In August 1619, as colonist John Rolfe wrote at the time, “twenty and odd Negroes” who were captured and taken from Angola arrived on the Virginia coast; they were promptly sold to wealthy English landowners, setting the stage for slavery in America for centuries to come.
To recognize the 400th anniversary of the arrival of those first enslaved Africans in what would become the United States of America, The New York Times is launching what it’s calling The 1619 Project, a three-month editorial series anchored by a special issue of The New York Times Magazine, out Aug. 18, devoted to slavery’s history and legacy in America. The 1619 Project will also include a five-part audio series, recurring stories in the Times itself and a handful of live events in New York and Washington, D.C.—the sum total of which will be adapted for an educational curriculum designed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center to be distributed to high schools and universities in the coming months.
Spearheaded by investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who covers racial injustice for the Times, the project has enlisted prominent black writers and artists to contribute, tackling topics including slavery’s impact on modern labor practices and the influence of race on medical care.
In advance of the launch of The 1619 Project, Ad Age sat down with Hannah-Jones at The New York Times headquarters in Manhattan along with NYT Mag Labs Editorial Director Caitlin Roper, who has been involved in helping the endeavor manifest across multimedia and educational platforms.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell us how The 1619 Project came about.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Back in 1992, I read this book called “Before the Mayflower,” and it starts in the year 1619, because that’s the year the first Africans were sold into Virginia. And I’ve literally been obsessed with that date since then. I knew the anniversary was coming up, and I just kept thinking that I really wanted the Times to mark this anniversary in a really substantial way. Four-hundred years seemed like this could be the time where we could finally talk about slavery and its legacy in a way that we just simply haven’t as a nation.
The 1619 Project involves journalists, academics, artists, poets, etc. Can you talk about the scope of the project in terms of manpower and how it grew?
Hannah-Jones: We believe that part of telling this story is picking some of the most laureled and talented black writers and artists to tell it, because we’re here because of slavery. Initially, I gathered a group of historians, some of the people I most admire, and I called them into a brainstorming meeting and asked, “What should we be covering? How would you cover this?” Because I certainly didn’t want the weight of deciding how we cover 400 years of history on my shoulders.
Then Jake Silverstein [the editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine] had this idea that for so many of the moments over the last 400 years, there’s no written record of them and we can’t actually picture what happened. So he thought it would be great to ask writers and poets to reimagine narratives or write original poems around these points in history.
And let me be the first to say that I am surprised at how big the project has gotten and how much internal support there has been to do something about a very hard subject. I certainly did not expect that people would be so excited to tell this story.
Caitlin Roper: It has grown and grown since then, and it’s still growing!
So how did it go from a special issue of the Times Magazine to encompassing an audio series, live events, digital elements and so on?
Roper: If we believe we’ve been poorly educated about slavery in this country, which we do, what could we offer people that would be a response to that? A palliative measure in some form of education about the basics of the history of slavery. And so we decided that would be our goal. But we realized we needed to span a larger time than just the release window of the [magazine] issue, because there was so much we wanted to tell and other ways to manifest this project.
Hannah-Jones: Because of this particular moment that we’re in, in our country, there’s actually a tremendous thirst for understanding, of trying to grapple with what we’re seeing right now. I also think the beauty of the stories that we’re trying to tell is, this is a history that everyone thinks they know, and they really don’t. We hope to inform people and educate people and maybe transform people.
I mean, we’re the paper of record, and I think all of us have felt the weight of that, and the weight of what an institution like this can do if we really choose to tackle looking at this original sin. So we’re printing more than 200,000 additional copies [of the Aug. 18 issue of The New York Times Magazine] that we are distributing for free. It was really important that not just people who would be your typical New York Times subscribers will get access to what we’re trying to do.
Given the current political and racial climate in America, what do you think is important for readers to take away from The 1619 Project?
Hannah-Jones: Why is it so hard for people to talk across their political, social and cultural lines? I would argue that it goes back to being a country that was founded on a paradox—or, one could say, founded on a lie. And if people really want to understand not just this moment, but how we got here, I think this project will provide a very good roadmap.
On a personal level, what does this project mean to you?
Hannah-Jones: I’m the descendant of people who were enslaved in this country. This history is extremely personal to me, and I’ve spent my career writing about the black communities that have suffered the brunt of this history. And while I hope that we will educate a lot of white people about this history, I also hope that this will give black Americans a much stronger sense of themselves. America would not be America without us.
So yes, it’s a great journalistic endeavor, but it is also something that I feel like I was born to do. My grandmother cleaned houses for a living, she was never able to live out any of her dreams, but everything that she went through, and everything that her parents went through, and her grandparents went through, created this moment for me to be here and do this project at the time. I think about that every day.
Hannah-Jones: I think we cannot move forward unless we actually acknowledge the truth of our history, as so much time has been spent trying to obscure the truth. We have to admit what we have done, and we have to admit the harm that’s been done. And then once you acknowledge the harm that’s been done, you actually have to take steps to undo the harm. This project is not about making white people feel ashamed. But you have to acknowledge that we still are living under that legacy, and while we can’t do anything about what happened in the past, there is an obligation to correct it now.
Roper: We hope people read it. We hope they listen to the podcast. We hope they engage with it. We hope that the project lives; that we launch it, and then it lives on beyond what we have started here.
Hannah-Jones: I just hope people understand this story we’re telling is an American story. This is not black history. This is the story of America, and so I think it is a story that everyone should learn.
Editor’s note: The event component of The 1619 Project launched Tuesday at TheTimesCenter in Manhattan with an evening of conversation and performance featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones, Jamelle Bouie, Mary Elliot, Eve Ewing, Tyehimba Jess, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wesley Morris, Jake Silverstein and Linda Villarosa. An archived video of the livestreamed event is embedded here: