Ashley Ramynke/Sun Contributor

The lecture lasted for nearly two hours and included a Q&A portion following Hannah-Jones' speech.

September 13, 2021

Nikole Hannah-Jones Talks History, Memory in America During 2021 Kops Freedom of the Press Lecture

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Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke to a socially-distanced audience in Rhodes-Rawlings Auditorium Thursday night for the annual Kops Freedom of the Press lecture, discussing her award-winning 1619 Project, race and American history.

The lecture, which was also live streamed, lasted for nearly two hours, during which Cornellians were given the opportunity to listen to Hannah-Jones and participate in a Q&A following her speech.

The event began with a land acknowledgement and the introduction of Prof. Jamila Michener, government, and Prof. Derrick Spires, literatures in English — both of whom mediated the Q&A portion of the event — and, of course, Hannah-Jones.

Hannah-Jones is a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine who investigates racial injustice and civil rights. In her 19-year career, she’s been awarded over 50 national accolades for her work.

In recent years, she is most well known for her work on the 1619 Project, an initiative launched on the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” according to its website.

This project was a focal point in her lecture, especially because it has brought an onslaught of backlash from critics and conservative news sources since its publication. Former President Donald Trump released a rebuttal to her project — entitled the 1776 Commission, which did not include a single historian — on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this past January.

The National Association of Scholars, a conservative advocacy group, launched a campaign to revoke the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Hannah-Jones in 2020, and, in May, she was denied tenure at the University of North Carolina amid backlash she received due to the project. (Hannah-Jones is set to join Howard University’s tenured faculty this fall, where she was appointed the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism.)

Hannah-Jones explained that efforts to discredit this work of American journalism center around questions of national identity, as some Americans resist grappling with the country’s founding histories of slavery. The 1619 Project places the democratizing force of Black Americans at the forefront, pushing against narratives of American exceptionalism.

Many of these reactions followed the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests over the summer of 2020 as well as amid discussions regarding critical race theory and policing in America, she said. Hannah-Jones said that the source of these conversations, however, is rooted in America’s treatment of slavery as an “asterisk” rather than a transformational part of the country’s history.

Ongoing efforts to discredit the project, she said, create a threat to democracy and the rights afforded to journalists as a part of the First Amendment, which allows for freedom of speech. 

Even though the 1619 Project does not engage with critical race theory, Hannah-Jones explained that many conservative news outlets have conflated the two, turning them into buzzwords — with critical race theory being named in Fox News about 1,800 times. (Critical race theory is a graduate-level legal theory that interrogates the role of race and racism in society, not present in K-12 classrooms or the 1619 Project curriculums.)

As discussion about both grew, many states — including Texas, Idaho, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Iowa, New Hampshire, Arizona and South Carolina — have passed legislation banning or restricting the teaching of critical race theory in classrooms in recent months, what Hannah-Jones said was an act using the power of the state to limit the spread of ideas.

“It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous,” she said, quoting lawyer, activist and leading critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw ’81, who has been outspoken about the aforementioned state laws.

Amid these events, Hannah-Jones emphasized the importance of learning accurate history in classrooms and in the academic world.

“History is the fruit of power, but power itself is never so transparent that its analysis becomes superfluous,” she said, quoting anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot. “The ultimate mark of power may be its invisibility; the ultimate challenge, the exposition of its roots.”

If history is not learned, she said, power can stay in power.

Hannah-Jones noted the significance of training journalists to read history and to report on democracy “with the urgency it needs,” especially when it comes to race. She explained that some mainstream publications are concerned about being labeled as “too liberal” rather than focusing on telling the truth about racism, slavery and the treatment of Black Americans.

She also mentioned the relevance and magnitude of Black journalists reporting on issues related to democracy.

“Who better to report and understand how dangerous of a time we are in,” Hannah-Jones said, “than Black journalists, who have always had to write about the worst.”

As her lecture came to a close, Hannah-Jones reminded Thursday’s audience of a pressing notion: Prioritizing democracy and standing up for racial equality must be a collaborative effort.

“You have to step up and fight for the democracy you think you have,” she said, noting that young people can take action — including through advocacy and educating themselves — to work toward justice.

A key part of this work, she said, is recognizing that America was built upon racism and slavery — only after Americans acknowledge this past can they move toward a more equitable future, she told Cornellians.