Nikole Hannah-Jones is the most important journalist in the history of the New York Times. She has transformed her field in ways that place her among the most important journalists in world history.
I offer this perspective as someone whose work recovered the legacy of one of the world’s greatest journalists – T. Thomas Fortune. Fortune’s journalism and poetry carried the legacy of Frederick Douglass, while establishing platforms for Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Marcus Garvey. His ideas nourished the first generation of civil rights activists after the Reconstruction period and inspired the voices of the Harlem Renaissance.
Hannah-Jones matches this powerful contribution by creating platforms for a new generation of writers and artists in the tradition of the Black Speculative Arts, while enshrining the legacies of Black Arts Movement scholars and Hip Hop innovators over the last forty years.
Hearing the criticisms of older historians committed to celebratory ideologies of liberty, while constantly ignoring the work of Black scholars, Hannah-Jones rose to the challenge in the introduction to her new book. She engaged multiple strands of historiography, showcasing the variety of historical writing on the topic of enslavement and the American Revolution. Though she omits the amazing saga of Colonel Tye between 1775 and 1777 and much of the emerging scholarship on the economic importance of enslavement in New England and the Mid-Atlantic (available now at the Northeast Regional Slavery Index),
she re-asserts the body of evidence to support the project’s claim about the importance of enslavement in the eighteenth century British North American colonies and the early emergent years of the American republic. It is an unparalleled contribution to journalism. More importantly, it provides an enduring bridge between social history and the mass media that enables the nation, and democracies worldwide, to deny the advances of authoritarianism that have emerged over the last thirty years.
The voices in the body of text deserve ongoing engagement in the months and years ahead by writers and scholars from every tradition. Indeed, this new book gives readers a chance to imagine new ways to read, learn, write, and communicate. However, it is the Acknowledgements section that carries a powerful lesson for further exploration. Andre Carrington opens the door to this concept in his book, Speculative Blackness. In it, he argues for the power of the audience to find meaning beyond an author’s intent. A classic note in the tradition of literary analysis, Carrington brings this insight to the forefront of understanding the Black Speculative Arts, emphasizing the power of an audience’s imagination. Hannah-Jones goes further in the new version of the 1619 Project – she thanks the scholars, writers, and editors who directly impacted the production and development of the work between 2019 and 2021. She thanks her collaborators, her friends, her partner, and her daughter.
Then, she takes a moment to thank her audience of educators – the nameless and unnamed. Years ago, in an online conversation with Abdul Alkalimat during the first months of the H-Afro-Am platform, I suggested that Black scholars should share more of their ideas, methods, and bodies of evidence to accelerate the processes of liberation. Other participants scolded me, making arguments for individual intellectual property and copyright protections. I replied that I had too many ideas to try to own all of them and that I would always be grateful when someone found an idea I offered a worthwhile pursuit of their own. The simple existence of the good idea in a public forum – with the chance to end white supremacy – is enough for me. Since 2007, I have launched dozens (maybe hundreds) of these projects, including the astonishing collaborative platforms of the African American Intellectual History Society and the Urban History Association. I am most proud of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project – an initiative I amplified from its first public mention and organized national support to expand its audience from the moment that its release date was announced. Hannah-Jones was the first person I mentioned as a speaker for the Social Justice Academy I created in New Jersey. She will always be one of my top recommendations for future projects and initiatives – especially her new network, The 19th.
In my life, I am often proud to be one of the unnamed resources that supports a world rooted in justice and equity. I have never been more proud to be one of the nameless educators that stand alongside Hannah-Jones’ family and the infinite body of ancestors who made the 1619 Project possible.