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UCI Illuminations Culminates 1619 Series With A Conversation Between Students And Nikole Hannah-Jones

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones engaged in a virtual Q&A session to discuss the importance of her 1619 Project and her journey as a Black woman in the journalism industry on Oct. 29. 

The event was moderated by UCI Literary Journalism Professor Erika Hayasaki and UCI student storytellers Sydney Charles and Tatum Larsen. 

The 1619 Project is a multidisciplinary series of photos, essays and podcasts published in the New York Times Magazine that track the impact of slavery on all modern aspects of the United States of America. Hannah-Jones explained the importance of thinking about this past in context of the current reality for Black Americans.

“I knew that I wanted to take over an entire issue of the New York Times Magazine and that we would dedicate that entire issue not just to rewriting Black history, but really to looking at modern America and answering that question that every Black person gets, which is ‘Slavery was a long time ago, why don’t you get over it?’” she said. “I wanted to show that we can’t get over it because it is embedded in the very DNA of our country.” 

In the webinar, Hannah-Jones spoke about the significance of the year 1619, the year the first slaves were taken and brought overseas in the White Lion merchant ship to Jamestown, Virginia. The first issue of New York Times Magazine dedicated to the 1619 Project was strategically published in Aug. 2019, referencing the month the White Lion arrived in the U.S.

“[We came to] the 400th anniversary of slavery, and most Americans have never even heard of the Year 1619. It was not a commonly known date, so I wanted the 1619 Project to use that anniversary. In a country as young as ours … there’s almost nothing older than what happened in Jamestown then,” she said.

Hannah-Jones pitched the project to the Times in Feb.2019 in hopes to send a message about the far strides and successes that have been made by Black people, the descendants of taken and enslaved Africans.

She dedicated the project to Black Americans, but expressed her worries that her message would harm more than heal the people it was dedicated to.

“I felt a lot of weight and responsibility to not make mistakes, to not get things wrong, to produce something that was unflinching and honest in the barbarism that Black Americans face, but without further dehumanizing Black people by talking about this history,” said Hannah-Jones.

The author also felt pressure for the 1619 Project to succeed in order to set a positive precedent for journalists of color in all newsrooms; the success of the project could open many doors for those who will come after her.

“It’s not often that Black women are in a position like I was in, at an institution like the New York Times to have these types of resources for a project. I was excruciatingly aware that if I failed, it would make it so much harder for the next Black or Brown person who came behind me to pitch and get the support to do something like this, but if I succeeded, it would be harder for anyone to turn down the next Black or Brown person who had a great and ambitious idea,” she said.

Hannah-Jones returned to this point many times throughout the webinar, that “we are never just working on our own behalf.” She stressed to students the importance of realizing that one’s actions reflect not only on oneself, but also on those who are physically similar to themselves in terms of race, sex and other factors used for judgment. 

She shared with students that this kind of judgment is often passed on her own ventures as well.

“In the ways that I may be exceptional, no one is judging other Black people for that, they’re only judging other Black people off of areas that they think I am lacking, or where they don’t think I have succeeded. My [achievements] are not demonstrative of Black people’s achievements, but if someone says ‘she got this fact wrong’ to criticize my work, then that somehow is demonstrative of Black people not being deserving of having a platform.”

Hannah-Jones encouraged students to take this judgement into account in the professional world, but to not fear criticism due to it. The 1619 Project has faced criticism in the past, including from President Trump, who claimed at a White House history conference in Sept. 2020 that the project soils the history of America.

Much of the criticism the project received was rooted in the idea that Hannah-Jones’ team of contributing writers, podcasters and photographers were tainting the American history they had published by presenting these stories through a Black American lens, therefore presenting these stories with a lack of objectivity. 

Nikole Hannah Jones stated her belief in the practice of writing news fairly, accurately and honestly, but does not believe in objectivity. She asserted to students that good journalism should take the journalist’s experience into perspective, without solely revolving around it.

“I don’t think that is possible to be detached. We see stories and report stories through the filters of our own lived experiences,” she said. “Of course, all good journalists are also trying to report outside of [themselves] and try to have some distance to ensure fairness, and we should strive for fairness & accuracy … I really reject this notion that all journalists are not writing through a racial filter, or a class filter, or any filter. Of course, we are.”

The Q&A session was one of two UCI events Hannah-Jones participated in. Her virtual presence marked the final webinar in UCI Illumination’s own 1619 series, which was a part of the UCI Humanities Center’s “Oceans” webinar series dedicated to discussing the role of the seas in human history and inquiry. 

Dhanika Pineda is a 2020-2021 Campus News Co-Editor. She can be reached at campusnews@newuniversity.org