Creator Nikole Hannah-Jones Explains Why ‘The 1619 Project’ Docu-Series Is Essential American History

“It’s impossible to understand the story of America without understanding the story of slavery and Black Americans,” says Nikole Hannah-Jones.

The journalist created The 1619 Project, a series of essays that reframes our country’s history by showcasing how the contributions of Black Americans shaped our national narrative. Hannah-Jones was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her work on the project. The essays were also the subject of a podcast in 2020, and released in book form in 2021.

The 1619 Project takes its name from the year in which the first enslaved Africans were brought to mainland British America.

The project, which became a lightning rod, spurring powerful political divisions, is now a six-part docu-series with episodes focused on democracy, capitalism, fear, and justice.

In selecting the topics to include in the series, Hannah-Jones says, “We had a lot of essays to choose from, but the winnowing down of which essays was actually a pretty easy process for us because we wanted the series to really tackle the greatest pillars of American identity. So that’s why there’s democracy. That’s why it’s capitalism. That’s why it’s race ‑‑ the linchpin of everything that we’re experiencing.”

Using the issue of justice as the finale, Hannah-Jones points out, “because, as we argue in the book, if you watch the series from beginning to end with an open mind, it’s clear that there is a debt that is owed, so we wanted to make sure that we left you not with a feeling of helplessness, that ‘Oh, these problems are so old and intractable,’ but to let you know that there’s a solution. It’s just one we refuse to do.”

Hannah-Jones says that one aspect of crafting the series that was extremely important was, “when we set the tone for what this series [we show] that this is not a documentary series about Black people. It’s a documentary series about America, and all of us Americans should come away with a better understanding of the country that we live in.”

About the controversy that ensued following the release of the original print series, Hannah-Jones says that that reaction is precisely why the project needs to exist. “We’ve all been indoctrinated into these myths about America and we’ve all been told a history that’s not true.”

But all of this has Hannah-Jones thinking that, “the backlash is a sign of the success of the project. [If] there weren’t lots of Americans who were ready and willing to have a different understanding of our country, you wouldn’t see such intensity against the project.”

Having authored the original work for The New York Times
NYT
, then working on it in podcast and book form and now as an on-screen series, Hannah-Jones feels that, “For me as a writer, one of the most fulfilling parts of working on this project is being able to see its many iterations. It’s not often that you produce a work and you get a second and third and fourth bite at the apple. You get all of these different ways to tell the story. I’m not a TV journalist — it was never my desire growing up — I certainly understand the power of the medium.”

Having said that, Hannah-Jones does appear in the docu-series, revealing some very personal thoughts and emotions. She says that it took some convincing from her fellow executive producers to get her to appear on-screen. But, she admits, “this experience has certainly taught me even more humility about what we’re asking other people to do for us as journalists all the time.”

The hardest part of constructing the series was balancing the amount of history presented but having the narrative feel present-day, says Hannah-Jones. “I always feel like there’s just so much Americans don’t know, but also understand you want it to feel contemporary. You want people to be engaged and not just think they’re watching a documentary about what happened a long time ago, but really that they’re watching a documentary about America right now, and this is how we got here.”

‘The 1619 Project’ premieres Thursday, January 26th on Hulu.

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