Nikole Hannah-Jones, an award-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times, sat down to discuss The 1619 Project, which places black people at the center of American history while examining the complicated and lasting legacy of slavery. Chicago Ideas, a nonprofit that provides diverse audiences with access to thought leaders and innovative ideas, hosted the talk.
Dr. Helene D. Gayle, President, and CEO of Chicago Community Trust, discussed Chicago’s wealth gap, which is caused by a history of racial and ethnic inequality. Racist housing policies, roads separating black communities from majority-white communities, and inaccessible public transportation were the cause of segregation. “Righting the wrongs of our past and reversing the effects of one discriminatory policy after another will require all of us,” stated Dr. Gayle.
Co-contributors to the project who joined Hannah-Jones on stage included Mary Elliott, Curator for the National Museum of African American History and Culture; Linda Villarosa, New York Times Contributing Writer; Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School; and Deborah Douglas, Award-Winning Journalist, and Visiting Professor at DePauw University. Elliott presented a history of slavery through objects used in the project, including a cane cutter, ballast stone, fanner basket, and photo of an enslaved woman. Some images depicted enslaved Africans’ ability to retain cultural practices, skills, and intellect.
Douglas, the panel moderator, asked how the legacy of slavery lives on. According to Hannah-Jones, one can trace everything that happens today back to slavery. When she initiated the project, she knew it would take much more than a single article to acknowledge 400 years of slavery. Her roots in Leflore County, Mississippi, where more lynchings took place than any other U.S. county, greatly influenced her work. After fleeing the South during the Great Migration, it was difficult for her family to talk about life in Mississippi and “relive the degradation of what it was like to live in a complete apartheid state.” Coming from such a place, it was important to her that the project not contain language that dehumanized black people or softened the conditions of slavery.
Speaking of language, Muhammad discussed how Louisiana uses it to downplay slavery while promoting plantations as captivating, must-see tourist attractions. However, people are reclaiming those narratives by preserving history in places such as the Whitney Plantation, a museum dedicated to enslaved sugar cane workers who lost their lives due to the physical demands of cultivation. It is a continuous story, as African-Americans today are dying from the legacy of slavery and consumption of sugar.
Villarosa examined the connection between medical practices during slavery and modern-day medicine. A recent study showed that black women receive less pain management during C-sections than white women. Withholding pain medication traces back to J. Marion Sims, the “father of gynecology,” who performed fistula surgery on enslaved black women without using anesthesia. Oddly, there was a belief that black people could endure excruciating pain. In a written statement from 1787, Thomas Jefferson said that black people had inferior lung function. Dr. Samuel Cartright used this statement to argue that black people benefited from slavery because the activities strengthened their lungs. To this day, medical facilities use spirometers with “race correction” to measure lung function. Hannah-Jones interjected that enslavers used exaggeration of the tolerance for pain to justify torture and forced labor. Further, the psychological justification for slavery causes human suffering today in medicine and in general.
During a brief interview, Nikole Hannah-Jones said that the biggest challenge for the project was time constraints. When asked what inspires her to keep going, she stated, “It’s my calling. I feel like this is why I exist in the world. I do this type of journalism to tell our stories.” She is appreciative of the overwhelming response. Hundreds of U.S. schools have adopted The 1619 Project, including Chicago Public Schools. The next step will involve producing a series of elementary, middle-grade, and high school level books. In addition, there are plans to release an adult book in 2021.
For more information, visit https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html
Visit Chicago Ideas at https://www.chicagoideas.com/
-Donna Montgomery, Contributing Writer