Nikole Hannah-Jones is tired. Excited and grateful too. But the past two years have at times been dark and often exhausting. His groundbreaking work, Project 1619, sparked a battle over who will tell the story of this country and how we think about its identity. But before we can collectively re-examine the legacy of American slavery, President Donald Trump said the project “has warped, distorted and defiled American history.” School boards across the country have banned teaching it, comparing it to the widely misunderstood legal philosophy known as Critical Race Theory. As the creator and public face of the project, which includes contributions from renowned journalists and essayists, Hannah-Jones received, with praise, most of the hate. His name has become a cultural signifier of the power of investigative journalism, or a dog’s whistle for politicians and commentators who use his life’s work as evidence of a plot to keep the country away from whites.
On a cloudy Sunday afternoon at her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, she signs inserts that will be placed in the first editions of The 1619 project: a new origin story. The anthology, released this month, is an expanded version of The New York Times project, with longer essays, new fictions and poems, and writings on subjects such as Indian displacement and the Haitian revolution. The day before, she was in Iowa filming a 1619 documentary series for Hulu; the next day, she heads to Alabama. We settle on the dark blue sofa in her living room and she balances a stack of inserts on a Kehinde Wiley book on her legs. Her curly red hair is pulled back into a bun, and she wears a gold nameplate necklace and a stretchy black knit dress. Her 11 year old daughter is curled up in a chair across from us, half watching TV and half watching her mother.
Hannah-Jones and I have known each other for years, but haven’t seen her since the summer of 2019, at the 1619 Project Kickoff Celebration at New York Times office in Midtown Manhattan. Since then, the MacArthur Genius Grant winner has won more journalism awards, trained more editors and journalists of color through the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting (which she co-founded in 2016 at the University of North Carolina) and became a friend. with Oprah.
Hannah-Jones, 45, grew up among three sisters in the manufacturing town of Waterloo, Iowa, with her black father, Milton, who variously ran a convenience store, drove a school bus, and worked in a meat-packing plant and as a hospital nurse and her white mother, Cheryl, a state probation officer. Milton had come from Mississippi to Iowa as a young child; his mother was the first in his family to migrate. Cheryl was raised in rural Iowa by parents who also grew up there. The two met when Milton, recently discharged from the military, was visiting the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls, where Cheryl was a student. âI actually asked my mom about this recently, and she was looking out her dorm window and saw my dad, and she came down and pounced on him,â Hannah-Jones says, laughing.
I tell her I was surprised to learn years ago that she was MÃ©tis. âWell,â she said with a smile. “It’s probably organized.” She never identified herself as a MÃ©tis person. âI clearly know that I am biracial. I have a very close relationship with my mother although my grandparents are conservative rural whites who loved Ronald Reagan and were fiercely opposed to Obama. They were great grandparents to us, as long as we didn’t talk about race, âshe says. “I would say very young, my dad sat my sisters and I and told us our mom might be white, but we were black, and we were going to be treated in the world like we were black.”
Like children in the segregated public school districts she wrote about, Hannah-Jones was bused from her black neighborhood to predominantly white schools, and in those schools she had her first political and social awakenings. Riding the bus was a common experience in the Midwest and South for black children – growing up in Alabama, I was assigned to a bus from my black neighborhood to a white elementary school – and it could be lonely and alienating. âI got that from my mom, but I’ve always sided with the underdogs in general,â says Hannah-Jones. “And being taken on the bus made me be a very angry high school student.” About a fifth of the children at his school were black, and nearly all of them were taken by bus and not allowed to be forgotten by classmates, teachers, and disciplinary policies that favored white students when they did. fought with blacks. Hannah-Jones was one of the few black students in her advanced classes; all math and basic science classes were filled with black students.
Hannah-Jones had her school friends and she had her neighborhood friends. Most of her aunts and uncles on the Milton family side lived a few blocks away and she had a close relationship with Cheryl’s parents. Her grandparents had disowned Cheryl for a while, but changed their mind when Hannah-Jones’ older sister was born. Hannah-Jones was a precocious, nerdy, and observant girl, and noticed differences in how she felt with both sides of her family. âIt was clear to me that when I was with my black family, I was just one of them. And when I was with my white family, I was a part of them but I could never be fully of them. I could be black but I could never be whiteâ¦ There is no tragedy about it.
She read a lot, to find out more about the world and to escape her father’s alcoholism. Milton could be verbally abusive and the two often clashed. She read historical novels and encyclopedias and her parents’ Louis L’Amour and Danielle Steel novels, especially when she was punished. âI had a lot of problems,â she recalls. “I had a smart mouth, I answered a lot.” Cheryl says Hannah-Jones was “mischievous” as a child, but studious. âShe was very attentive to what was going on in the world. In college, she asked for a globe for Christmas and wanted a membership News week magazine, ârecalls Cheryl. “She’s always had very strong feelings about things.” It was Cheryl who took her daughters to their first civil rights protests.
In her sophomore year, Hannah-Jones took a Black Studies course – from the only black teacher she would have, Ray Dial – and began to learn about black culture and politics from a way she had never known before. It was exciting: Hannah-Jones was reading about apartheid and Cheikh Anta Diop The African origin of civilization and listen to Da Lench Mob and Ice Cube. She wore a Malcolm X locket. She complained to Dial that the school newspaper never wrote about the experiences of black students. He told Hannah-Jones to join the newspaper or stop complaining, so she joined the newspaper. His column was titled From the African Point of View. The first piece was whether Jesus was black.
âI was intentionally trying to be provocative,â says Hannah-Jones. âI’ve written a lot about what it was like to come to the black side of town and go to a white school, and that’s why I won my first journalism award, Iowa High School Press Association. From there, I was a bit addicted to wanting to be a journalist and writing about the black experience. Outside of the newspaper, she and her best friend helped start a cultural enrichment club designed to be run by blacks; to promote the first meeting, they placed posters comparing the United States to apartheid-era South Africa and hung “white” and “colored” signs above the fountains and bathrooms. âWhen school started, they became ballistic. They took off all of our signs and canceled our first meeting, âHannah-Jones laughs again. She was starting to feel a sense of power from what she could do with writing and activism. And she was energized by learning a black history – “The whole time I thought black people didn’t do anything” – that had been hidden from her. She decided to study African American history and studies at the University of Notre Dame.