New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones spent Monday taking a tour of Charlottesville’s Confederate monuments and visiting Monticello before speaking to two crowds about a major project she leads.
Speaking first at the University of Virginia Rotunda, and later downtown at The Haven, Hannah-Jones discussed the 1619 Project and answered questions from UVa President Jim Ryan, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie and community members.
The 1619 Project is an ongoing initiative of The New York Times Magazine that began as a special issue that was published last August, around the time of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia.
“I wanted to force an acknowledgement of this day, as much as I could, to not allow it to be erased or diminished, but also not just acknowledgement of the day, because a lot of organizations did commemorations,” Hannah-Jones said. “I wanted to force that acknowledgement of what slavery brought, and the centrality of slavery and that this was not going to be a history. We were going to look at the ongoing, everyday legacy that we all live with.”
“This project is not about making white people feel guilty for something that you did not personally do, but you have to acknowledge that you are beneficiaries of the system,” she said. “If there is guilt to be felt, it should be about the ways that you continue to uphold these systems and actively partake in these systems.”
Hannah-Jones said it was fitting to have the conversation in Charlottesville and at UVa, specifically in the Rotunda.
“In some ways, it’s the perfect place to have this conversation because I feel like all of the hypocrisies and ideas that the project tries to lay bare, much of that begins right here,” she said.
When Ryan asked what her recommendations are for universities grappling with their own history, Hannah-Jones said that the least UVa should do is give free tuition to ancestors of the slaves who built the university.
“If you’re really uncomfortable with that notion, you really have to ask yourself why,” she said. “You really have to ask why you think it is a problem that the people who were forced to build this, their ancestors, because just as wealth is passed down, so is this legacy.”
Ryan did not respond on the matter.
When asked about those who have criticized the project, Hannah-Jones said their criticism was not legitimate, and she did not sit down one day and decide to make things up, and has sources to back up the questions from historians.
It has also been said that the project is too pessimistic.
“That’s a different perspective that you can have when all of this wasn’t built on the back of the oppression of your people,” she said. “I can’t have that view.”
During a question and answer period, Myra Anderson asked how she can get her voice heard as a descendant of an enslaved laborer at UVa.
“I often feel like I don’t even have a seat at the table, or my voice doesn’t count,” she said.
Hannah-Jones said she was not an activist or community organizer, but that Anderson speaking out, like she was doing at the discussion, was a way to get things accomplished.
“I also believe that being publicly shamed is the only way that powerful people are motivated to do the right thing,” she said.
UVa student and local activist Zyahna Bryant asked how people can stop universities from exploiting black students, such as asking them to appear in photographs, while not supporting them.
“I’m going to have her hand the mic back to you, and you tell the university what to do,” Hannah-Jones said.
Bryant said the university needs to fund the Office of African-American Affairs, have a real conversation about race, support black faculty and support UVa’s low-wage workers.
“If we’re not going to really do things fully and to the standard of excellence that we like to claim about being the good and great university, then we can just stop it altogether, because in my opinion it does not help to do things halfway,” she said.