‘1619 Project’ Writer Nikole Hannah-Jones on Reframing the Narrative Around America’s Racialized History and Education News Coverage in a Pandemic

Nikole Hannah-Jones (James Estrin/The New York Times)

The fusillade of insults and threats aimed at the New York Times’s “The 1619 Project” is evidence of the power journalism has to create change, Nikole Hannah-Jones told a rapt, remote audience during an appearance at the Education Writers Association’s 73rd National Seminar.

Named for the year the first slave ship arrived in the English colony of Virginia, the project launched in August 2019 with an issue of the Times magazine dedicated to reframing 400 years of racialized American history. In April, Hannah-Jones, who conceived the project, won a Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay.

Hannah-Jones and the project have provoked the ire of numerous Republican elected officials, ranging from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who described the series as espousing a “Marxist ideology,” to Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who has sought to ban the stories and related materials from public school classrooms.

“The New York Times’s ‘1619 Project’ is a racially divisive, revisionist account of history that denies the noble principles of freedom and equality on which our nation was founded,” Cotton said in a statement about the bill he introduced, which took place the day after Hannah-Jones’s EWA appearance in late July. “Not a single cent of federal funding should go to indoctrinate young Americans with this left-wing garbage.”

Indeed, Hannah-Jones said she believes the pushback is related to the fact that schools throughout the country are teaching “The 1619 Project.”

“No one’s been more surprised than me that a year later, [President Donald] Trump, Pompeo or Tom Cotton are filling the need to try to discredit a project that’s a year old,” she told the education writers during a conversation moderated by The Wall Street Journal’s Chastity Pratt. “I think if anything, that really speaks to the power that ‘The 1619 Project’ has had and the power of journalism to not just report on what’s happening, but to actually move the narratives that we’ve all long accepted.”

The project is being taught in at least one school in every state in the country, Hannah-Jones said, and is mandatory curriculum in several, including Chicago Public Schools.

“There’s this understanding of the power of a narrative about the challenges, the deification of our founding, that really centered slavery and the Black experience,” she said. “The power of our children actually learning that history at a younger age, as opposed to those of us who didn’t learn it at all.

“That’s been deeply, deeply gratifying as someone who began my career as an education reporter.”

That career provided vital inspiration to New York Times reporter Erica L. Green, who introduced the session. Hannah-Jones “laid the groundwork for us to be able to write not only the stories that were expected of us, but required of us,” said Green. “To effectively cover a system that was supposed to be the great equalizer in this country. It’s been incredible to watch her continue to inspire.”

Pratt and Hannah-Jones talked frankly about the disproportionately white composition of the education press corps and the impact on coverage of K-12 education of white reporters’ own educational backgrounds and lack of expertise on racism. In 2017, Pratt reminded listeners, Hannah-Jones tweeted that white reporters’ “fear, complicity and guilt get in the way.”

White reporters’ children often attend schools that are segregated or more affluent than those attended by students of color, Hannah-Jones reiterated at the seminar. “A lot of times, white journalists, their experiences of our educational system is completely different from the experiences of most of the kids that they cover,” she said. “And we would be willfully naive to think that that has not and does not impact coverage, but you can’t get around that.”

She is concerned that coverage of school shutdowns has not focused enough on what she called “the lack of instruction and the lack of accountability during COVID.” Even many children who have technology and internet access are not being served well, she noted.

“I’m really worried about what that’s going to look like in the fall,” she said. “I’m worried that because there was so much of a focus on reopening schools, that not enough time has been spent on preparing for schools not to reopen, or on instruction, if schools are not able to fully reopen.”

In terms of advice for reporters attending the session, Hannah-Jones said white journalists in particular need to take time to understand race.

“We’ve always treated racial inequality as something that you just know or don’t know based on osmosis, like just being a person in America, you will understand how to cover this,” she said. “Those of us who are good at writing about racial inequality are good at writing about racial inequality because we have studied it. And if you are white, you actually probably need to study it even more intensely because you don’t even have the lived experience of what that is like.”

Further, she said, reporters need to make sure their pitches are bulletproof when they fear a story is one their editor will be reluctant to assign — a category she said segregation is too often lumped into.

“You know what stories your editor is likely to be drawn to and what stories your editor’s likely to reject,” she said. “And if the story that you really want to tell is one that your editor is more likely to reject, you report the hell out of that story before you ever pitch it.”

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