People & Places

‘A nation founded on a lie’

Nikole Hannah Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator of The 1619 Project, spoke at Middlebury Tuesday night about her work and the importance of telling the full story of American history. Photo by Sarah Asch/VTDigger

Nikole Hannah-Jones wasn’t in Vermont to offer hope. But to a crowd of more than 700 people at Middlebury College on Tuesday night, she provided a new way of looking at U.S. history.

Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, created The 1619 Project, which was published last year and marked the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.

The project’s argument is in many ways a simple one. Hannah-Jones says that slavery, and the racism used to justify it, are foundational to the creation United States.

“What we must confront is the fundamental truth that we are a nation founded on a majestic idea that is also a lie,” Hannah-Jones told the audience in Mead Chapel this week. “The people who wrote these founding documents knew they were a lie and they knew they were committing grave hypocrisy when they wrote these words of liberty on the backs of the slave population.”

History has shown that black Americans have been the strongest advocates for democracy, she said. Black people struggled for, and won, the passage of civil rights protections including the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, Hannah-Jones said.

Yet, most Americans do not understand how the legacy of slavery impacts modern life. 

“It’s time to get over this historical amnesia that we have,” she said. “That’s why The 1619 Project exists. To force that reckoning. To force us to confront the truth of it.”

Hannah-Jones’ lecture at Middlebury was co-sponsored by the new Black Studies Department, the Office of the President, the Middlebury College Activities Board and Critical Conversations program. American History Professor Jim Ralph helped organize the event, and explained that inviting speakers like Hannah-Jones, who have contributed to the national discourse, is part of Middlebury’s mission. 

“If you get to see someone like that, then conversations radiate outward as a result,” Ralph said. “Obviously we can draw on our own faculty and staff and community, but we’re connected to this bigger world, and it’s good to have people from that world coming through.”

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The 1619 Project has achieved a level of popularity and acclaim not often seen with works of journalism. The Times sold out of several print releases, and it has been adopted as curriculum by schools and school districts across the country. 

Bill Hart, the chair of the Black Studies Department, who introduced Hannah-Jones, talked about the importance of making history accessible to the public. 

“Many of us feel these ideas haven’t really trickled down to the popular readership just yet,” he said in an interview. “By appearing in The New York Times, I think she is correcting this narrative and asking us to understand how slavery and the legacy of slavery has shaped American history.”

The 1619 Project has also garnered criticism from those who feel it seeks to unfairly rewrite the past. 

During her lecture, Hannah-Jones explained how the legacy of slavery affects everybody living in this country, regardless of race or region. The racism used to justify slavery has led to policies that affect millions, including a lack of universal health care

“It’s really critical that folks understand that our fates are all tied together and that so much about our society has to do with the way that we developed around slavery,” Hannah-Jones said in an interview with VTDigger. 

Northern states relied on slavery as much as Southern states did, Hannah-Jones said. While Vermont was the first colony to abolish slavery, she said Vermonters still benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans.

“Vermont had quite a few textile factories. Those textile factories were spinning enslaved-grown cotton,” she said. “So we can’t really draw these neat lines around who was responsible for slavery and who was not. It really was a national endeavor.”

Hannah-Jones said she first came across the year 1619 in high school, and pitched the project as a way of using a powerful journalism institution like The New York Times to excavate the legacy of slavery.

Her work on the project is far from over. The Times is launching a tour featuring her and some of the project’s contributing writers. They are also expanding the project into a series of books for elementary school students through adults. A new photo essay capturing old slave auction sites, which often go unmarked, was also recently published. 

Hannah-Jones said that the nation’s failure to acknowledge the hypocrisy and violence of the past has been a major roadblock to progress.

“When you are a country that was founded on this idea of exceptionality, that there’s never been another country like this in the world that was founded on these ideas of inalienable and God-given rights, it is a very inconvenient and very uncomfortable thing to acknowledge slavery,” she said. “It is only in the confrontation with reality and the facts that we can even have hope that we will fix it. You can’t fix a thing that you don’t acknowledge is a problem.”

And while Hannah-Jones said she does not often feel hopeful, she says the future is not preordained.

“Understanding that this system was intentionally created, that’s the only way you can understand that it can be intentionally dismantled,” she said, “None of this was inevitable, we made choices, people make choices again and again, and we make choices now. If we acknowledge that, we can make a different choice.”

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Sarah Asch

About Sarah

Sarah Asch is an intern for VTDigger covering Burlington and Chittenden County. She recently graduated from Middlebury College where she studied English literature. Previously, she has worked at the Addison Independent, the Rutland Herald and the San Francisco Public Press. She is originally from Mill Valley, California.

Email: [email protected]

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