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Nikole Hannah-Jones says honest conversations about history are needed

‘What happened a long time ago, shapes what is happening now’

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the keynote speaker at Northwestern’s commemoration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., spoke to the University community Monday, Jan. 24.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones

Her presentations came on a day when news outlets reported on events that highlight America’s ongoing struggles to undo the damage of systemic racism: It was day one of the trial for three former police officers charged in George Floyd’s death; the Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to affirmative action at Harvard and UNC; and Evanston’s first reparations grants were announced. 

“Our democracy is eroding right now. We see the largest wave of voter suppression laws that we have seen since before the passage of the Voting Rights Act,” said Hannah-Jones during the Chicago keynote conversation. “We may very well be in a worse position, 50 years from now than we are right at this moment.”

Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, a series of historical essays to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the British colony of Virginia, has received both accolades and criticism for the endeavor.

That one of the country’s leading and most widely disseminated newspapers was the conduit for the essay collection that places African Americans at the center of the nation’s founding history, created a stir. There was debate among academics over the finer points of its historical research, and outright censorship by some politicians who used the lever of their office to ban “The 1619 Project” from being taught in schools.

Hannah-Jones said there are valid critiques of The 1619 Project but asks that people come to the book with an open mind.

“Given the information, a large segment of the population will ‘get it,’” she told Northwestern Now before the Evanston keynote. “I see this all the time, and that’s what keeps me going. Most people get angry when they read ‘The 1619 Project.’ But the reason they are angry is because they were not told this history. That is also why people fear it. We would make different policy choices.” 

Hannah-Jones spent 20 years as an education and social justice reporter before joining the staff of The New York Times Magazine. It was there in early 2019 she pitched the idea of a special issue to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in America. The first spark for the project occurred when she was a high school student in Iowa. Her history teacher suggested that if she wanted to learn more about the history of Black Americans, to read “Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1962,” by historian and journalist Lerone Bennett Jr.

“The 1619 Project” was published by the New York Times Magazine in August 2019, and expanded to book-length in November 2021. Hannah-Jones earned a Pulitzer Prize for her introductory essay.

For the Chicago keynote, Hannah-Jones was in conversation with Linda Suleiman, associate dean of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and Robin Walker Sterling, director of the Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic. For the Evanston keynote later in the day, she was in conversation with Charles Whittaker, dean and professor at the University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications. Both events were virtual.

More than 1,200 viewers streamed the two virtual Keynote Conversations held Jan. 24 from the Chicago (at noon) and Evanston campus (at 5 p.m.).

Following are a few takeaways about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy from Hannah-Jones’ Dream Week keynote conversations: 

King’s beliefs are not widely known or understood today

“Today 94% of Americans are supportive of King. But that support has been predicated on not actually knowing who Dr. King was.

“Most people know one line from one speech, ‘I hope one day my children will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.’ 

“We have very high polling for Dr. King because most Americans have no idea how radical he was. He called the three evils of the United States racism, militarism and capitalism and he was not actually looking for a colorblind society. He wanted a society that was going to take into account 300 years of anti-Blackness and do something to address anti-Blackness.

“You can’t claim King if you don’t adopt his issues now 60 years later. Use these days to talk about action not service. Hope is in action.”

Honest conversations about history are needed

“For the vast history of our country so much of the law was about constraining the rights of racial minorities.

“If we are simply practicing law, or simply practicing medicine as if all that history doesn’t exist, then all we are doing is redefining the structural inequity that was already baked into the system. What does it mean to have a country that for its first 350 years it was legal to discriminate against Black people in every aspect of life? That for the vast history of our country, Black Americans did not have the rights to citizenship? And that all the tools in the arsenal, from medicine to law, politics and the arts were wielded against Black Americans? 

“It has to be an honest conversation about how what happened a long time ago, shapes what is happening now.”

Fairness and accuracy should be the objective of journalism

“I think that journalists like to have a veneer of objectivity. But we all know we are human beings. You have a certain perspective and certain belief systems and the only things we are objective about are the things we do not know anything about. A soon as we know enough about them, we have opinions and thoughts about them.

“What we put on the front page, what goes before the fold, how we frame the story, all these are subjective decisions about what we think is important and has value. And so, I do not think ours is a profession that can be objective.

“We as journalists must strive for fairness and accuracy. Ask am I being fair to the people involved? Am I being as accurate as possible? Am I patrolling the facts?

“Over the last seven years I transitioned from investigative reporter to a magazine writer. The magazine allows you to have more voice. But my writing is still deeply reported. It is deeply researched. It has data. It has citations. I am writing based off the foundation of good reporting.”

The Chicago Campus Keynote Conversation was hosted by the Pritzker School of Law and the Evanston Campus Keynote Conversation was hosted by the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion. 

Dream Week 2022 is a cross-campus collaboration with Northwestern’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.