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Nikole Hannah-Jones, who spearheaded the New York Times’ 1619 Project joins The Real News Network to look at the lies that founded the U.S. and how Black America has given life to American ideals

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you with us.

Nikole Hannah-Jones has written one of the most profoundly moving and deeply thoughtful analytical stories that I have read in a very long time. The article is entitled, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True.” It was written for The New York Times series on 1619, which in itself is shockingly important and powerful. And I say that because it was good to see the Times publish this series, and in part because they and we should understand, hundreds of years of struggle for black freedom— that was for all of our freedoms— is what allowed the Times to step up as it should have, and we all should.

What Nikole Hannah-Jones has written is testimony, affirming that while our democracy is at once a unique institution than inspired the world, it was from the beginning built on a lie. It was racked with contradictions. And the struggle for democracy, freedom, liberty, equality, have been defined by the black struggle for freedom that continues to this day. Nikole Hannah-Jones is a 2017 MacArthur Fellow that has won a Peabody, a National Magazine Award, and the George Polk Award. Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome to The Real News. Good to have you with us.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES Thanks so much for having me.

MARC STEINER I should have mentioned, today August the 20th is 400 years to the day that the first Africans were brought enslaved to the English colonies, to what is now the United States. Let’s just begin with beginning of how you started this story, which I thought was really interesting, that you as a child growing up in Iowa, your dad flying the flag that you felt wasn’t ours, yours. Share that story because I think it’s a good way to start this.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES Sure. When I was a child, I was a pretty deeply ambivalent about my role in this country, whether this was a country that I could claim as my own. I understood that black people hadn’t been treated as full citizens. I’d seen that even in my own father’s life and the lives of my family members. And the fact that my father, who was a military veteran, would fly this flag in our front yard every day was embarrassing to me. I didn’t really understand his patriotism.

It seemed to me that—I didn’t understand why a man who came from a people who had been treated so poorly in this country would be so patriotic about that country. It seemed, in my child’s mind, in my teenage mind, as just a sign of his degradation, that he had kind of accepted our subordination as a people. And the piece, which is really about our larger democracy, also kind of culminates in me understanding that our experience in this country has made us some of the most American of all Americans, and that our special role as the perfecters of this democracy means that we have as much or more right to claim that flag as anyone.

MARC STEINER To share a very short story. This is – what it made me think of is a dear friend of mine whose name is Sean Ware, who’s a Kiowa man and lives in Wyoming. We were driving one day and he saw an American flag on the ground in the snow, muddy and dirty. He told me – he made me turn around the car and pick it up. I said, “What? Pick it up. What do you mean, pick it up? After what this country has done to your people, you want me pick up the flag?” So, we went around and picked up the flag and he said, “Yeah, because we fought for this flag. Too many of us died under this flag. We’re the ones who are making this country whole.” Then I read your article, and it made me think of that story immediately. It’s the same dynamic.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES Yes. I mean, this is what we’re really trying to do with the 1619 Project, is reframe the way that this country has seen black Americans, but also reframe the way that black Americans have seen ourselves. We so long—I mean, going all the way back to the first group of 20 to 30 landed in Virginia, going back to the Constitution which codified slavery, going back to the civil rights struggle, going back to Dred Scott when the Supreme court ruled that black people, no matter whether they were enslaved or free, could not be citizens of the land of their birth. We have been told that this is not really our country, that we are not full citizens.

What this project is arguing is that black Americans have played an indelible role in making the ideals of the Constitution true. And that because of that, because of the often bloody fight that black Americans have waged— not just serving in every single war that this country has fought abroad, but also waging a battle against our own countrymen to be recognized as citizens—that we have as much democracy as this nation has, is because black Americans have fought for it. And because of that, yes, we should absolutely embrace that flag and embrace our patriotism because as the piece argues, in many ways, black Americans are as much the founding fathers of this country as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

MARC STEINER Even more so than that, the way you describe your thesis in this in part is that African Americans are one of the one true cultures that came out of this country. That to me—I mean, the way you frame that is so profound, I think, because it’s not how people think. It’s either tell us stories about your relationship to the mother continent in Africa, or—But to get the sense that the reason we’re defined who we are is a large part because of the black struggle for freedom in this country.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES That’s right. So when you look at the fact that black Americans are the only group of people in this country who were forced to be here, did not choose to immigrate here, were stolen from their own countries and forced to come to the United States, and then once we got here, we went through this process that was called severing. Or excuse me, seasoning. Seasoning was an attempt to sever people from Africa, from their religions, from their names, from their cultures, from any of the practices that they could have brought with them.

And so, what I argue is in that process, black Americans in many ways because we have to become one people out of all of these different ethnic groups, out of all of these different nations, we become one people in America. We have to create a new culture on these lands because unlike European immigrants who could send home for family members, who could send home for their favorite food that they missed or bring cultural artifacts across the ocean, unlike Indigenous people who had their sovereign lands here, who still were able to hold onto parts of their culture, black people were not allowed to do any of that.

We had to sneak and hide whatever parts of our culture we held onto and really create a new people here. So what I’m arguing is that this unique experience of black Americans ended up creating what is the true American culture. And by that, I don’t mean to disparage Native people. I’m not talking about the true culture on the land that was America, but I’m talking about within the actual country of America that we were created anew.

MARC STEINER Well, you write about the idea that American culture is in large black culture, and we also deny that in many ways. Now, I’m going to come to that, but let me take another direction first and then come right back to that. I mean, you write about Reconstruction and the hope and promise of the 1860s and 70s, and then the imposition of terror on black folks and the struggle for freedom that took place to fight for this democracy. And I think about that historical moment, and we can talk about that, but as I was reading it, you also think about— at least I also think about— the 60s and 70s of the 20th century and the same struggle to fight for freedom, and the same pushback that happened in the 1870s is happening to us again.


MARC STEINER You wrote a beautiful historical piece and so put that together for where you think that – what that means for us now in 2019, 400 years later.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES So, it’s interesting we learn very little about slavery and we learn even less about the period of Reconstruction. And that which we’re taught about Reconstruction was that Reconstruction was a failure, but that also serves our mythology. If we believe that after the Civil War when we tried for this brief 12 years to actually create a multiracial democracy and that that failed, then we can be forgiven for the fact that we quickly moved on from that effort and re-instituted a quasi-slavery for black folks for the next 100 years.

I really call what we consider the Civil Rights Movement as a second civil rights movement because all of the rights that black Americans were dying for in the 1940s and 50s and 60s, were rights that they had earned right after the end of the Civil War. You know, the 14th Amendment Equal Protection Clause. Well, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is trying to reaffirm those rights. The Voting Rights Act is trying to reaffirm the rights of the 15th Amendment that black people had already won. And the 1968 Fair Housing Act is trying to reaffirm the rights of the 1866 Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination in housing.

I think it’s just this perfect kind of summation of how these battles for full citizenship, these battles to actually make this country a true democracy, are never really won, that we are constantly having to fight against them. I think we could look at what follows the election of the first black president, and who we then as a country send to the White House, is just another example of how we make forward progress, then there is an extreme white backlash, and then we have to re-fight these battles again. So the good thing is, black folks have consistently proven that they are up to the task, that throughout history again and again, black people have been willing to put their bodies on the line, to risk their lives and often give their lives to make our founding ideals true.

What I tried to make very clear in the piece is that black Americans have never only fought just for the rights of black people. That is, the rights struggles of black Americans have paved the way for all other rights struggles. When you see the laws being passed in the 1960s because of black resistance, they’re not only ending discrimination against black Americans, but they end up ending discrimination based on gender, based on nationality, based on religion, based on country of origin.

MARC STEINER And all of that. I mean, when you write about something that very few people know about, which is that in the 1860s during Reconstruction – 1870s, I mean, in Reconstruction, that what we cherish in this country as our public school system, came out of black men in the legislature, running the government, creating public schools for everybody. I mean, poor white and black folks. That’s something that we never talk about and never acknowledge.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES Absolutely. There was really no public school system outside of North Carolina in the South prior to Reconstruction. What you find is one of the – there’s two institutions that formerly enslaved people build as soon as they get emancipation: churches and schools. Schools are so important because of course, black Americans are the only people in the history of our country for whom it was illegal to read and write. They begin to push for common publicly funded schools, so that it didn’t matter if you have money or not, you would get an education.

And when they did this, when you see formerly enslaved people going into the legislatures and taking the spots of their former enslavers, they don’t just push for their own rights, they help establish public schools to serve poor white children who are also left out of an education. Because in the South at that time, the only people who were getting an education where children of the white elite, and they were going to private schools. So these schools serve all children. And you see for the first time, not only large numbers of black children getting an education in the South, but large numbers of white children. But as you said, this is also a story that’s been largely written out of our national memory.

MARC STEINER I thought that was a really important thing to really explore, that you explored for us in this piece. Let me jump to culture before we have to conclude and come back to one last question here. When you write about the speech and fashion, and I think your words were, “We were here longer than we were free. Our speech and fashion and the drum of our music echoes Africa, but it’s not African. Out of our unique isolation, both our native cultures and for white America, we forged the nation’s most significant original culture. In turn, ‘mainstream society’ has coveted our style, our slang, our song, seeking to appropriate the one truly American culture.” I think that’s a really important statement. Let’s talk a bit about the profound nature of African American culture, what it’s done for this entire nation, and why we are so blind to it as well.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES This also comes from this idea of American universalism, and it began really at our founding, that you could come here and if you were white, no matter where you came from, you would lose the old ways and kind of just blend into this bland Americanism. But black Americans were excluded from that because black Americans were considered unassimilable. Because of that, we held on and created certain aspects of culture.

So I write in the piece, when you hear quintessential American music, it’s a black voice that you hear. When you think about American fashion, it’s the style of black Americans that we develop out of slavery when we are trying to exert our individuality in opposition to a system that tried to erase all of our individuality. These are the quintessential American culture, and that white Americans, because of this desire to have this universalism, are really grasping for the culture. And so, you often see it being appropriated, but black people being demeaned for many of the same practices.

MARC STEINER Yeah. I wonder, when you write— very quickly— you write about the end of Reconstruction with Rutherford B. Hayes taking over the presidency, and the beginning of terror against the black world throughout the South especially, but across the country. A lot of people would ask the question, are we here again? We have to really look at our history, as you did it for us in the article, and think about what does that say about this moment and what we have to guard against, and what we have to understand about where we cannot let ourselves go.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES Absolutely. That’s why I say anti-black racism, xenophobia, is in the very DNA of our country. We have to constantly fight against what is almost natural to us. And so, we have to guard against that, and we guard against that in one way, by understanding our history and understanding that if we are not careful, we can quickly spiral back to where things—We would never go back to where things were—

MARC STEINER Let’s hope.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES but we can certainly spiral back to where we don’t want to be as Americans. I think one of the reasons that this project has garnered so much interest is we are seeing a rise in white nationalism, we are seeing a period – at least for a while, I would never think that white nationalism and white racism went away, but you couldn’t publicly talk about it. It wasn’t something you could publicly express. I think the fact that we’re seeing this coming back out into the open. We’re seeing it more explicit again. We’re seeing this type of a racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-black rhetoric being propagated. People want understanding. They want to see how did we get here again, and I think this project really provides that basis of knowledge that people are looking for.

MARC STEINER Well, Nikole Hannah-Jones, I appreciate you taking the time. I know you’re very busy, and I want to say that this last weekend I spent with three of my oldest friends and we talked a great deal about this series. I would encourage everyone to really wrestle with the series that came out in the Times. It’s really an amazing piece of work that was done here. I want to thank you all for doing it and thank you for being here today.

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

MARC STEINER My pleasure. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.

DHARNA NOOR Hey, y’all. My name is Dharna Noor and I’m a climate crisis reporter here at The Real News Network. This is a crucial moment for humanity and for the planet. If you like what we do, please, please support us by subscribing at the link below. Thank you.

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Nikole Hannah-Jones joined ProPublica in late 2011 and covers civil rights with a focus on segregation and discrimination in housing and schools. Her 2012 coverage of federal failures to enforce the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act won several awards, including Columbia University's Tobenkin Award for distinguished coverage of racial or religious discrimination.

Prior to coming to ProPublica, Hannah-Jones worked at The Oregonian and The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. She has won the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Award three times and the Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism. She has also gone on reporting fellowships to Cuba and Barbados where she wrote about race and education.