1619 Project Creator Nikole Hannah-Jones Talks About Her New Book

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Nikole Hannah-Jones is tired. Excited and grateful too. But the last two years have sometimes been dark and often exhausting. Her groundbreaking work, the 1619 Project, ignited a fight over who will tell the story of this country and how we think of its identity. But before we could collectively reexamine the legacy of American slavery, then president Donald Trump said the project “warped, distorted, and defiled the American story.” School boards around the nation banned teaching it, likening it to the widely misunderstood legal philosophy known as critical race theory. As the creator and public face of the project, which includes contributions from acclaimed reporters and essayists, Hannah-Jones has received—along with the praise—the brunt of the hate. Her name has become a cultural signifier of the power of investigative journalism, or a dog whistle to the politicians and commentators who use her life’s work as evidence of a conspiracy to take the country away from white people.

On an overcast Sunday afternoon at her home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, she is signing inserts that will be placed in the first editions of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. The anthology, out this month, is an expanded version of The New York Times project, with longer essays, new fiction and poetry, and writing on topics like Indian removal and the Haitian Revolution. The night before, she was in Iowa filming a 1619 documentary series for Hulu; the next day she is heading to Alabama. We settle on the dark blue couch in her living room, and she balances a pile of inserts atop a Kehinde Wiley book on her legs. Her curly stop-sign-red hair is pulled back into a bun, and she is wearing a gold nameplate necklace and a stretchy black knit dress. Her 11-year-old daughter is curled up in a chair across from us, half watching the television and half watching her mom.

Hannah-Jones and I have known each other for years, but I haven’t seen her since the summer of 2019, at the launch celebration for the 1619 Project at the New York Times office in Midtown Manhattan. Since then, the MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner has won more journalism prizes, trained more editors and reporters of color through the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting (which she cofounded in 2016 at the University of North Carolina), and become friends with Oprah.

Hannah-Jones, 45, grew up the middle of three sisters in the manufacturing town of Waterloo, Iowa, with her Black father, Milton, who variously managed a convenience store, drove a school bus, and worked at a meatpacking plant and as a hospital orderly, and her white mother, Cheryl, a state probation officer. Milton had come to Iowa from Mississippi as a young child; his mother was the first of her family to migrate. Cheryl was raised in rural Iowa by parents who had also grown up there. The two met when Milton, recently discharged from the military, was visiting the campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, where Cheryl was a student. “I actually asked my mom about this recently, and she was looking out the window of her dorm and sees my dad, and goes down and hurls herself at him,” Hannah-Jones says, laughing.

I tell her that I was surprised to learn years back that she was biracial. “Well,” she says, smiling. “That’s probably curated.” She has never identified as a person of mixed race. “I clearly know that I’m biracial. I have a very close relationship with my mom despite my grandparents being conservative, rural white people who liked Ronald Reagan and were vehemently opposed to Obama. They were very good grandparents to us, as long as we just didn’t talk about race,” she says. “I would say very young, my dad sat my sisters and myself down and told us that our mom might be white, but we were Black, and we were going to be treated in the world as if we were Black.”

Like the children in segregated public school districts she has written about, Hannah-Jones was bused from her Black neighborhood to mostly white schools, and in those schools she had her first political and social awakenings. Busing was a common experience in the Midwest and South for Black kids—growing up in Alabama, I was assigned to be bused from my Black neighborhood to a white elementary school—and it could be a lonely and alienating one. “I get this from my mom, but I’ve always sided with the underdog in general,” Hannah-Jones says. “And being bused led me to be a very angry high school student.” About a fifth of the kids at her school were Black, and nearly all of them were bused and not allowed to forget it by classmates, teachers, and disciplinary policies that favored white students when they got into fights with Black ones. Hannah-Jones was one of a few Black kids in her advanced classes; all of the basic math and science classes were full of Black students.

Hannah-Jones had her school friends, and she had her neighborhood friends. Most of her aunts and uncles from Milton’s side of the family lived within a few blocks, and she had a close relationship with Cheryl’s parents. Her grandparents had disowned Cheryl for a time but changed their minds when Hannah-Jones’s older sister was born. Hannah-Jones was precocious as a girl, nerdy and observant, and noticed differences in the way she felt with the two sides of her family. “It was clear to me that when I was with my Black family, I was just one of them. And when I was with my white family, I was part of them but could never be fully of them. I could be Black but I could never be white.… There’s not any tragedy about it.”

She read a lot—to learn about the world and to escape her father’s alcoholism. Milton could be verbally abusive, and the two clashed often. She read historical fiction and encyclopedias and her parents’ Louis L’Amour and Danielle Steel novels, especially when she was grounded. “I got in trouble a lot,” she recalls. “I had a smart mouth, I talked back a lot.” Cheryl says that Hannah-Jones was “mischievous” as a kid, but studious. “She was very much in tune to what was going on in the world. In middle school, she asked for a globe for Christmas and wanted a subscription to Newsweek magazine,” Cheryl recalls. “She’s always had very strong feelings about things.” It was Cheryl who took her daughters to their first civil rights protests.

BELOVED Hannah-Jones and her daughter, Najya, outside their Brooklyn home. Hannah-Jones’s dress by Lita by Ciara at Nordstrom; shoes by Jimmy Choo; earrings by Jennifer Fisher; bracelet by Tiffany & Co. Schlumberger.Photographs by Annie Leibovitz. Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

During her sophomore year, Hannah-Jones took a Black studies class—from the only Black male teacher she would have, Ray Dial—and started to learn about Black culture and politics in a way she never had before. It felt exciting: Hannah-Jones was reading about apartheid and Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization and listening to Da Lench Mob and Ice Cube. She wore a Malcolm X medallion. She complained to Dial that the school newspaper never wrote about the experiences of Black students. He told Hannah-Jones to join the paper or stop complaining about it, so she joined. Her column was called From the African Perspective. The first piece was on whether Jesus was Black.

“I was intentionally trying to be provocative,” Hannah-Jones says. “I did a lot of writing about what it was like to come from the Black side of town and go to a white school, and that’s what I won my first journalism award for, from the Iowa High School Press Association. From there I was kind of hooked on wanting to be a journalist and write about the Black experience.” Outside of the paper, she and her best friend helped start a Cultural Enrichment Club that was designed to be Black-led; to promote the first meeting, they put up posters that compared the United States to apartheid-era South Africa and hung “White” and “Colored” signs above the water fountains and bathrooms. “When school began, they went ballistic. They took down all our signs and they canceled our first meeting,” Hannah-Jones says, laughing again. She was starting to feel a sense of power from what she could get done with writing and activism. And she was energized from learning a Black history—“All this time when I thought Black folks hadn’t done anything”—that had been kept from her. She decided to study history and African American studies at the University of Notre Dame.

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