The 1619 Project author shares thoughts on her acclaimed work

Flip through the pages of The 1619 Project, or scroll through the digital immersive, and you might think it was just published. Essays on health care, democracy and race seem to speak directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, to the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, to the Black Lives Matter protests that ignited the summer of 2020.

But the project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine, was first pitched by staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones in early 2019 as a special edition of the magazine to mark the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving in the Virginia colonies.

Hannah-Jones is the guest at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication’s annual Ruhl Lecture, which takes place this year during Black History Month on Feb. 19. The free, virtual event is a follow-up to the UO Common Reading Program selection of the project as its fall 2020 focus.

Q: You published 1619 in 2019. So much has happened since then. How did its initial reception compare to the attention it got in 2020 and continues to receive? 

A: The initial reception was overwhelmingly positive. We sold out of multiple print runs, people were lining up to get copies, and I was speaking all over the country. It was very gratifying and intense and beyond my wildest dreams. 

The last year has been a pretty nonstop attack by the right wing, including the highest office in the land, the president, secretary of state, powerful senators. So that's been very surreal, and also unexpected.

Q: Having lived in Oregon, how has your time here informed your body of work on race? What do you wish Oregonians would take from the work?

A: I'd only been a reporter professionally for three years before I came to Oregon. I came to The Oregonian, like many reporters at that time, because it was a paper that really believed in narrative journalism. I worked under Jack Hart, who was a writing coach and worked with a lot of brilliant writers, who helped me to be able to do the type of writing that I do now. 

But it was also a place where I struggled to be able to tell the stories about race in America and write about racial inequality the way that I wanted to. It wasn't something that my editors were always very interested in. What living and working there reinforced is that you can be progressive in a lot of ways and still not be progressive when it comes to race.

I found Oregon to be a place where white Oregonians are very progressive on things like gay rights, the environment, transit, that sort of thing. But when it comes to racial inequality, racial justice, gentrification, school segregation, they are just like any other white Americans, they're no more progressive on those issues than anywhere else. It's easy to be progressive in a place that has a tiny Black and nonwhite population.

Q: What parts of The 1619 Project do you both expect, and hope, will resonate most with UO students?

A: I imagine that for many UO students, their experience with the project will be defined through the podcast. What I hope is that they'll also engage with the print project, because the written essays are different and distinct, and you get a lot more depth. Though, you get a lot more emotion in the podcast, and that makes connections that a lot of people don't make. 

In terms of the print project, my favorite is the capitalism essay, which I think would just blow a lot of readers’ minds, the extent to which American capitalism was built on the institution of slavery. I hope they'll also read my essay on democracy, which certainly, after what we saw on Jan. 6, and what we've seen over the last four years, I think is very pertinent to the country that we're living in and what we're going through right now.

Q: How has the pandemic revealed and underscored the health outcome disparities you lay bare in the project and that Black Americans still face?

A: It almost feels cliche to say that the pandemic has really revealed the dual pandemic. The racial pandemic that's been ongoing for centuries has just been exacerbated by the medical pandemic.

What is really critical to understand is that our inability to deal with racism has an effect on all of us.

Prior to us getting the data on how different racial groups were being impacted by the pandemic, we kind of had this, “We're all in this together” and “We have to do these shutdowns so that we can save our fellow Americans.” Then, you saw, “The shut downs are violating our personal rights,” and you saw victim blaming, a lot of, I shouldn't have to suffer because Black people are making bad lifestyle choices.” It was really illuminating how differently we behaved toward our fellow citizens once we saw that Black and Latino and indigenous people were bearing the brunt of the coronavirus. 

So, I think we really need to do some soul searching about what that means. We are the only Western industrialized country without universal health care. And that is also because of our history of racism in this country.

Q: You’ve said in the past that hope isn't always a useful emotion for you. But with a Black woman now in the vice president's office, are you hopeful for our democracy? Do you expect meaningful change?

A: In a country that was founded on the enslavement of Black people, one should never be dismissive of symbol victories. And certainly, having the second-most-powerful person in our country be a Black woman matters. I was a reporter in Oregon when Obama won his historic first election, and it was an amazing feeling. 

But I'm also very practical about what that means: that one person at the top of government does not transform a government. There is going to be a great deal of pressure to move towards reconciliation, to not push too hard on issues that are considered divisive, and unfortunately, Black people are considered by our existence divisive in this country.

What I will say is clearly, anyone who thinks having this (current) administration over the last (one) doesn't matter is not being truthful. For instance, we have someone over in the Department of Education who actually cares about public education. That will have real impact. We have people at the Justice Department, in the Civil Rights Division, who actually are civil rights lawyers who believe in enforcing civil rights laws. That will 100 percent matter. 

But none of those things are going to get us to the society that we should have, they are not going to bring about equality. And they're not going to save our democracy in and of themselves.

Q: What is a question you are tired of getting, and what is a question you would like to get from a UO student?

A: The question that I am tired of getting is, what can we do? One, it’s not really my job to tell people what to do to; two, I never feel like it's a sincere question. I feel like people who ask that don't really want to know, because they don't really want to do what's required.

And the question that I wish I would be asked more is really about the craft of journalism. I mean, I love talking about race. I've built my whole career writing about it. It is my passion, but I'm also just passionate about journalism and I love talking about writing as well.

By Anna Glavash Miller, University Communications