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NPR's history podcast 'Throughline': Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A book associated with The New York Times Magazine project 1619 has been at the top of bestseller lists since it came out in November. 1619 aims to reframe all of American history through the lens of slavery. Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, the hosts of our history podcast Throughline, talked with the project's creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones.

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TUCKER CARLSON: Kellogg school districts are now using The 1619 Project from The New York Times, for example, as a curriculum. That project is the work of an out-of-the-closet racial extremist called Nikole Hannah-Jones.

RUND ABDELFATAH, BYLINE: The 1619 Project was mostly met with praise when it was first released, but pretty quickly, it got conflated with critical race theory, an academic discipline concerned with how racism is codified in our laws and institutions. In other words - structural racism. And that's led to aggressive criticism from the right.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Critical race theory, The 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: There have been some really difficult times in the last two years - efforts to discredit not just the work, but me as a journalist.

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, BYLINE: Nikole Hannah-Jones is a reporter for The New York Times and creator of the project. She wasn't prepared for the threats of violence she got after 1619 came out.

HANNAH-JONES: We had a president who openly stoked violence, who was tweeting about my work. And that just sends a different type of person into your inbox and into your DMs and onto your voicemail. But at the same time, I understand that you would not see this type of organized pushback against the project if the project had not been immensely successful at achieving its goals, which is leading people to have to think differently about their country and, therefore, think differently about what is demanded of our society today if we want to live up to our highest ideals.

And we were warned about this. When we were told, they're going to use 1619 in the presidential campaign, it sounded like the most ludicrous thing I'd ever heard. Like, who's going to use a work of journalism about slavery in a political campaign? But they have, and they have managed to turn it into a very effective wedge issue.

ABDELFATAH: Though the criticisms come mostly from the right, The 1619 Project earned disapproval from some on the left, as well. The main argument here is that the project looks at American history through a strictly racial lens and that it leaves out the role that other forces, like class, have played. It's an idea that Nikole Hannah-Jones dismisses.

HANNAH-JONES: The 1619 Project is a project about the legacy of slavery. So I never understand this critique that the project didn't address every other issues that have been used to divide people in society. It's not a project about women and gender. It's not a project about what happened to Indigenous people. It's not a project about class. It is a project about the legacy of slavery, and slavery was a racial institution.

ARABLOUEI: A number of prominent American historians have taken issue with one of the project's arguments - that the American Revolution came about because the American colonies were bent on preserving slavery, and that meant separating from Great Britain.

For the most part, you stuck to that argument. My question is, how did you choose to respond to that in the book, and why did you choose to kind of stick with that point of view of that argument?

HANNAH-JONES: So I'm going to push back a little bit on that framing. We have far more historians who agree with our framing of the American Revolution, who have also written publicly about that. And for a long time, historians didn't even deal with slavery in a revolution that was largely led by slaveholders. But you have - for the last 40 years, have had historians who are really trying to excavate the role of slavery. And they have come up with scholarship that says that slavery played a prominent role, and it is that scholarship that my project - or that section on the American Revolution is based on. So why did I leave it in there? Because I think it's right.

ABDELFATAH: Hannah-Jones says history is a matter of consensus. She compares the controversy over her project to that over a book by Annette Gordon-Reed. It asserted that founding father Thomas Jefferson had children by Sally Hemings, an enslaved Black woman on his estate. When the book came out, Jefferson's scholars said, no way. That's false. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. And today, the idea is accepted by most Jefferson scholars. On its website, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello says, quote, "it's a settled historical matter."

ARABLOUEI: While pushing back on criticism from all fronts, the book has been able to add more context and nuance that the magazine project wasn't able to do.

HANNAH-JONES: I mean, let me be clear. There was valid critique to be had of the project. And where the critique was valid, we listened to it and we consulted more experts and we did more research. And the beautiful thing about this is having had a chance to publish and now having more space, you could sit and think, OK, what were the things that I really wish could have been in there that weren't? And when the project came out, I had so many conversations with historians, with regular people, and I listened to their feedback. And I read more and studied more myself because I had more time. And that also changed, in some ways, the argument that I was making.

ABDELFATAH: History and its accurate telling is at the heart of what Nikole Hannah-Jones is aiming for in 1619. It sparked an intense debate about what story we should be telling ourselves about this country. What are we supposed to do with this history? How can pointing out the darkness of the past be productive?

HANNAH-JONES: We can decide whether we will be the country of our highest ideals. Black people did not, until the end of the Civil War with the Reconstruction Amendments, believe in the Constitution. The Constitution laid out no vision for us as citizens or us as free individuals. But Black people took those words and turned the declaration into a freedom document. And I think that is the work that Black Americans have been doing since those words were written. And what we are calling on is the rest of America to join in the struggle to perfect those really majestic words of our founding.

So I don't know if there is one collective, unifying narrative about America. I don't think that is the concern of a journalist, is whether we can have a single unifying narrative. I think the concern of the journalist is to try to help us understand the society we live in and to get as close to the truth as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "UNTITLED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.