The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t done challenging the story of America

A new Hulu series is the latest version of “The 1619 Project,” a landmark reframing of American history around slavery that triggered a firestorm

Nikole Hannah-Jones at her home in Brooklyn. (Mary Inhea Kang for The Washington Post)
17 min

Just about 16 minutes into the opening episode of Hulu’s “The 1619 Project” docuseries, the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones walks through Colonial Williamsburg in a pair of red-and-black Air Jordans.

On a bench outside the building that was once the Virginia governor’s mansion, Hannah-Jones is joined by award-winning historian Woody Holton to talk about the birth of America.

Specifically, they are there to talk about John Murray, the Earl of Dunmore, who was Virginia’s colonial governor during the American Revolution. In 1775, Dunmore issued a proclamation that, among other things, declared that any enslaved person who fought on behalf of Britain against the colonists would be granted their freedom — a proclamation that “infuriated White Southerners,” Holton says.

“So,” Hannah-Jones replies, “you have this situation where many Virginians and other Southern colonists, they’re not really convinced that they want to side with the patriots, and this turns many of them toward the revolution, is that right?”

“If you ask them, it did. The record is absolutely clear,” says Holton, a professor of early American history at the University of South Carolina. “I can’t think of a point that I could make about the American Revolution where I could compile as many quotes as I can from White Southerners saying how furious they are.”

That conversation serves the latest rebuttal to the controversy that has engulfed the project since its initial publication, as a series of articles in the New York Times Magazine, in August 2019. (The six-part Hulu series is an on-screen adaptation, and expansion, of that Pulitzer award-winning series, which has also included a best-selling book, podcast and school curriculum.)

The 1619 Project, named for the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia, asked readers to reconsider American history by placing the legacy of slavery and contributions of Black Americans “at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” It immediately drew fire from Trotskyist writers and other leftists, who decried its focus on race and not class, and before long also came under attack from more mainstream critics. In a letter to the Times, five prominent historians detailed what they considered the project’s inaccuracies. Most offensive to them was a single paragraph, midway through Hannah-Jones’s opening essay, in which she wrote that “one of the primary reasons” colonists rebelled against the crown was “to protect the institution of slavery.”

The Times eventually admitted that the claim was too broad — an inaccurate description of, for example, the New England colonies. Eventually, with more historians voicing concerns both publicly and privately, the Times tweaked the language, acknowledging that fear of Black emancipation motivated only “some colonists” to join the revolution.

“In hindsight, I do wish I had been more careful with the writing of that one paragraph, instead of deploying rhetoric,” Hannah-Jones — who, like many of 1619’s contributors, is a friend and colleague of mine — told me when we spoke recently. “The original essay was not about the American Revolution,” she said, adding that she “didn’t know that that would be such an asset for those who wanted to try to discredit the project.”

The paragraph became the center of a rapidly escalating firestorm, featuring denunciations from Republicans such as former House speaker Newt Gingrich (“the whole project is a lie”) and President Donald Trump (who labeled it a “crusade against American history”), and culminating in a pressure campaign launched by Walter Hussman, a wealthy newspaper owner and namesake of the journalism school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to prevent Hannah-Jones from being granted tenure there. “Who are you going to believe,” he asked a university trustee in one email. “Abraham Lincoln or Nikole Hannah-Jones?

The 1619 Project started as history. Now it’s also a political program.

Yet Hannah-Jones refused to retreat. In the book version of the project, released in 2021, she expanded the section about Dunmore into a full section of the opening chapter, complete with hundreds of footnotes. And when it was time to begin filming the Hulu docuseries, she said, she had no thought of backing away from the less-sweeping version of the claim: the largely unknown fact — backed, she noted, by award-winning historians such as Alan Taylor and Gerald Horne — that slavery was part of the reason some Southern colonists joined the revolution.

“There is no way we were going to steer away from that,” she told me, “because it’s correct.” (Lord Dunmore’s significance is conceded by even some of the project’s critics, like Northwestern historian Leslie Harris, who wrote that his Proclamation “propelled hundreds of enslaved people off plantations and turned some Southerners to the patriot side”; although not all — the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, one of the five who wrote to the Times, directed me toward his critique of Holton’s account of Dunmore’s role, which Wilentz called “highly misleading,” when I reached out for comment.)

The project, and the backlash, entailed more than a claim about the motives of colonists and a dispute over whether that claim should have come with caveats. It became a controversy about whether slavery or freedom should be more fundamental to the country’s self-image, in which historical correctness tangled with what’s politically acceptable and personally comforting.

“So much of the response,” Hannah-Jones said, “was people saying, ‘It can’t possibly be true,’ or ‘I certainly would have heard this before,’ ‘It unsettles everything I’ve been taught to believe,’ ‘I’ve never heard of this, so it must be a lie.’”

Much like the magazine version, the Hulu docuseries seeks to bridge the ills of the past to injustices of the present.

One episode, titled “Fear,” traces recent police and vigilante violence against Black Americans to the dehumanization of enslavement and the vicious slave patrols that existed before Emancipation, which deputized White people to monitor Black people’s movements, be suspicious of their motives, and insert themselves into their business. It revisits the story of 26-year-old Jemel Roberson, a Black security guard who in 2018 was shot and killed by police as he detained a shooting suspect outside of an Illinois bar. “As is so often the case,” Hannah-Jones narrates, “the instant assessment of Jemel as a threat had nothing to do with who he actually was.”

Another episode, “Capitalism,” links the business of breaking and exploiting Black bodies with the modern-day economic system that exploits labor for capital. It chronicles the efforts of Black activists at Amazon, the company founded by The Post’s billionaire owner, Jeff Bezos, as they fight to form a union. The episode begins with photos and video clips from Bezos’s recent Blue Origin space flight beneath audio from a 1970 Gil Scott-Heron spoken-word poem decrying the state of hunger, poverty and want experienced by much of Black America “while Whitey’s on the moon.”

In each episode, Hannah-Jones tells stories from her own life and family. On a porch in Waterloo, Iowa, she interviews two of her uncles about the family’s migration north from Mississippi, her father’s choice at 17 to enlist in the Army and the American flag that still proudly flies on the pole outside of the family home. In another episode, she talks about her father and another uncle, Eddie, who labored for years in the service industry and other working-class jobs but who died young, with little access to health care.

“A defining feature of Black life in America,” she says in one episode, “is that there seldom ever exists a margin for error, and there is no amount of work or ambition that can make up for the chasm that is the racial wealth gap in this country.”

“We use Nikole as our guide, because not only are we telling the history of the past, we’re telling the story of the present,” said Roger Ross Williams, an executive producer of the documentary series. “We used the essays as a base, but this is new reporting. Because ‘The 1619 Project’ is not about the past, it’s about the present.”

The seeds of the project were planted in 1992, when Hannah-Jones, then a 10th grade student in Iowa, enrolled in a Black studies class taught by Ray Dial, a local college professor who had volunteered to teach the course. Dial handed her a copy of “Before the Mayflower,” by Lerone Bennett Jr., which traces hundreds of years of Black history, including the story of the White Lion, the ship that brought the first Africans to the colony of Virginia.

“I just remember a sense of astonishment that Black people had been in America — what would become America — for that long. I had never heard anything about Black people coming a few years after the English settlers coming to Jamestown,” Hannah-Jones said. “Most of us had never heard of the name of that ship, one of the most important vessels to arrive on these shores. It had been erased from our collective understanding and narrative.”

Three decades later, she’d set out to remind readers that slavery was more central to our history than most acknowledge; progress in overcoming its legacy has been less inevitable than we’d like to imagine; and that the role of Black Americans as the driving force behind getting our nation to live up to its ideals has been largely underappreciated.

These are tenets of most mainstream Black political thought. As the novelist Percival Everett wrote: “It is slavery that inaugurates the path to freedom.” Or, as Ralph Ellison once put it: “The end is in the beginning and lies far ahead.”

“To me,” Hannah-Jones said, “the project is kind of obvious, honestly.”

Obvious, maybe, but overdue. When the Times magazine published its 1619 issue in August 2019, it was a big deal for a mainstream news organization to center Black life and history in such a prominent way. Readers lined the block around the paper’s headquarters in midtown. Black men and women across the country hoarded as many copies as they could find. The issue had essays, poems and meditations by leading Black voices connecting the dots between slavery and a variety of topics, including the racial wealth and health gaps, Black music, prisons, Hurricane Katrina, the Tuskegee syphilis study.

But as a result of the subsequent controversy over Hannah-Jones’s overbroad claim, the entire project — more than 10,000 words by many authors — was demagogically cast as the flawed, perhaps treasonous work of a single person.

“I became in and of myself a symbol for people who wanted to stoke the so-called culture wars and wanted to use race as a wedge issue, I became a powerful totem in that way,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’ve been writing about racial inequality for 20 years. Nothing I’ve done has made me this type of symbol — both for people who love me and who hate me.”

It has been hard to separate the often-personal criticisms of Hannah-Jones from discomfort with the way she presents herself: as an outspoken Black woman whose hair is red, nails are long and whose Instagram account features photos of her sporting a gold grill across the front row of her teeth.

“I’ve had to tell this to myself many times, I was fine being the face of it when everyone was throwing roses at it, so I had to also be the face of it when people are throwing stones,” Hannah-Jones said. “We would all be naive to think that there isn’t some racism and some misogyny, and classism, frankly because I don’t present in the way that people think someone who is making these arguments and producing something like this that is having this type of influence should look or speak.”

It didn’t help that Hannah-Jones took to sparring with her detractors on Twitter, locking her into bite-size debates in which she’d at times say things she’d later need to walk back. “I was out there, not always to the benefit of the work, doing battle with anyone who wanted to battle about the project.”

Before the 1619 Project, she had produced the era’s defining journalistic work at the intersection of race and education. She probed the resegregation of American schools for ProPublica, explained the role of school segregation in the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Mo., on “This American Life” and chronicled her own efforts to choose a school for her daughter for the Times. She co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society, a trade organization that aims to train the next generation of investigative reporters and editors, with a focus on journalists of color. She was known among Black journalists in New York for hosting occasional house parties at which whiskey flowed heavy and her Times colleague and fellow Pulitzer-winner Wesley Morris fried the chicken.

She is a prominent member of a class of Black journalists working for historically White publications who embrace the spirit of the Black press, which for centuries has seen its role as three-pronged: documenting contemporary realities of a people underserved by the White press; surfacing hard historical truths that the White public would prefer to forget; and standing up on behalf of a race that has been devalued and degraded from before America was conceived as a nation.

“We have always understood that we are writing and reporting about and for a contemporary society that knows almost nothing about its past,” Hannah-Jones said. “And particularly its past when it comes to Black people and racism.”

Bennett, the Ebony editor who wrote “Before the Mayflower,” used the pages of his magazine to educate readers on the parts of their lineage that (then, as now) were absent in many classrooms. “Historians and history books are historical,” Bennett wrote in 1987. “They are products of history. They are born at a certain time, and they bind time and express time and their times.”

Beyond the claim about the colonists, the historians who criticized the 1619 Project also knocked Hannah-Jones for painting an unfavorable depiction of Abraham Lincoln and for giving short shrift to White abolitionists when she wrote that “for the most part, Black Americans fought back alone” against White supremacy.

By refusing to grant pride of place to the actions and feelings of White Americans in her rendering of the history of slavery, critics seemed to think that Hannah-Jones had leveled an attack on the entire White race. Equally clear to me upon revisiting the episode was the subtext that some of these historians believed that these journalists were unqualified interlopers. At least one appeared to take issue with the fact that the project, a series of topical essays, was not a more comprehensive account of American history.

“It’s as much what’s left out of the project as what’s in it,” historian Victoria Bynum, one of the letter signers, remarked during a talk last year with students at King’s College, which she referred me to when I called. During that talk she speculated that Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. hadn’t been a major focus of the project “apparently because they worked too closely with whites.”

“Oftentimes,” Bynum said later in the talk, “I don’t think journalists really understand that they’re not historians.”

But when it comes to telling the story of Black people in America, Black journalists have been essential, says Jinx C. Broussard, a media historian and professor at Louisiana State University.

“If it were not for the Black press, we would not know so much of our history,” Broussard said. “Black journalists told our history, they told our story, they set the record straight regarding Black lives, they chronicled our accomplishments, they called out the ills of mainstream society, they challenged the federal government.”

More than three years after the 1619 Project was published, the tension at the core of the controversy — who gets to determine how our story is told and which chapters are emphasized — remains at the forefront of our political culture wars.

Conservatives have waged a years-long messaging war against critical race theory, a post-civil-rights-era framework positing that achieving racial equality requires combating not just explicitly racist laws and actions but also the ways racism is embedded in ostensibly race-neutral institutions and laws, as well as between the lines of how people interact and relate to each other. Critics on the right now use “CRT” as a catchall term to mean discussions of race and racism that they may find threatening or offensive. The administration of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has moved to block public-school students from enrolling in an advanced African American studies course, saying the course was, in the words of the state’s education commissioner, “filled with Critical Race Theory and other obvious violations of Florida law.”

Those efforts come, of course, following the administration of the first Black president, Census predictions that Hispanic immigration would soon result in a majority-minority nation, and Black Lives Matter activism that challenged many Americans to reconsider the nation’s progress on equality. Recent years have seen efforts to make some Black families whole from historical injustices, a rejuvenated and more widely embraced reparations movement, a push to remove Confederate iconography from public squares, and fresh examinations of the legacies of the men whose names adorn university buildings and other public places.

Gordon Wood, one of the historians who signed the letter criticizing the project, said that while he stands by his criticisms and is glad the “misguided” reference to the revolution was updated, he has come to realize how the work fit into a larger historical moment in which our country is grappling with the collective responsibility to right historical wrongs.

“I didn’t appreciate the significance of it when it first came out in 2019,” Wood told me, acknowledging that, despite what he considers its excesses, the project is part of a process that, by his estimation, has been an important one.

“What we’re involved in is a momentous time in our culture,” he said. “We’re going through a great atonement, trying to atone for the 400-year legacy of slavery. The 1619 Project is an aspect of that great atonement.”