Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaking at the University of Lynchburg on March 24.
Fauquier NAACP members Debra Copeland and Taryn Weaver traveled to Lynchburg on Thursday, March 24 to hear Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nikole Hannah-Jones deliver the 2022 Rosel Schewel Lecture in Education and Human Diversity.
The title of the lecture was Truth, History and The 1619 Project. The event was sponsored by the University of Lynchburg College of Education, Leadership Studies, and Counseling.
The 1619 Project began as a collection of writings and photographs published in the New York Times in August 2019. In the lead essay, "The Idea of America," Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote that the birth date of what would become the United States of America occurred before the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and before the Pilgrims arrived in 1620; she wrote that the true birth date of the United States came in August of 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived on a Dutch warship in Point Comfort (present day Fort Monroe), Virginia and were traded to the colonists in exchange for food.
The New York Times partnered with the Pulitzer Center to introduce “a curriculum and educational outreach effort to bring this material to students.” Following its publication, The 1619 Project was incorporated into school and college curricula across the nation. There was immediate and fierce pushback from conservatives. Since 2019, some 36 states have launched efforts to ban teaching about race and racism in public schools.
Speaking in Lynchburg on March 24, Nikole Hannah-Jones said that she created The 1619 Project as “a language to express 400 years of oppression.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones descends from sharecroppers who picked cotton. The only employment available to her grandmothers during their lifetimes was cleaning white people’s houses. Her father served in the military, without hope for advancement. She grew up in a neighborhood that was redlined. Her people were expected to work hard but never get ahead.
Despite the discrimination he endured, Nikole Hannah-Jones’ father was a deeply patriotic man. He always flew a crisp, clean American flag in his yard. As a younger woman, his daughter could not understand why. Then one day she realized. Her father always knew what she was only just discovering: that African Americans played a very important role in the formation of this country. Whether European Americans wanted to admit it or not.
Hannah-Jones knows that for some, her words are hard to digest. She challenges the myths of our nation’s founding. She has the audacity to draw parallels between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and the arrival of enslaved Africans on a pirated ship named the White Lion.
Speaking in Lynchburg in March, Hannah-Jones noted that African Americans were in this country long before most immigrants arrived, long before Ellis Island, for example; that Black families are some of the oldest families in the nation. She said that declaring war on our history is declaring war on democracy. In her work, she urges Americans to refuse to be the country of our past and, instead, “work together for our highest potential.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones shared with her audience these facts:
The first 10 American presidents owned slaves.
The United States has the highest wealth and income gaps in the modern world.
When the child tax credit expired recently, child poverty in America went back up to 41%.
While comprising only 5% of the global population, the U.S. incarcerates 25% of the world’s imprisoned population--and a disproportionate number of those imprisoned are Black.
A majority of Americans support learning about the true history of the United States.
Inequality is a construct, and it can be deconstructed, Hannah-Jones said. She said the term “critical race theory” has become a kind of catch-all phrase to include almost anything having to do with school instruction on race and slavery.
During his gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Glenn Youngkin cited public school administrators and teachers who spoke highly of The 1619 Project as examples of how critical race theory was negatively affecting public education. Nikole Hannah-Jones, on the other hand, thinks CRT might explain why a police officer thought he could kill George Floyd in front of witnesses, in broad daylight, and get away with it.
After George Floyd's murder in the spring of 2020, people took to the streets all over the nation as well as all over the world, in record-setting numbers. According to Hannah-Jones, one in 10 Americans participated in a Black Lives Matter protest that year. She noted, sadly, that "we went from all that support, to CRT outrage."
Hannah-Jones does not see that as a coincidence. She shared with her audience another fact: that in a three-month period before the term "critical race theory" entered the American lexicon, it was mentioned on Fox News more than 1,900 times.
National demographics are changing rapidly. The Brookings Institution projects that the U.S. will be "minority white" by 2045. There are some who are not happy about this. On the day before he left office in 2021, then Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that multiculturalism is not who America is.
But multiculturalism is exactly who America is--and who we've always been.
Nikole Hannah-Jones says that "Whiteness," like inequality, is a construct, something powerful people created during the days of colonialism to gain power and wealth. She reminded her audience in Lynchburg that there was a time when people of Irish and Italian descent were not considered White either.
During Q&A at the conclusion of her remarks, after enduring a couple compound questions basically asking her how she, personally, would solve the nation's problems, Hannah-Jones replied: “I can expose this sh*t, but you all have to fix it!”
Hannah-Jones said her goal is to help Americans understand our complex history. She said that historically speaking, what is celebrated as American progress often has involved harm and abasement to people who are not White. It is a sad and painful thing to admit, but true, nonetheless.
Ms. Hannah-Jones suggested that we learn to celebrate progress in a new way, a way which does not gloss over and perpetuate injustice. She said she has no political agenda. Her only agenda, she said, is “to force a reckoning with who we are as a country. The agenda is to take the story of Black Americans in slavery from being an asterisk…to being central to how we understand our country.”
Nikole Hannah-Jones is the founder of the Ida B. Wells Center for Investigative Reporting at the University of North Carolina, where she earned a Master of Arts in mass communication. She currently serves as the Knight Chair of Race and Journalism at Howard University, where she is the founding chair of the Center for Journalism & Democracy.
In her work, Hannah-Jones stresses the absolute necessity of honest, ethical journalists in a healthy democracy. While their claims may be debated, perhaps before the work of scholars is allowed to become a hot-button political issue, or to be banned from our schools, the work should be personally studied and evaluated, and publicly discussed. Healthy debate is a good thing. Discarding out of hand all the important literature, film, art and other media being written and developed in the current moment on race is not.
(From left:) Communications Committee Chair Debra Copeland, Secretary (Communications) Taryn Weaver, and friends Melanie Hughes, Sophia Elberti and Laura Nix-Berg in Lynchburg on March 24, 2022