In a discussion before Independence Day weekend, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicole Hanna-Jones asked an audience at a New Orleans bookstore to rethink what they learned in school about America’s Founding Fathers.
“These men we treat as demigods were wrong. They didn’t believe in democracy. They enslaved human beings,” Hannah-Jones said.
Hanna-Jones is the creator of The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, a collection of historical essays, poems, and works of fiction that reframe American history by highlighting the role of slavery in the nation’s foundation and modern heritage.
The book began as a 2019 issue of The New York Times Magazine, which marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in the colonies.
The project has been the subject of local and national debate over its place in school curricula since the development and release of free educational materials by the Pulitzer Center.
The Saving American History Act of 2020 was drafted by Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas in response, prohibiting the use of federal funds to teach “Project 1619” in elementary and middle schools.
Several states have also moved to ban the project from use in school curricula.
What are stories for?
Hannah-Jones told listeners that healthy societies do not ban books or fear knowledge.
“Knowledge leads to liberation,” she said. “You ban books to justify the regressive policies you enact.”
Hannah-Jones said some people want to limit the source material so that “we learn the history of a country that never existed,” she said. Her book offers a fresh perspective designed to inspire critical thinking and reflection, she said.
“It’s not radical,” she said. “We are all shaped by the same collective lies. How do we all know them? Who do these stories serve?’
The discussion took place at Baldwin & Co., an independent black-owned bookstore on Elysian Fields and St. Claude. Since opening in February 2021, the space has become a community staple, regularly hosting visiting authors, youth programs, book clubs and other outreach events.
The bookstore extended its hours Thursday (June 30) to accommodate the overflow crowd, many of whom showed up hours before the discussion to grab a drink and buy a copy of The 1619 Project for the signing.
Walter Kimbrough, former president of Dillard University, hosted. Hannah-Jones was joined on the panel by author Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a New York Times op-ed.
“It’s a repeat,” Dyson said, referring to the rise in book bans across the country that include several of his own works. “They have already banned our literacy for 150 years.”
Instead of uncertainty, Dyson said it’s important to seriously remember the past.
“The beauty of studying history is knowing that the unprecedented is always an option,” Dyson said.
“We Are Those People”
According to Dyson, it’s impossible to know what role you’ll play in the future, but that shouldn’t stop you from taking action. He referenced famous civil rights activists, including Rosa Parks, Bob Moses, and Fannie Lou Hamer.
“We are those people these days,” he said.
In a call to action, Hanna-Jones said it’s time to organize and push back against lawmakers who work to silence minority voices.
“We, the marginalized groups, have to decide what we will allow to be done in our name,” she said.
“Tell your congressman you don’t accept the bans,” Hanna-Jones said. “We can’t just fight over the books. We must fight for democracy.”
Dyson said book bans are just the beginning. “We have to cling to the last bits of literacy,” he said.
To do that, he said, community members must play offense and defense. Buy as many of the books they ban as you can, try to get into school boards, and use freedom of assembly to protest the ways these school boards arbitrarily enforce the law, he said.
“The easiest feeling right now is to feel hopeless, like there’s nothing we can do. But I hope we walk away realizing that we have power, we’re just not using it,” Hannah-Jones said.