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1619 Project reframing history of slavery draws crowd to Ann Arbor

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — Nikole Hannah-Jones, the investigative reporter behind the New York Times' "1619 Project," said the controversy that followed her work on reframing the history of slavery was no shock.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, left, is interviewed by journalist Rochelle Riley on Tuesday for a discussion of Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project at Rackham Auditorium. She said that she chose the project because she was thinking about the date 1619 since she learned of its significance in high school during a black studies course.

"One does not create a project in the New York Times that says we are going to reframe American history, that our true founding is 1619 not 1776, that black people are the perfectors of democracy and that we are as much the founders fathers as the white men who you worship in our history books," Hannah-Jones told a packed room at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor on Tuesday,  "and not expect you are going to get a lot of damn pushback."

Hannah-Jones came to the University of Michigan campus for a talk on The 1619 Project, launched in August in the New York Times Magazine on the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English colonies that would become the United States.

The event, hosted by Wallace House at the University of Michigan, drew more than 1,000 people. It was moderated by Rochelle Riley, a former Free Press columnist and author.

Hannah-Jones wrote in the project that the United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Hannah-Jones is cofounder of the Ida B. Wells Society, a foundation for journalists to further social justice and equality.

"Our Declaration of Independence, approved on July 4, 1776, proclaims that 'all men are created equal' and 'endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.' But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst," Hannah-Jones wrote in the piece.

Hundreds listen as Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones is interviewed by journalist Rochelle Riley on Tuesday. Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project took an in depth look at slavery in the United States.

She said Tuesday that she chose the project topic because she has been thinking about the date 1619 since she learned of its significance in high school during a black studies course.

"Every American child learns about the Mayflower. No American child learns about 1619 and another ship called the White Lion that came earlier that is much more important to the American story ...That erasure was intentional. The Mayflower story glorified the best aspects of our country," Hannah-Jones said.

Slavery was an economic system to extract profit from black bodies, Hannah-Jones said, which continued so long because a lot of people made a lot of money in the slave trade.

"It was a national enterprise. Financial districts were built around mortgaging black bodies as well as the shipping of cotton and sugar," Hannah-Jones said. "The disease of racism infiltrates every aspect of American life.

"I argue the experience of black America, our very presence in this country, is a reminder of that sin. We are made to pay generation after generation for having the audacity to survive slavery," she said.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, left, is interviewed by journalist Rochelle Riley on Tuesday for a discussion of Hannah-Jones' 1619 Project at Rackham Auditorium. She said that she chose the project because she was thinking about the date 1619 since she learned of its significance in high school during a black studies course.

When people say "Slavery was a long time ago. Why don’t you get over it?," Hannah-Jones said she hands them the 1619 Project materials and gives them a message.

"We can't get over it because this country has never gotten over it,” Hannah-Jones said.

The material from 1619 was converted into supplementary educational materials in partnership with the Pulitzer Center. Hannah-Jones said the 1619 Project has been turned into high school curriculum and any teacher can download a PDF of the project.

"We know educators are teaching it in every state in the country," Hannah-Jones said. "It's an origins story ... It changed the way I saw myself. This curriculum can disabuse white children they are superior and remove from black children that tremendous sense of shame that all we did was allow someone to enslave us and free us."

Justin Woods, a U-M master's graduate student, said Hannah-Jones' seminal work has spurred a conversation.

"You really have something here that is going to force you to question what you've been taught, what you have learned and you make to grips with the fact that you have been mis-educated. It's important to go on that journey," Woods, 29, said.

The 1619 Project consisted of two components: a special issue of the magazine, containing 10 essays exploring the links between contemporary American life and the legacy of slavery as well as a series of original poetry and fiction about key moments in the last 400 years; and a special broadsheet section, produced in collaboration with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The project has come under fire from historians who have disputed the accuracy of some of the reporting. In a letter signed by five historians that the Times published on Dec. 29, they said they had "strong reservations" about important aspects of The 1619 Project, including factual errors and the closed process behind it.

"These errors, which concern major events, cannot be described as interpretation or “framing.” They are matters of verifiable fact, which are the foundation of both honest scholarship and honest journalism," the letter said. "They suggest a displacement of historical understanding by ideology. Dismissal of objections on racial grounds — that they are the objections of only “white historians” — has affirmed that displacement."

The Times defended the project in a lengthy rebuttal, saying "Though we respect the work of the signatories, appreciate that they are motivated by scholarly concern and applaud the efforts they have made in their own writings to illuminate the nation’s past, we disagree with their claim that our project contains significant factual errors and is driven by ideology rather than historical understanding."

jchambers@detroitnews.com