Nikole Hannah-Jones has become one of the country’s best-known journalists. the New York Times Review The investigative journalist won a Pulitzer in 2020 for her magnum opus The 1619 Project, which reframed American history within the context of the ramifications of slavery and the ongoing contributions of black Americans to shaping the nation. The groundbreaking piece was celebrated and led to a deal with Lionsgate, the Times and Oprah Winfrey to produce a plethora of projects based on 1619 (including an upcoming Hulu docu-series); the last opus is the anthology book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, published in November. It also sparked a reactionary movement to ban literature that examines history and society through a racial lens—evidence of its influence, as is the response of Americans who embraced its power of revelation. Hannah-Jones – who joined Howard University last summer as a Knight Chair in Race and Journalism and to found its Center for Journalism and Democracy – receives the Social Justice Impact Award at the NAACP Image This year’s Awards, airing Feb. 26 on BET.
What are some of the biggest impacts people have shared with you as a result of reading about the 1619 Project?
Black schoolchildren shared that it gave them a sense of pride, that they finally saw themselves as part of American history. I’ve heard countless readers say it changed the way they view their country. That they realized everything they never knew, what they were never taught, and that the country makes more sense after reading it. Then there is clearly the impact it is having on a lot of conservative politicians who are very upset and are trying to ban it being taught to school children.
What do opponents of critical race theory misunderstand or misrepresent about the concept?
What conservatives are doing is using critical race theory as buzzwords in a propaganda campaign. These anti-CRT laws are anti-history laws. These are laws of memory. The fact that any of us outside of academia or those whose work focuses on race is talking about it is testament to the success of this campaign. Critical race theory is about trying to understand why, 60 years apart from the civil rights movement, black Americans still rank at the bottom of every indicator of well-being in our society. It has nothing to do with white children feeling victimized. It’s not actually individuals. It’s about systems. I don’t think the question can even be asked, “What are the conservatives doing wrong?” They are intentionally misleading. There is nothing recognizable about critical race theory as it is described or used in the laws that seek to outlaw it.
In your speech to THRAt the Women in Entertainment event in December, you referenced “sounding the alarm about the dangerous moment we all find ourselves in.” What can the media and entertainment industries do to respond to attempted censorship in the classroom?
First, stop legitimizing it. If you look at the coverage, it took what the Republicans were saying at face value, which is not what journalists should be doing. Journalists should be skeptical. It was a political strategy with a propaganda strategy and should have been covered as such. Quite frankly, a lot of journalists and free speech groups fell silent last year because they only wanted to ban the 1619 Project. I said then that it would never stop at the 1619 Project. So now, of course, we have the sweeping bans that try to ban texts that honestly deal with the history of race and racism, that feature queer characters, that talk about the Holocaust in a way that some people don’t like. It was very predictable. We have treated politicians using state power to ban the teaching of ideas the same as a high school teacher who teaches the wrong lesson in racism, and we have legitimized what is happening. We’re only just starting. Just look at what Gov. [Ron] DeSantis is trying to make do in Florida with his bill, which has gone from K-12 to now telling private companies what kinds of training they can take. It will affect us all. It’s a sign of a deeply unhealthy country when state legislatures start banning ideas, and that’s where we are now.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.