Four hundred years ago this month, the first enslaved people from Africa arrived in the Virginia colony. To observe the anniversary of American slavery, The New York Times Magazine launched The 1619 Project to reframe America’s history through the lens of slavery. The project lead, reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.
Hari Sreenivasan: Today, the New York Times published the print edition of the 1619 Project. The name marks this month’s 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved people brought from Africa to the then-Virginia colony. The Times says the project aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding and placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are. The project is led by New York Times magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is the author of the opening essay. She joins me now.You have been working on this for a number of years, but you put this together very quickly. First of all, why? Why this topic? Why this issue?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Well, you don’t have very many opportunities to ever celebrate the 400th anniversary of anything, and it seemed to me that this was a great opportunity to really, as you said in your opening, reframe the way that we have thought about an institution that has impacted almost everything in modern American society, but that we’re taught very little about, that we’re often taught is marginal to the American story. And we wanted to do something different. We wanted to use the platform of The Times to force us to confront the reality of what slavery has meant for our development as a nation.
Hari Sreenivasan: And this isn’t just about sort of the kind of textbook ideas of what happened to slaves. You’ve got essays in here about health care, about geography, about sugar, about music, all of these different ripple effects that happened throughout the economy and really life here. You said — in a sentence, you said, you know we would not be the United States were it not for slavery. This is kind of one of the original fibers that made this country.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. The conceit of the magazine is that one of things we hear all the time is, well that was in the past; why do you have to keep talking about the past? Well, one, I think the past is clearly instructive for the future, for how we are right now, but also the conceit of the magazine is that you can look at all of these modern phenomenon that you think are unrelated to slavery at all and we are going to show you how they are. And so we have a story in there about traffic patterns. We have a story about why we’re the only Western industrial country without universal health care, about why Americans consume so much sugar, about capitalism, about democracy. We’re really trying to change the way that Americans are thinking that this was just a problem of the past that we’ve resolved and show that it isn’t. What many people don’t know, and I point this out in my essay, is that one of the reasons we even decide to become a nation in the first place is over the issue of slavery and had we not had slavery we might be Canada. That one of the reasons that the founders wanted to break off from Britain is they were afraid that Britain was going to begin regulating slavery and maybe even moving towards abolishment. And we were making so much money off of slavery that the founders wanted to be able to continue it.
Hari Sreenivasan: We’re not taught that when we’re taught about our origin stories, and not knowing that then it really does not allow us to grapple with a nation that we really are and not just the nation that we’re taught in kind of American mythology.And that money ends up fueling so much more of what made this country.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Of course. It’s not incidental that 10 of the first 12 presidents of the United States were slaveowners. This is where, at that time, this kind of very burgeoning nation was getting so much of its wealth and its power. It’s what allows this kind of ragged group of colonists to believe that they could defeat the most powerful empire in the world at that time. And it went everywhere. It was north and south. We talk about the industrial revolution — where do Americans believe that the cotton that was being spun in those textile mills was coming from, was coming from enslaved people who are growing that cotton in the south. The rum industry, which was really the currency of the slave trade, that rum was being processed and sold in the United States. The banking industry that rises in New York City is rising largely to provide the mortgages and insurance policies and to finance the slave trade. The shipbuilders are northern shipbuilders. The people who are sending voyages to Africa to bring enslaved people here are all in the north. So this is a truly national enterprise but we prefer to think that it was just some backward Southerners, because that is the way that we can kind of deal with our fundamental paradox that at our beginning that we were a nation built on both the inalienable rights of man and also a nation built on bondage.
Hari Sreenivasan: And you even talked about Wall Street’s name comes from something that most of us don’t recognize.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. So Wall Street is called Wall Street because it was on that wall that enslaved people were bought and sold. That’s been completely erased from our national memory and completely erased from the way that we think about the North. At the time of the Civil War, New York City’s mayor actually threatened to secede from the union with the South because so much money was being made off of slave-produced cotton that was being exported out of New York City. It is that erasure I think that has prevented us from really grappling with our history and so much in modern society that we see that is still related to that.
Hari Sreenivasan: You know, one of the essays in here about health care, which is fascinating, is that some of the myths that started then are still perpetuated today in modern health care and that there are still gross misunderstandings that could actually have very serious health consequences.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. So Linda Villarosa has this compelling essay that talks about how during slavery enslavers were using enslaved people to do these medical experiments, but also we were using medical technology to justify slavery by saying enslaved people don’t feel pain the way, or people of African descent don’t feel pain the way that white people do, that they have thicker skin. And so you can beat them or torture them and it’s not going to hurt as bad. Well, these are all justifications for slavery, but if you look at modern medical science, in our understanding they’re still using these calculations that say, for instance, lung capacity was one of the things that Linda writes about, that black people have worse lung capacity. And the reason enslavers said that was they said that working in the fields and doing this hard labor was good for black people because it helped them increase their lung capacity. Well, what Linda points out is today doctors and medical science are still accounting for what they think is a lessened lung capacity of black Americans and it’s simply not true. But we’ve never purged ourselves of that false science that was used to justify racism.
Hari Sreenivasan: You talked about how basically that the black American or there’s the black experience has been inconvenient to the narrative of this nation in all of these different categories, that it’s been something that we have struggled to deal with but oftentimes just not dealt with it as a result that it was thorny.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. So when you think about the story of who we are, that we are this country built on individual rights. We are the country where, if you are coming from a place where you are not free, you can come to our shores and you can get freedom. Well then you have black people. And every time you look at black Americans, you have to be reminded that there was one-fifth of our population who, we had no rights, no liberties, no freedom whatsoever. We are the constant reminder of really the lie at our origins that while Thomas Jefferson was writing the Declaration of Independence his enslaved brother-in-law was there to serve him and make sure that he’s comfortable. So I think this explains a lot the continued perception that black people are a problem, that black people are as Abraham Lincoln said “a troublesome presence” in American democracy because every time you see us you have to be reminded of our original sin, and no one wants to be reminded of sin. We’re ashamed of sin.
Hari Sreenivasan: You know, one of the things that you mentioned a couple of nights ago when this project launched is the story of your grandmother who grew up a sharecropper. And here you are today. She didn’t live to be able to see this magazine, but I’m assuming she’d be proud.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Yeah, I think she would. My grandmother died when I was still in college, and she would be astounded to see what I became. And I think that that’s an important part of this story. We hear all the time what people consider the problems of the quote-unquote “black community” and people like to point out statistics that they think are indicative of black failure. But when we think that, as I point out in the magazine, I’m part of the first generation of black Americans in the history of this country who was born into a country where it was not legal to discriminate against me just because I descended from people from Africa. We’ve made tremendous progress in a very short period of time. Really just one or two generations out of legal Jim Crow, you could have someone like me at the New York Times producing this work. And it really is a story of black ascension once the legal barriers have been removed.
Hari Sreenivasan: You talk in eloquent terms about how black people really are the perfecters of this democracy, that we had these original documents but really it took this all the way almost to the civil rights struggle for us to start seeing what those words actually meant.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Absolutely. What I argue is that no one values freedom more than those who never had it. And so while the founders were writing these lofty and aspirational words, even as they knew that they were going to continue a system of slavery, black people had no choice but to believe in the literal interpretation of those words, that all men are created equal and are born with inalienable rights. And so black people really from the moment we landed on these shores have been resisting and trying to push this society toward a more equal society of universal rights. And that has really been our role. You can look at the fact that black people have fought in every single war this country has ever fought, but we’ve also engaged in a 250-year internal war against our own country to try to force our country to also bring full democracy here and not just abroad.
Hari Sreenivasan: This magazine is also showing up in 2019 in a climate where at this point all you have to do is just look at your Twitter feed, look at the hashtag, and you see people who have an incredibly different narrative that they believe very strongly, that they’d look at this magazine, The Times, everything else as part of a larger propaganda campaign, this is part of a conspiracy, etc. How do you deal with that?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: There’s two things that I would say to that. Every piece in here is deeply researched. It is backed up by historical evidence. Our fact checkers went back to panels of historians and had them go through every single argument and every single fact that is in here. So it’s really not something that you can dispute with facts. But the other thing is if we truly understand that black people are fully American and so the struggle of black people to make our union actually reflect its values is not a negative thing against the country, because we are citizens who are working to make this country better for all Americans. That is something that white Americans, if they really believe as they say that race doesn’t matter, we’re all Americans, should also be proud of and embrace that story. We cannot deny our past. And if you believe that 1776 matters, if you believe that our Constitution still matters, then you also have to understand that the legacy of slavery still matters and you can’t pick and choose what parts of history we think are important and which ones aren’t. They all are important. And that narrative that is inclusive and honest even if it’s painful is the only way that we can understand our times now and the only way we can move forward. I think what, if people read for instance a story on why we don’t have universal health care, what it shows is that racism doesn’t just hurt black people but there are a lot — there are millions of white people in this country who are dying, who are sick, who are unable to pay their medical bills because we can’t get past the legacy of slavery. This affects all Americans no matter if you just got here yesterday, if your family’s been here 200 years, no matter what your race. Our inability to deal with this original sin is hurting all of us and this entire country is not the country that it could be because of it.
Hari Sreenivasan: So just connect that dot. What is the connection between universal health care and slavery?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Well, what we know is that white support for universal programs declines if they think that large numbers of black people are going to benefit from it. And this is a sentiment that goes all the way back to right after the end of the Civil War when the Freedmen’s Bureau starts to offer universal health care for people who had literally just come out of bondage, had not a dollar to their name, had no way to live, had nothing. And white people immediately pushed back against that believing that even people who had just come out of slavery should not get anything quote-unquote “for free,” even though their labor clearly had built the entire, most of the economy of the country. And so that sentiment continues to this day. And if you look at across western industrialized nations, European nations, we have the stingiest social safety net of all of those nations. And it’s because we are the only one on whose land we practiced slavery. So our inability to get past that is hurting. It’s not just in terms of universal health care, but you can look at why we don’t have universal child care, why we have the stingiest parental leave, why we have the lowest ability to have people represented by unions. All of this goes back to the sentiment that if black people are going to benefit, white Americans would not support it, large numbers of white Americans.
Hari Sreenivasan: So this is the actual physical edition that a lot of people in the country might not be able to get if they don’t have a newsstand that sells the New York Times. But it’s also all of it is online, right?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Yes.
Hari Sreenivasan: All the essays are online and this was a special section. This was in partnership with the Smithsonian, right?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Yes.
Hari Sreenivasan: And so you’ve got curriculum that’s online, you’ve got all of the New York Times Magazine that’s online. You’re doing a lot of different kinds of outreach projects. Right after this you’re going to a 1619 brunch and this is happening in different parts of the country as well?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Yes. So people all across the country are holding brunches to really sit and discuss this, which is more than my wildest dreams for this project. I think just because of what’s happening in the country right now, people are really searching for answers. We raised money so that we could print more than 200,000 additional copies that we are distributing in various places across the country for free because we really want not just Times subscribers to get access to this but communities where it’s difficult to get the Times, where people can’t afford to get the Times. We truly think that this is a public service project that is important for all Americans, not just our subscribers to get access to.