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The People’s Professor: Nikole Hannah-Jones Talks Howard Thus Far And Expanding Her 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones signs her first edition copies of The 1619 Project. Photo courtesy of the Instagram @nikolehannahjones.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was selected to be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University, is now in her second semester of teaching with plans to further her brand. 

Hannah-Jones accepted her position at Howard last fall after her alma mater, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, attempted to make her the first Knight Chair at the school without a tenured position, citing discrimination as the cause. 

Hannah-Jones is the 2020 Pulitzer Prize recipient for Commentary for The 1619 Project, a New York Times magazine special that outlined the current consequences of the period of enslavement in America and the decades of human rights work that followed. Having been developed into a book, the content of the magazine and book are the guiding curriculum for The 1619 Project course at Howard. Gabriel Bryant, a sophomore studying audio production at Howard University, expressed the impact of the course.

“This class has made me become more proud of who I am and just proud to be Black now that I understand who and where I come from and all the hardships that we went through, yet we still survive and progress,” Bryant said.

In expanding the 1619 Project Network, Hannah-Jones has opened The 1619 Freedom School in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, where they have built a curriculum for students surrounding literacy and Black history. 

She is also working on The 1619 Project Documentary for Hulu with Roger Ross Williams, the first African American to win an Academy Award for directing, and his production company. This is a part of a larger deal between Hannah-Jones, Lionsgate and Oprah Winfrey to expand the “1619” network into films, television series and other content.

“I feel like we come from a collective community that understands that our own individual success is insignificant if everyone else around us is suffering,” Hannah-Jones, who credits all of her success to her community and people who came before her and fought for the rights that she now benefits from, said. 

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The Iowa native recalls being one of the students taken out of the low-performing school in her neighborhood and bused to a better one in her city as a part of a program that forced the city to use desegregation funds for this effort following a lawsuit from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

 “What I know from those experiences is that there is nothing wrong with Black children, that Black children are capable of doing the same type of academic work as anyone else, and that they can achieve the same as anyone else. But, generationally Black children have never received the same resources,” Hannah-Jones, who can only imagine what it would have meant for her to be exposed to a book like the 1619 Project at a young age, said.

Considering this, the professor is impacting students at the elementary and post-secondary level, having taken two of her Howard University students, Allen Mays and Deanna Hayden, on a trip with her to Rome, Italy, to meet with the Vatican Council to discuss the role of the Catholic church in perpetuating the Transatlantic Slave Trade and reparations. They also experienced a pilgrimage in Accra, Ghana, where they all participated in a traditional water ceremony at Slave River, where Africans took their final baths before being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean.

Hayden, a Ph.D. student and graduate assistant in the Communication, Culture and Media Studies department at Howard University, beams when speaking about how much she admires and appreciates Nikole Hannah-Jones, but would describe her in one word as a fighter. 

 “She actually puts what she writes in her books to work. She didn’t have to invite [us] to Italy to discuss reparations,” Hayden says,“ In fighting that fight, you have to be multidimensional in your approach; her being at Howard is just another part of her fight. Her offering resources to other organizations that align with her mission is a part of that fight.”

Along with her resources, Hannah-Jones also brought $20 million in donations to help establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard as a part of her pledge to increase diversity in professional journalism. 

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Hannah-Jones believes that it is not enough to simply encourage literacy, but affirms that students are more engaged and more likely to succeed when they are able to see themselves reflected in the text that they interact with. She already sees these results in her fourth and fifth-graders at the 1619 Freedom School as a focal point for the program is to nurture the love for reading that many of the students already had. 

“I think it is really to be a door opener, so often throughout my academic career and my professional career I was having to fight to be in certain spaces. So I have always pledged to be for others what I really needed when I was trying to make it,“ Hannah-Jones said. 

The Pulitzer Center, a nonprofit organization that curates journalism content for use in the classroom, currently distributes resources about The 1619 Project to more than 5,000 classrooms across the country. 

Copy edited by Nhandi Long-Shipman

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