by Ben Zeisloft
Harvard University hosted New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for a virtual event, where she discussed the 1619 Project and said that her father’s patriotism “deeply embarrassed” her. The comment was made during a September 21 event where she spoke on the “pressing issues of race, civil rights, injustice, desegregation, and resegregation.”
In the interview, Hannah-Jones recalled that she was “deeply embarrassed” that her father, who was born on a cotton plantation and served in the military, flew an American flag in her family’s yard.
As she says in her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay, “So when I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me. How could this Black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused Black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly its banner?
“I didn’t understand his patriotism. It deeply embarrassed me,” she wrote.
Hannah-Jones echoed what she wrote during her recent Harvard appearance.
“I was deeply embarrassed by this outward show of patriotism from my father,” Hannah-Jones said. “I understood that Black Americans were still second-class citizens. This was a man who was born on a cotton plantation in apartheid Mississippi, one of the smartest men that I knew but who had never had any real opportunities in this country. And yet, here he was exhibiting patriotism. He was a veteran.”
“So my opening essay really wants, from the moment you first start reading it, to get the sense of surprise about the way that we’ve been taught to think about this history of Black Americans, and really that I make the argument that our founders did not believe the words– those majestic words– of the Declaration of Independence when they wrote them,” Hannah-Jones added.
The Dean of Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, guided the conversation, informing more than 3,000 listeners that “we cannot dismantle what we do not understand.”
When asked about what prompted her to launch the 1619 Project, Jones noted that “almost nothing about modern American life has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery.” She said that Black America cannot “get over” slavery, adding, “We cannot get over something that is foundational.”
After Brown-Nagin asked her about the 1619 Project’s entrance into universities and high schools, she explained that a school curriculum was never the goal of the project, yet has become a concern among certain politicians, who are “really opposed to our children, our youth, getting a different understanding, a more challenging — and I would argue more accurate — narrative about this country.”
When asked to address the historians who do not like the project, Hannah-Jones alleged that the critique extended beyond an examination of historical fact: “What was different was the effort to really discredit the project, to make arguments… ‘How could you say America is racist? How could you say racism is in the DNA of this country?’… There are a lot of White historians, no matter what their political affiliations are, who feel a need to protect and vindicate our founding.”
At this point, she noted that the 1619 Project was based on the principle of reconsidering the nation’s true founding, asking, “What would it mean to consider 1619 our founding and not 1776?” However, two days after the September 15 interview, Hannah-Jones alleged that the 1619 Project “does not argue that 1776 was not the founding of the country.”
The 1619 Project "does not argue that 1776 was not the founding of the country, but what it does argue for is that we have largely treated slavery as an asterisk to the American story,” creator @nhannahjones says as President Trump has railed against it. https://t.co/2qsfDPKiV2 pic.twitter.com/2AR3Xqlvj0
— CNN (@CNN) September 18, 2020
Hannah-Jones told Campus Reform that “the 1619 Project has, of course, always recognized 1776 as our official and literal founding.”
“If you read the text of the project that is clear: 1619 is not a year that most Americans know as a notable date in our country’s history,” explained Hannah-Jones. “Those who do are at most a tiny fraction of those who can tell you that 1776 is the year of our nation’s birth….Asking readers what it would mean to consider 1619 as a our founding is using a rhetorical device to get people to rethink the role of slavery as foundational to the making of this country. This type of rhetorical device is something historians, orators, writers, use all of the time.”
The New York Times, however, recently removed the phrase “true founding” from the 1619 Project’s website. In 2019, the website did indeed state that the project “aims to reframe the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding.”
During the question-and-answer portion, Hannah-Jones was given a question by a high school teacher who said that private high schools are rooted in segregation. In response, Hannah-Jones said that she is “opposed to private schools… as much as I write about the failings of public education…public schools are one of the few places left in American society where we have the chance to intimately mix along racial and class lines.”
Hannah-Jones was also asked whether the 1619 Project would create a curriculum geared toward elementary schools. She stated that at least one group has contacted Pulitzer about creating a curriculum, and that an unnamed university in New York is also working on one. The 1619 Project is also “producing a series of children’s books that will be from young readers to middle grades to high school” that will roll out in 2021.
Hannah-Jones also expressed doubt that America will ever achieve racial healing.
“There is nothing about the last 400 years of history that would lead me to believe that this society as is, without some massive revolution that would have to be far more successful than the Civil War… will be able to purge us from what is really the basis upon which this country is built,” she said.
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Ben Zeisloft Pennsylvania Senior Campus Correspondent with CampusReform.org.
Image “Nikole Hannah-Jones” by Radcliffe Institute.