‘Remember the country that we were’: Pulitzer winner Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her 1619 Project at Weber State

The New York Times Magazine writer told the Ogden crowd about her formative years and how she thinks history shapes who we are today.

(Benjamin Zack) Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks at Weber State University as part of the Browning Presents series on Friday, March 31, 2023.

When Nikole Hannah-Jones was a child growing up in Waterloo, Iowa, she was fascinated with the past. She read nearly all books in her home, especially books about the Old West, like those by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

“I was always interested in how studying the past helps you understand why things were the way they were,” Hannah-Jones said. “Even before I started studying Black history specifically, I just always held this fascination for the past.”

It’s that interest in history that brought Hannah-Jones to Weber State University on Friday evening, sharing her personal stories and groundbreaking work with a packed Ogden theater.

Hannah-Jones — winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her 1619 Project, a venture that detailed the origins of slavery in America and its impact in the hundreds of years since — spoke at the campus with KUER RadioWest host Doug Fabrizio. The Weber State event was a part of its Browning Presents series.

A New York Times Magazine staff writer, Hannah-Jones reminisced about her time growing up in Iowa and the experiences that led her to working in journalism, particularly focusing on racial inequality for much of her career. Hannah-Jones’ introductory essay for the project earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2020, and a book version of the project became a bestseller.

The 1619 Project — which was published in 2019, 400 years after slaves came to America — also became a documentary series on Hulu, which she said Friday was recently screened in her Iowa hometown.

It was in that hometown that she learned of a ship of slaves being brought to America in 1619, roughly a year before the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower to the New World. She said the date was long forgotten prior to her project, but that’s the type of information she wanted to unearth and reeducate the public.

“I’m trying to get us to remember the country that we were, not the country we’ve been taught that we were,” Hannah-Jones said.

To illustrate her point, Hannah-Jones asked the crowd how many thought George Washington’s teeth were made of wood — prompting some to raise hands or clap. But that isn’t true, she said, as the nation’s first president’s dentures were instead made of actual human teeth, pulled from the mouths of enslaved people.

She said her 1619 Project hoped to replace some myths about America with another, critiquing how aspects of history have been distorted over the years. Hannah-Jones said things like banning books circles back to people’s memories and what people take as fact for the remainder of their lives. She said book banning is a way of telling young people certain parts of history didn’t take place.

“That, to me, is the most powerful thing that a storyteller can do, is shape our collective understanding of who we are,” Hannah-Jones told the crowd, which responded with applause.

Hannah-Jones spoke with Fabrizio for roughly 45 minutes before taking questions from Weber State students. One student asked what Hannah-Jones would say to those who think teaching a more honest version of history is divisive.

“I think that’s a very convenient excuse for not teaching the truth,” Hannah-Jones replied. “It’s kind of an amazing self-own, because what you’re saying is our history is so divisive, that if we teach it, it’ll make us more divided.”

To close, Hannah-Jones said if people should take away one lesson from the 1619 Project, it’s that “this nation owes not only a great moral debt to Black Americans, but a great financial debt to Black Americans.”

She said that slavery was not a system of racism, but an economic system that profited off of the forced labor of Black Americans. Pushing for reparations, she added, “we have to make financial repair, we have to pay that debt, and it is a collective debt.”

Other national reporters have spoke at Weber State in recent years, including New York Times columnist and author David Brooks and Ronan Farrow, the New Yorker staff writer who was also awarded a Pulitzer for his reporting on disgraced film executive Harvey Weinstein.