has gained a lot of right-wing backlash, so how do you decipher which is which?
I mean, it's pretty easy. The field of historiography is a field of interpretation, and arguments are normative to the field. So all the time, historians are saying, “Well, I think that interpretation is too strong. I don't really agree with the emphasis here.” That's all legitimate.
It doesn't mean that we're ultimately going to agree with that critique. But when people have made critiques that it's not patriotic enough, or the project is too pessimistic, or why don't we talk about more good white people, I don't consider that to be a legitimate critique of a project that says it is about centering Black Americans and their contributions and the legacy of slavery. Those, to me, are not difficult to distinguish.
In regards to the backlash the project has received from the right wing, we see this sort of mass movement to remove critical race theories from schools, and your project has been at the center of that. How do you feel about that?
What we see is a very successful propaganda campaign to call anything that is talking about race or racism critical race theory, and to really try to ban the teaching of ideas that they don't think are legitimate.
Race is the oldest wedge issue in America. In order to win politically, they decided to try to stoke the racial divide. People who think they can make a stronger argument don't ban books and they don't ban ideas. They make a stronger argument. And so the fact that they're doing that, in some ways, is a badge of honor, frankly.
Lastly, what's your vision for the future for this project?
I don't know that I have a vision for the future. I just want to continue to produce work that matters and hope that Americans will continue to engage with the work. You're asking me this at a very nerve-wracking time for me because we've spent two years working on the documentary, and now it goes out in the world and I have no control over what happens to it at this point. I have a lot of nerves and I have a lot of anticipation, and I just hope people will engage with the project with an open mind—that they will be transformed as I've been transformed by learning. That's my hope.
The 1619 Project is available to stream on Hulu now.
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