Nikole Hannah-Jones has become one of the most recognizable journalists in the country. The New York Times Magazine investigative reporter won a Pulitzer in 2020 for her magnum opus The 1619 Project, which reframed the American story in the context of slavery’s ramifications and the ongoing contributions of Black Americans in shaping the nation. The groundbreaking piece was celebrated and led to a deal with Lionsgate, the Times and Oprah Winfrey to produce a plethora of projects based on 1619 (including an upcoming Hulu docuseries); the latest installment is the anthology book The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, published in November. It also sparked a reactionary movement to ban literature that examines history and society through a racial lens — evidence of its influence, as is the response from Americans who have embraced its revelatory power. Hannah-Jones — who last summer joined Howard University as Knight chair in race and journalism and to found its Center for Journalism and Democracy — is receiving the Social Justice Impact Award at this year’s NAACP Image Awards, airing Feb. 26 on BET.
What are some of the biggest impacts people have shared with you as a result of reading The 1619 Project?
Black schoolchildren have shared that it has given them a sense of pride, that they finally see themselves as actors in the American story. I have heard from countless readers who said it changed the way they see their country. That they realized how much they never knew, how much they were never taught and that the country makes more sense after having read it. Then, clearly, there’s the impact that it has on a lot of conservative politicians who are very upset and trying to ban it from being taught to schoolchildren.
How much did you anticipate that opposition?
I anticipated there would be criticism. It would be naive to think you could produce a major project in The New York Times that seeks to recenter the narrative around slavery and Black contributions and argue that slavery is foundational to America — not just a long time ago but now — and not expect pushback. So I knew that would be a part of it. But no one could have predicted the duration, the scale and really the ugliness. Certainly we wouldn’t have thought we would become part of a book-banning campaign.
What are opponents of critical race theory misunderstanding or misrepresenting about the concept?
What conservatives are doing is using critical race theory as buzzwords of a propaganda campaign. These anti-CRT laws are anti-history laws. They’re memory laws. The fact that any of us outside of academia or outside of those whose work centers on race are talking about it speaks to the success of that campaign. Critical race theory is about trying to understand why, 60 years outside of the civil rights movement, Black Americans still fall at the bottom of every indicator of well-being in our society. It has nothing to do with making white children feel like victims. It’s actually not concerned with individuals. It’s about systems. I don’t think the question can even be asked, “What are conservatives getting wrong?” They’re intentionally being misleading. There’s nothing recognizable to critical race theory the way that they’re describing it or using it in laws that are seeking to ban it.
In your speech at THR‘s Women in Entertainment event in December, you referenced “sounding the alarm about the dangerous moment that we are all in.” What can the media and entertainment industries do to respond to the censorship attempted in classrooms?
One, stop legitimizing it. If you look at the coverage, it was taking what Republicans were saying at face value, which is not what reporters should do. Reporters should be skeptical. This was a political strategy with a propaganda strategy and should have been covered as such. Frankly, a lot of journalists and free speech groups were silent last year because they were only seeking to ban The 1619 Project. I said then that it was never going to stop at just The 1619 Project. So now, of course, we have the sweeping bans that are trying to ban texts that deal truthfully with the history of race and racism, that feature queer characters, that talk about the Holocaust in ways that some people don’t like. This was very predictable. We have been treating politicians using the power of the state to prohibit the teaching of ideas the same as some high school teacher who does a bad racism lesson, and we legitimized what’s happening. We’re just at the beginning. You only have to look at what Gov. [Ron] DeSantis is trying to do in Florida with his bill, which has gone from being about K-to-12 to now telling private businesses what types of training they can have. That is going to affect all of us. It is a sign of a deeply unhealthy country when state legislatures start banning ideas, and that’s where we are right now.
Can you explain why is it so essential to train up journalists from historically excluded backgrounds — in this case, Black journalists specifically — for the sake of the health of our practice?
Diversifying our field is actually about accuracy. It is about ensuring that we are equipped to cover a nation that is extremely diverse. A nation where the most vulnerable in our society are people of color, particularly Black and Indigenous people. If we look at the role that journalists play in holding power accountable — especially the field that I am in and that I’m going to be strengthening while I’m at Howard, investigative reporting — we simply have important stories that never get told, important wrongs that never get revealed because we have people who simply overlooked them. I think it is important to stop pretending that journalists are objective. That white journalists are not being shaped by the racial realities of America, by their lived experiences, by the segregation that they often live in and have attended schools in. Too many journalists are ill-equipped to properly cover our country. When you look specifically at the role that the Black press has played in our democracy, I would argue that the Black press has been the vanguard for American democracy; for holding a mirror up to this society; for not buying into the propaganda of our government in a way that, particularly during times of war or times of strife, white media has.
Mental health is an increasing area of awareness and need for justice advocates. How do you take care of yourself?
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it or working on it, frankly, and that’s not to be dismissive. Candidly, I haven’t figured it out. I feel like my work is mentally taxing but not damaging to my overall mental health. I actually feel every day that I’m doing work that is important, that is why I’m here and exist on this earth — that I’m incredibly blessed to do what I do, even though what I cover is difficult and painful. I feel extremely empowered to do the work that I do.
How can the systems journalists of color work in support their mental health?
Journalism and mainstream media like to pretend that because we believe in this false notion of objectivity, journalists should not be impacted by what we cover, or the experiences that we’re having, and if we are, we should keep it to ourselves. I think there is a specific and particular callousness that comes to how journalists of color are treated when we are covering things that really are taking away, or attempting to take away, from the humanity of our people. Newsrooms need to be much more conscious of what it’s like for Black people to cover something like a George Floyd trial, be much more attuned to the type of harassment that Black and other marginalized journalists receive online, in our emails and voicemails. It’s not a sign of weakness to be impacted by the things you cover and what is happening in the world. During the very brief racial reckoning following George Floyd, you noticed that we do actually live in completely different worlds because we were devastated and our white colleagues didn’t even really know anything big happened — or at least they didn’t seem to acknowledge anything going on. That creates a great sense of isolation and distance between you and your colleagues in your institution. Institutions need to be much more conscious and aware, much more able to support their employees from marginalized groups and also put people in positions who have empathy because I think we lack that a lot.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.