The most widespread narrative of American history is one recounted through the eyes of the powerful. The heroes of this story are almost exclusively white, land-owning men; rarely is the American public presented with the perspective of history’s subjugated classes. Enter the 1619 Project. The New York Times Magazine initiative is a journalistic endeavor that seeks to challenge these commonly-accepted narratives and center on Black voices in our national history.
At the heart of the project is investigative reporter and activist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whom the University of Wisconsin-Madison welcomed for its annual MLK Symposium on Tuesday. The Symposium is organized each year by Student Affairs and the Division of Diversity, Equity, and Achievement, featuring speakers who reflect and honor the values held by Martin Luther King, Jr. Previous speakers include astronaut Mae C. Jemison and journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson.
Hannah-Jones prefaced her words at the event with a qualifier: “If you came here to be uplifted, wrong speech.”
This is perhaps inherent in work like hers, which forces readers to confront difficult, uncomfortable and, at times, unbelievably cruel parts of the United States’ collective national history.
The discomfort the public feels in facing these things is necessary, Hannah-Jones said. She stressed the importance of identifying, confronting and deconstructing the oppressive ideas and systems that continue to pervade society, and facing such things head-on will always be unpleasant.
Consequently, many have resisted Hannah-Jones’ efforts to expose the underbelly of American history, fearing a potential threat to power.
"But,” she stated, “if we were a truly great nation, why would truth destroy us?”
Even when presented with that truth, American culture will often do what it can to water it down. This is evident in our perception of King himself, who was — in the words of Hannah-Jones — “not so kum-ba-yah,” as he is often portrayed.
There is a vast discrepancy between King’s actual ideals and those which are prescribed to him posthumously.
In an interview with The Daily Cardinal and other student media, Hannah-Jones stated that “most of us actually have no idea who Dr. King was… our image of him has been strategically curated, often in service of those who are opposed to the things that he actually fought for.”
King famously dreamed of a day in which one would be judged “not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.” Many today twist this into an interpretation that would condemn programs that help African-Americans, since that aid is given on the basis of race.
But to King, said Hannah-Jones, this means a society in which we have dismantled the constructs that today make such programs necessary — one that comes from a radical restructuring of power and confrontation of racism.
The timing of Hannah-Jones’ visit to Wisconsin coincides with the state legislature’s effort to ban critical race theory, which some states have already done and which would (among many other things) explicitly ban the 1619 Project from being taught in Wisconsin schools. Hannah-Jones condemned this effort as censorship and a clear departure from the ostensibly-American ideals of liberty and free speech, stating that a society that bans ideas is antithetical to one that is healthy.
“[Critical race theory laws] are all based on the idea that we have to oppose indoctrination of students, when the laws are built around indoctrination,” Hannah-Jones said to student media, underscoring that they are instead “anti-history laws” a part of a “propaganda campaign.”
In his lifetime, King harshly condemned the political moderate and the idle onlooker, and Hannah-Jones’ speech echoed him. She reaffirmed that the group obstructing real progress is not the outspoken racists, but those who sit by and fail to take a stance in solidarity with the oppressed.
But today, many who work in opposition to King’s ideals celebrate his memory. Hannah-Jones stated that King’s goal of dismantling power structures threatened the hegemony of the ruling class, leading to a strategic watering-down of his radical beliefs so his memory could not endanger their power.
In her words: “Once people know the architecture that built this inequality, then they will know how to dismantle it.”