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'1619 Project' journalist says Black people shouldn't be an asterisk in U.S. history

As editor of the New York Times' 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones fought against the erasure of African American history. But there's also been a backlash by conservatives who have vowed to keep the 1619 Project out of classrooms — including threats that have been made against her personally.


Other segments from the episode on November 17, 2021

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 17, 2021: Interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones; Review of Unstuck in Time.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Nikole Hannah-Jones created The 1619 Project. It started off as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted to the legacy of slavery published 400 years after the first Africans arrived as enslaved people in Virginia. The 1619 Project expanded to become an ongoing series of articles, videos, podcasts and discussions about the history and legacy of slavery. The project has been adapted into a new book.

Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke with our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. He's a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York. Here's Arun.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: On a weekend in August of 2019, The New York Times Magazine put out a special issue entirely devoted to events set in motion exactly 400 years earlier, when a ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived on the coast of Virginia. The 1619 Project, as it was called, placed slavery at the very center of the American idea and positioned that day four centuries ago as our nation's true starting point.

The special issue of the magazine was an immediate sensation and sold out at newsstands - yes, actual brick-and-mortar newsstands - within hours. The Times printed tens of thousands of additional copies, and those, too, sold out. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the reporter who initiated the project, won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay. And the project was cited by Democratic presidential contenders in the run-up to the 2020 election.

There was also a backlash by conservatives who vowed to keep The 1619 Project out of classrooms, as well as by some historians who challenged certain assertions. But many students across the country have embraced the ideas contained in the project, including Black students. Arterah Griggs, a Black student in Chicago, felt that the project helped her realize something. We were the Founding Fathers, she said.

The project spawned a children's book, and now a documentary series is set to stream on Hulu. There is also a new book "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story" containing historic essays, poetry and fiction, nearly 500 pages of material. The book was co-edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was also a contributor to the volume.

In addition to her Pulitzer, she is the recipient of many other honors, including a MacArthur Genius Grant and a Peabody Award. She is also the co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, and she joins us today. Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much for having me.

VENUGOPAL: This book has so much going on inside. There is poetry by Claudia Rankine, Tracy K. Smith, Gregory Pardlo and Rita Dove; fiction by ZZ Packer and by Barry Jenkins; a theatrical monologue by Lynn Nottage and, of course, historical essays by yourself, by Kevin Kruse, Ibram X. Kendi and Martha S. Jones, among others. What was it you set out to do with "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story"?

HANNAH-JONES: What the project hoped to do is to really reframe our understanding of the American story, of American history through the lens of slavery. So the project argues that slavery is a foundational American institution, it is one of the oldest American institutions and that the legacy of the first 250 years of slavery still, of course, permeates throughout society in a variety of ways. So there's essays on capitalism, on democracy, on health care, on music.

And why it has so many pieces is this is a 400-year story. The project is called The 1619 Project because it commemorates the first Africans being sold into the colony of Virginia and seeks to tell a story that is older than a country itself. And so it was, to us, necessary to have many different pieces to tell that story.

VENUGOPAL: This year, 1619, that's now familiar to so many Americans thanks in large part to your project is something you've personally sat with and thought about since you were pretty young, isn't it?

HANNAH-JONES: Yes. I first learned about the date 1619 when I was 16 years old. And I took a Black studies elective course at my high school and became really obsessed with learning Black history because, until I took that course, I had no idea Black people had so much history that we could learn. Black people are largely treated as an asterisk in the American story.

And so I would ask that teacher, Mr. Ray Dial, who I am still in communication with, to give me books to read. And one of the books he gave me was a book called "Before The Mayflower." And the title evokes this other ship that arrived a year before the Mayflower called the White Lion and the fact that every American child learns about the Mayflower but virtually no American child learned about the White Lion.

So since I was - you know, that's 30 years ago. And I've been thinking about 1619 both as symbolic for American history and as an important date that had been erased, but also as symbolic of how history is shaped by people who decide what's important and what's not. And that erasure is also a powerful statement.

VENUGOPAL: You tell us in your book that you went to this public high school in Waterloo, Iowa, and you managed to take this class with Mr. Ray Dial called the African American Experience, which, to me, it sounds like a pretty progressive school. Was it?

HANNAH-JONES: I'm not sure. I mean, you know, I was a high school kid. And there had been - you know, I went to school in the '90s, and that course was in response to a wave of activism that you saw across the country where Black students were marching and protesting to get Black studies both at the high school level and Black studies at the college level. So I don't know that I would - if my high school was particularly progressive.

This was a high school that I was bused into as part of a voluntary desegregation order. And my high school years were pretty tumultuous because there were a lot of racial tensions around the Black students who were being bused into a school that wasn't ours. But certainly, it is unexpected, I think, for most people to think that a high school in a small town in Iowa would offer a Black studies course.

VENUGOPAL: And now we're seeing kids across the country who are being introduced to the 1618 Project often because their school districts have introduced it to them. And one of these kids, Arterah Griggs, who you quote, who was interviewed by the Chicago Sun-Times, when she's talking about the impact of this project on her, she said she felt misled by her earlier education on Black history.

And I have to say, I can really relate to that, something I, at a much older age, have been kind of dealing with, where you think, like, back to growing up in Texas and being taught about these heroic figures, you know, at the Alamo, people who were - many of whom were pro-slavery figures. There's a certain kind of betrayal - isn't there? - when you feel like these institutions which are supposed to be nurturing you kind of hide the truth from you.

HANNAH-JONES: Yes, absolutely. I mean, betrayal is a great word for it. And I talk about, in my opening essay, the preface for the book, that same feeling of, you know, all of these years when I as a child just thought we didn't learn much about Black people because Black people had never done much for us to learn and feeling very, you know, demeaned as a Black child that your people seem to be the only people who have never done anything important and then taking this one class and learning, my God, there was all of these things that we did, all of these contributions, all of this history that could be taught, and people chose not to teach it to us and that the history we did learn was not an accurate history - you do feel a sense of betrayal.

But I think you also feel a sense of empowerment because that same student also said that once she started to learn some of this history, then she felt empowered as a Black girl, that she came to feel even an obligation to do better in life because she had a better understanding of all that her ancestors had done for her to get there.

VENUGOPAL: Our guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new book is called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


VENUGOPAL: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Arun Venugopal, back with Nikole Hannah-Jones. The new book she co-edited is called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story."

So let's talk about the backlash which is really at the center of a much larger attempt to suppress the teaching of American history in a unvarnished forum to school-going kids. In July 2020, you note in the book, a prominent U.S. senator, Tom Cotton, introduced a bill called the Saving American History Act, which sought to strip federal funding from public schools teaching The 1619 Project. And we should remember this is the same Tom Cotton who called for an overwhelming show of force by federal troops to quell the Black Lives Matter protests last year. He said this in a New York Times op-ed that was immediately excoriated quite publicly by employees of The New York Times and which led to the resignation of the editor of The York Times editorial page. I'm just wondering, do you see the protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and this backlash to teaching American history as intertwined?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. The 1619 Project is specifically banned from being taught in Florida, in Texas and in other states by name. And then, of course, there are many more states that have now passed or are considering these larger, much more vague, anti-critical race theory laws, which I would argue are anti-history and memory laws.

This all begins to happen around the time of the protests. And I think that what you saw during the protests were, you know, millions of Americans - 1 out of 10 Americans say they participated in those Black Lives Matter protests. And those protests were multiracial, multigenerational, and people were really connecting what they were marching in the streets about to this 400-year struggle against the legacy of slavery.

And they were arguing that the reason people were protesting that the inequality that Black Americans were facing was not about individual actors, Black people making individual choices and a few, you know, bad apple races, but that these were structural and that they were going to require a structural solution. So I've been looking a lot at the polling around that time and even 45% of Republicans at the height of those protests were saying they believe that structural racism was a primary obstacle to Black Americans. And that's an astounding figure for conservatives. So it's not incidental that that's when you start to see this really stoking of white resentment through saving American history acts.

You know, Donald Trump begins to talk about The 1619 Project. And you see this effort to say, look, they want to take your history from you. They want to tell you that you're bad. They want to tell you that all of your heroes are not heroes anymore.

And that backlash - I mean, this is the argument of The 1619 Project. There's a reason that racializing our politics is so effective to drive white voters. And we see these anti-history laws in the same states that are also passing anti-voter laws, that are also passing laws to restrict women's reproductive rights. So absolutely these things are connected.

VENUGOPAL: And somehow over this last, I guess, year, year and a half, we've seen 1619 getting lumped in with this larger sort of all-encompassing term of CRT, or critical race theory. I'm wondering, how do you make sense of this other fact, the fact that many conservatives and parents of school-going kids now conflate CRT with vaccines? Like, these are the twin evils of American society.

HANNAH-JONES: Well, because it's all part of a propaganda campaign. I mean, I think we have to be very explicit here as journalists that anti-vax was seen as a political strategy. Of course, there were some people who were truly concerned about a new vaccine, but that - the anti-vaccine, anti-mask was seen as a political strategy the same way that critical race theory is.

A year ago, no one outside of academics and college students was even talking about critical race theory. And we can trace the rise of critical race theory as something that is now part of the American lexicon to right around the period of January, right around the period of the insurrection and right after the presidential election. And so even the fact that we're all talking about this speaks to the success of that propaganda campaign.

And lumping in, you know, 1619, which also was part of this propaganda campaign, into this larger effort to really, again, stoke resentment amongst conservatives to drive them to vote and to accept certain policies, it all goes hand in hand. And it is immune to facts. We all know, you know, 6-year-olds are not learning critical race theory. The 1619 Project is not critical race theory. But even if it were, I don't know what is the argument against teaching students that we see a lot of inequality in our country today and that perhaps a country that for 350 years legally discriminated against Black Americans, that that legacy might be having some ongoing impacts. But it's effective. It's been very effective.

VENUGOPAL: You yourself, in one of your essays, deal with the problem of reparations, which is now entering this new era in which - you know, a couple weeks ago, I tuned in on to a streaming meeting happen in California, a very serious official meeting to discuss a timeline for the proposal of reparations. And I found that quite striking; I mean, quite shocking really. I'm just wondering how you feel about where this conversation is and what you think the potential is for actual reparations to happen.

HANNAH-JONES: Yes. I would say it's striking and shocking as well. You know, for my entire lifetime, reparations has not been a political topic that you could have in serious company. It has been treated as a fringe topic. You didn't see mainstream political candidates talking about it. You certainly didn't see cities, municipalities, states and other governments seriously talking about reparations. And then there's been a really seismic shift in that conversation, and that is because, I think, there is a scholarship and a reckoning that is occurring where we are being forced to actually acknowledge the truth about our past.

I think so much of the opposition to reparations - there's certainly a cohort of Americans whom you will never convince, you know, that anything is owed to Black Americans or anyone else. But I think there's a large segment of Americans - because they have not learned this history well, because they do not understand, one, that Black people were trying to get reparations during slavery, immediately after slavery and have never stopped trying to get that. And so it's not just a matter of, you know, no one alive today was enslaved. It's an ongoing debt.

But also, that people don't understand that after the end of slavery, we didn't become an equal society, and that the government continued to engage in practices that were harmful to Black Americans and that kept Black Americans from obtaining the same type of wealth and resources and opportunities that other Americans had and that we still live with that legacy, that is why the study of history is important; because we don't learn this history, and so it becomes very hard to understand, why are these people owed anything?

So this work, you know, of The 1619 Project and so many other scholars and activists have really gotten us to this moment. Now, I also will say we are seeing, you know, some minor movement, but I don't expect that all of a sudden we're going to see a massive shift and we will have reparations. But I think we are at a period where our society is much more open to that consideration. And every time you see a small municipality take this on, I think it becomes much more difficult to ignore it at a larger level.

VENUGOPAL: One of the individuals who you speak about who is a significant figure in the history of reparations in - and you write about her in your essay - is a woman named Callie House. What can you tell us about Callie House and why she's important?

HANNAH-JONES: So Callie House is this really amazing historic figure that most of us had never heard of until historian Mary Frances Berry wrote the book "My Face Is Black Is True." And Callie House was a woman who was born into slavery. And at the end of slavery, she's working as a washerwoman. And she looks around and sees just the really abhorrent conditions that formerly enslaved people are living in.

Just to set the kind of frame, Black people come into freedom with nothing. They have no land. They have no - you know, no wealth. They have no money. These are people who, for 250 years generationally, were not able to own anything or accrue any money or income for themselves. So Black people are starving out of slavery. They are homeless out of slavery. And because of the physical nature - the brutal nature of the work they'd done - many of them were, you know, physically impaired.

She looks around and sees the struggling of particularly elderly people who had been enslaved, and she decides something is owed. And she begins to advocate for reparations. She creates a society that is trying to get slave pensions really modeled on the pensions that were given to Union soldiers. And she argues that the American government owes these enslaved people a pension. And the government had confiscated all of this cotton from the Confederacy, and this cotton had been grown by enslaved people. And the government knew down to the cent how much that cotton was worth. And so she said the government needs to take that money from that confiscated cotton that enslaved people grew and give that money to the formerly enslaved.

She ends up suing the federal government for that and brings down - the federal government, particularly the Department of the Treasury, brings down the full weight of the most powerful government in the world on this Black woman who was a washerwoman. And they end up accusing her of trying to defraud enslaved people because she was taking fees from them to fund the advocacy work that she was doing. And as we have seen again and again through history, they get her for mail fraud and some other charges, and she ends up going to prison for this.

It's an amazing story of a woman who was right in what she was asking for and who was willing to fight the entire federal government, but also how the federal government, rather than trying to make restitution and help the formerly enslaved, ends up crushing the woman who's advocating for them.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of The New York Times 1619 Project, which has been adapted into a new book. Arun is a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, the founder of The 1619 Project about the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S. It started as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine and expanded into an ongoing series of articles, videos, podcasts and discussions. The project has been adapted into a new book called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story" and includes an expanded version of her Pulitzer Prize-winning essay. The 1619 Project was met with a backlash from conservatives who have tried with some success to ban the project and what they describe as critical race theory from being taught in schools.

Hannah-Jones is the co-founder of the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She spoke with our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal. He's a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York.

VENUGOPAL: One of your journalistic heroes is Ida B. Wells. When did you learn about her? And what was it about her that you really admired?

HANNAH-JONES: So I couldn't pinpoint for you exactly when I learned about Ida B. Wells. She was one of those, you know, handful of figures whose picture would pop up on the wall of your classroom every Black History Month. But you never really learned why she was an important figure. I think I learned maybe that she was a journalist or a suffragist but not what she was actually fighting against. So I knew her name.

But I was in college and I've often talked about - I was very nerdy. I always have been. And I would go through the bookstore and look on the shelves of Black history classes or Black studies classes that I wasn't taking to see what those teachers were assigned so I could just do additional - you know, I could never take as many courses as I wanted to, so I always wanted to see what books were being assigned in classes I wasn't taking so I could read some of those books.

And one of the books was "The Autobiography Of Ida B. Wells." And I just remember being, like, I know her name, but I don't know that much about her. And I read the back and then I read a couple pages, and I was like, oh, I've got to read this book. And I was just astounded that a Black woman who was born around the time of the Emancipation existed in the form of Ida B. Wells. She was, you know, a suffragist, a feminist, a newspaper publisher, an investigative reporter, a co-founder of the NAACP, and she was a woman who stood up to white people, to Black men, to anyone who she thought morally was incorrect and also who was trying to deny rights to anyone. And I just never heard of a historical figure like her.

And as someone who was thinking about journalism as a career myself, one who always understood that as a Black American, if I wanted to be a journalist, there was always going to be a degree of activism to that journalism in this society, that she provided a template for the type of person and journalist and woman I hoped to be. And ever since then, you know, I've considered her in some ways kind of my north star and my spiritual godmother.

VENUGOPAL: And I think there's real implications to how all of us view the role of journalists in society. And I'm just wondering - you know, we're now in a position where we're seeing a widespread effort to rollback voting rights, a rejection of a legitimately won election by Joe Biden, serious talk about whether our democracy will continue. As a journalist, what should the implications of that be for the news media or for other institutions for that matter?

HANNAH-JONES: Yes. I think that this is a time where we really have to question kind of the stated mores - mainstream mores, I should say, of our field and if those actually allow us to rise to the urgency of the moment. So this kind of dispassionate view of the world, of our country, of our politics and this both-sideism (ph), that we treat both sides as kind of equal, even if one is clearly doing things that are beyond the pale, that are beyond norms, that are actually harmful to our democracy, our sense that to be fair or to be objective, we have to treat them both as equally legitimate is actually one of the things that is weakening our democracy. Our job as journalists is to tell the truth, and sometimes the truth is one political party doesn't believe in democracy. One political party is actually doing things that are hurtful to democracy.

And I really fear that we are not rising to the moment, not enough of us anyway. There's certainly excellent reporting being done. But there's also something, you know, about a political press that largely comes from people who have not had to fight for their rights in this society, who have never had their ability to vote and exercise the franchise questioned that they sometimes, I think, report with too much faith in our institutions or too much faith that things will work out OK.

That's not a luxury that Black journalists or journalists of color or journalists from other marginalized groups could ever have. We understand what the worst can be because we have, as a people, experienced that. And so we have, I think, an innate skepticism that things will work out, that we need to, you know, pretend to have objectivity in a country where we're seeing legislatures actively trying to take away our fundamental right as citizens, which is the franchise, which is the key to all other rights.

VENUGOPAL: There is so much animus, not just against The 1619 Project, but against you personally. Are you able to walk outside and just go about your life with the feeling of safety?

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. I will say, you know, my husband, my friends, they worry. But I don't worry. I guess I just can't live my life that way. When I'm out and about, I don't have fear, and I think maybe that also comes from studying history. That also comes from taking Ida B. Wells as my, you know, spiritual godmother. She was absolutely fearless. And I live in a community where I feel like my neighbors will always look out for me.

And yeah, I just - I don't. I just - I'm not going to live my life that way because what I understand is, you know, people who send threats, people who make threats, what they're really trying to do is silence you. What they're really hoping to do is make you afraid to do your work.

And no matter what, you know, you may think of me, whether you support my work and think that I am a good journalist or whether, you know, you don't support my work and you dislike me as a journalist or a person, I don't think you can argue that I believe in the work that I'm doing. I think the work is important, that this is my mission. And so, yeah, nothing will distract me from that. And I just can't go around worried about what might happen. I just have to do my job.

VENUGOPAL: You were involved in a very public battle to secure tenure at the University of North Carolina. Ultimately, you walked away from that, and you went to Howard University, a historically Black institution. And you were joined there by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I was just wondering, what's your experience been like there?

HANNAH-JONES: So, one, this is - you know, I'm just so excited to be at Howard. And I've said this many times - one of my few regrets in life is that I did not attend Howard as an undergraduate. So to be able to be part of this amazing legacy and tradition - and, you know, I'm founding a new center there - Center for Journalism and Democracy - where I'm going to be able to help generations of young folks become journalists who do historically informed journalism in service of democracy. It just - you know, it's - the tenure battle was hurtful. It was embarrassing. But this is the best possible outcome.

And to be very frank, I haven't been spending a lot of time on campus as of yet because I am (laughter) trying to finish this book. And we're on book tour. And I'm filming the 1619 documentary. And I'm really trying to get the new center up and going. So I will start teaching in January.

But I've been so welcomed on the campus. The faculty in the school of communications is just amazing and so hard-working. And I'm just honored to be a part of it.

VENUGOPAL: Our guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new book is called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


VENUGOPAL: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Arun Venugopal, back with Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new book is called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story."

At the heart of The 1619 Project, at its innermost, darkest core, is something that for many years went unnamed but which your colleague, critic Wesley Morris, took on quite fearlessly. We're talking about yacht rock.

HANNAH-JONES: (Laughter).

VENUGOPAL: Let us bear witness.


WESLEY MORRIS: The joke of yacht rock is that whoever invented it and whoever's making a playlist out of these songs is basically saying that they're inconsequential and that what's in them doesn't matter.


SUPERTRAMP: (Singing) Goodbye stranger. It's been nice.

MORRIS: But what I know I'm hearing is something bigger and deeper than that.


SUPERTRAMP: (Singing) Tried to see your point of view.

MORRIS: Every song has something about it that is similar to the other song.


TOTO: (Singing) All I wanna do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes.

MORRIS: I'm hearing things like "Rosanna" by Toto...


TOTO: (Singing) Rosanna, Rosanna.

MORRIS: ...Which seems perfectly banal - has a really good beat - sort of builds to its chorus.


TOTO: (Singing) All I wanna do in the middle of the evening is hold you tight.

MORRIS: But then at the end...


TOTO: (Singing) Not quite a year since you went away.

MORRIS: ...I'm hearing...


TOTO: (Singing) Rosanna, yeah.

MORRIS: ...The great doo-wop harmonies of the '50s and '60s.


TOTO: (Singing) And I have to say.

MORRIS: There is something jazz-like in the syncopated music of something like Steely Dan...


MORRIS: ...You can hear in somebody like Michael McDonald...


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) The wise man has the power...

MORRIS: (Vocalizing).


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) ...To reason away.

MORRIS: ...That is like a gospel break down.


THE DOOBIE BROTHERS: (Singing) Oh, if love can come...

MORRIS: What I'm hearing in all of these songs is basically Blackness.

VENUGOPAL: So that's a clip from the "1619" podcast, narrated by critic Wesley Morris of the New York Times, your colleague, where he recounts how white musicians in the 1970s and '80s road to fame by drawing very heavily upon Black musical forms and how this is basically happened for centuries. And Morris knows all of this intellectually, but he also has a certain fond regard for all these yacht-rock artists. And I'm just wondering you, (laughter) Nikole Hannah-Jones, when you aren't wearing your hat as a chronicler of racial disparity or scourge of conservatives, when you're just driving to the grocery store and the Doobie Brothers comes on, how do you feel?

HANNAH-JONES: Ha. Well, that never happens because (laughter) I don't listen to the type of stations that would play the Doobie Brothers. But, you know, this essay and also that episode of the podcast, that is my favorite episode of the whole podcast. Wesley Morris is not only brilliant, but he's just, like, a ray of light. He's effusive, and he's, like, so excited. And he knows so much, and he can help you make connections in ways that you didn't.

And this was such an important part of the project because so much of what the project catalogues is just hard. It is heavy. It is difficult. It is painful. And all Black life has not been struggle. Black people have contributed amazing things to this country. And even in the worst circumstances, we have lived and loved and created and produced beautiful things. And really, as W.E.B. DuBois said, what would America be without her negro people?

So I wanted - asked Wesley to do this episode and the essay so that we could talk about, one, we need to stop saying Black American music and American music because they're redundant. Because Black music is American music, period, even when you don't think it is.

VENUGOPAL: I'd like to talk about language for a minute. Critics of The 1619 Project or, for that matter, a lot of - critics of a lot of anti-racist work might have used a term like social justice warriors as a term of disparagement. But now they're more likely to call progressives woke. Tom Cotton said The Times is run by a woke mob. In response to all this, Joel Anderson of Slate, who is himself Black, argues that woke has become a racial slur. Do you think he's right?

HANNAH-JONES: (Laughter) Jesus.

VENUGOPAL: (Laughter).

HANNAH-JONES: So I have often and regularly really tried to discourage journalists from using the term woke because I think it is lazy, and I think it is useless. And I do think it has become a dog whistle. What does it mean? What is - what are we saying when we say that? Are we saying that being anti-racist is bad? Are we lumping this in as talking about Black people asking and fighting for justice as a bad thing, but we can't say that so we use woke as this kind of catchall phrase?

To me, it's really try to silence or diminish racial justice claims, people who are asking for racial justice. So I think many Black people hear it as a slur. One, we know that this is a term that with co-opted from Black people, that this was something that Black people were using. It became co-opted by conservatives in a way that is disparaging, I think, of Black freedom struggles and Black people today who are trying to push for a more equal society. And I don't think that journalists should be using it. And I think when politicians and others use it, we should ask them to define what they mean.

VENUGOPAL: Having sat with 400 years of history and having tried to educate the public and now witnessing, as we all are, this extraordinary backlash to history and to facts, what keeps you from becoming cynical?

HANNAH-JONES: Who says I'm not (laughter)? You know, I guess the benefit of not having very high expectations in the first place is that you are seldom surprised, though you can be disappointed. So when you have the luxury to spend your life studying history, then you understand that the moment that we're in is wholly predictable and that every time there is a sense of racial progress in this country, it is met by an intensive backlash. And I guess what is difficult is that you would hope we would eventually learn the lessons, but we don't.

I'm motivated by a sense of obligation to all of the ancestors who never could have lived the life that I live. And I have been very blessed to be in the position that I am. And so I feel like I have to try to force us to acknowledge the truth about who we are so that we can try to build the country that we believe that we are. But that requires, for me at least, taking a very unsparing understanding of our country. And some might consider that cynical. But I just think it is a realistic view of where we are and what to expect in these times.

VENUGOPAL: Nikole Hannah-Jones, thank you so much for joining us today.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Nikole Hannah-Jones created The 1619 Project, which has been adapted into a new book called "The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story." She spoke with our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal. He's a host and senior producer at public radio station WNYC in New York.

After we take a short break, our TV critic David Bianculli will review a new documentary about writer Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut's novels were described in The New York Times as classics of the American counterculture. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "FETE FORAINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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