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Nikole Hannah-Jones on turning 'The 1619 Project' into a docuseries

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Four years ago, then New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones pitched the idea of a project, starting with a special issue of the Times magazine, to reexamine the impact of chattel slavery on American life and culture timed to coincide with the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the British colony of Virginia in August 1619. It would be called "The 1619 Project," and the special issue was a hit. Copies of the newspaper sold out, as did reprint after reprint. Parents squirreled away copies to save for their children. Teachers clamored for materials to use in class, and Nikole Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize. And then came the backlash - fury from historians to politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

NEWT GINGRICH: The whole project is a lie.

DONALD TRUMP: "The 1619 Project" and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda.

MARTIN: But Hannah-Jones and her contributors have not only refused to retreat, they have kept going, publishing a bestselling book in 2021. And now there's a six-part documentary series based on the project. It premieres on Hulu on January 26. And Nikole Hannah-Jones is with us now to tell us more about it. Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. Always good to talk to you, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to - quick - that the series is its own thing, and you don't have to have read "The 1619 Project" to get into the docuseries. And in the series, it's - the series is personal. I mean, you use your own family history as one way to describe how individuals' lives and life chances are shaped by or have been shaped by this country's conception of race and slavery. How did that approach come to you?

HANNAH-JONES: Roger Ross Williams, the executive producer and who directs the "Democracy" essay, he really insisted that I needed to be the host and that I needed to be the guide and that we needed to tell the story, at least partially, through my own family's story. And I - you know, I wasn't sure about that. A funny thing, as you know, as journalists, is we want people to tell us all of their personal business and share all of their stories with us, but can often balk at doing the same thing. But I ultimately agreed because this project is both a journalistic project about, you know, a larger American story, but also deeply personal to me.

MARTIN: Let me just play a clip from where you talk about how ideas of race can play out in people's lives. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE 1619 PROJECT")

HANNAH-JONES: When my grandfather, Joseph Novatiny (ph), was born, he was designated male and white. Arlena Tilman (ph) is my grandmother on my father's side. And when she was born, she was designated female and Black. Both were born in the year 1924. But because this is America, that is where the similarities end. They did not choose these designations, but were born into them. And yet nearly everything about their lives would be shaped by their race and their gender.

MARTIN: I really appreciate the way you insist on the terminology of designated. Could you just talk a little bit about why that's important?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely, because what we're trying to really explicate in that in the "Race" episode is how race is a sociopolitical construct that - we kind of know that in abstract and yet, in many ways, treat race as something that is real. And my grandparents were born as human beings, and our country determined - it designated a racial category for both of them. And that racial category was not just, you know, a matter of recording something. It was categories that were created to determine what type of access to rights, to political power, to public goods that people would receive, what types of freedoms, what types of citizens they would be.

MARTIN: The episode exploring the legacy of slavery through the lens of Black maternal and infant health - particularly challenging. I mean, you introduce us to James Marion Sims, who's credited with creating the field of gynecology but experimented on enslaved Black women. And I have to say it's - well, this is one of the less graphic parts here. We'll just play this part and talk a little bit more about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE 1619 PROJECT")

HANNAH-JONES: And while Sims is widely known as the father of modern gynecology, history has often erased the Black women whose bodies were used to create the field itself. Of all the women Sims experimented on, we only know the names of three - Lucy, Betsy and Anarcha. All these centuries later, the false beliefs about Black women's pain and their humanity still impact the reproductive health care they receive. And the consequences for Black women and their children are all too often deadly.

MARTIN: You point out, you know, that the mortality rate of Black women in childbirth far exceeds that of white women. The infant mortality rate exceeds that of white children. And you point out that these are differences that are not explained by level of education or access to health insurance. And these are issues that have surfaced, I think, relatively recently, as public policy issues. What would you say is, like, the goal? Do you think if you lay out the facts here clearly enough and long enough that the people who don't want to hear this will listen, or is it more just to create a record so that it can't be denied? Like, what do you think you're hoping for here?

HANNAH-JONES: I think as journalist, part of what I'm doing is exactly what you said, just trying to help create the record that these things happened. We haven't wanted to, outside of the academy, acknowledge and reckon with that in our society writ large. But they are shaping our society, whether we acknowledge what happened or not. And so part of it is a record. And part of me also has to believe that some of what we do in our country, some of the policies we create, some of what we are willing to accept when it comes to Black people has to be because we just don't know. We don't know the story. We learn this history so poorly.

I think there is a segment of America that you will never reach. They don't care what the facts are. They don't care what the history is. They don't want to hear it. But I don't actually think that's most Americans. As I say, you know, in the preface for the original project, we all suffer for the poor history we've been taught. And I couldn't be a journalist - I wouldn't have chosen this as my profession if I didn't believe that if you can inform people, if you can provide people with the correct information, that that has the ability to be transformative.

MARTIN: But as you point out in the series itself, I mean, there has been considerable backlash against the project. Just in the documentary, you point out that as of October of 2022, there are at least 33 state-level efforts to restrict teachers from talking about the project in the classroom. But you have not, as we said, retreated. You've kind of kept moving. And I'm interested in how you do that.

HANNAH-JONES: What is very clear to me is you don't face this type of backlash from some of the highest echelons of power if your work doesn't matter, if the work isn't having impact. If the work wasn't having impact, no one would talk about it. No one would spend all of this time trying to attack or critique it or discredit it. And I hear, really almost daily, especially from Black Americans whom this work means so much to them, who are so grateful and honored by this work. So it's easy in some ways. You know, I didn't get into journalism to make powerful people comfortable. And when you spend this much time studying our ancestors, I just know from what we are built.

And on my worst day, I don't know the suffering of our ancestors, even my direct ancestors - you know, my father, who was born on a cotton plantation, as I talk about in the documentary series, my grandmother, who was born on a cotton plantation into a family of sharecroppers. So it's not been hard for a single day for me to, you know, straighten my back and go out and keep doing this work. In some ways, the backlash honors me because it says that this work has hit a nerve. Because otherwise, why would you put so much effort against the work of journalism?

MARTIN: You said earlier that there are legitimate critiques. I mean, there was one - you know, Professor Leslie Harris, for example, who's an historian of African American life and slavery, made it clear in a piece in Politico that she admires the project. She thinks it's worthy. She thinks it's needed - corrective to earlier omissions in the understanding of the country's history. But she also says that she thinks that there are overstatements that made the project easy to target. Like, she cites, for example, the idea that the American Revolution was, in part, motivated to protect slavery. And she said that she predicted that this would be used to discredit the entire undertaking. Do you think she has the point?

HANNAH-JONES: I have a great deal of respect for Dr. Harris. And, in fact, when - I teach a class on "The 1619 Project" at Howard, and I had her come and talk to my class about her critique and her criticism because I think, one, the field of historiography is the field of interpretation. And historians, all of the time, disagree with emphasis, disagree with interpretations of each other's work. And in response to some of Dr. Harris' critique, I revised my essay. As for the role of slavery in the American Revolution, Dr. Harris and I just disagree. And if you look at the expanded version of the book - the essay in the book versus the original project - I cite several historians whose interpretation of the role of slavery are more aligned with my beliefs. So I think that critique was valid because I believe that it is based in historical interpretation and that scholars can disagree on the role that slavery played in the American Revolution. I think that that is valid. But just because I believe a critique is valid doesn't mean that I have to ultimately agree with the critique, which I don't.

MARTIN: And also, she makes it clear that that doesn't justify kind of the level of fury directed at you and your collaborators on what is essentially a newspaper article that became a book that is now a docuseries that people are invited to read or watch or not. And that is where I guess I'm struck by the effort to literally outlaw people reading about it.

HANNAH-JONES: Educators who were teaching and are teaching "The 1619 Project" were always teaching it as a supplementary text, right? It's not like they threw out the social studies book and said, now this is the Bible. "The 1619 Project" tells a very particular story about America through the lens of slavery. It makes an argument. And educators were using it to supplement the way that they were already teaching history.

So I think, you know, what is important here is you can love "The 1619 Project," you can hate "The 1619 Project," you can be ambivalent about it, but a free society does not see politicians using the levers of the state to prohibit the teaching or discussion of a work of journalism, or any text or idea, simply because they disagree with it. And so what "The 1619 Project" has become is - I think, you know, following 2020, when we were - for a brief period, flirted with a racial reckoning, is it's just become another kind of political wedge issue. And the oldest wedge issue in America is race. It is a frightening and anti-democratic thing in a society to see a work of journalism being prohibited by law. And I've talked to scholars, and they can't think of another single text that has been targeted except "The 1619 Project," which is pretty astounding.

MARTIN: Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of "The 1619 Project." A six-part Hulu series based on the project premieres on January 26. Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you so much for talking with us today.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. I so appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.