By Diedre Johnson
It’s hard to believe that The 1619 Project debuted in the New York Times Magazine way back in August of 2019. The researched, informative, long-form essays described how the enslavement of newly arrived African people in Virginia was the beginning of what formed North America. The series won its creator, staff reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize and also initiated years of controversy among those who said that not only were her facts wrong, but that the theories explored would too drastically change history as it was known.
Parents, politicians, teachers and others spoke out about the so-called “critical race theory,” and how it would affect the nation either negatively or positively. Hannah-Jones, (already an award-winning writer and graduate of New York City’s Cuny School of Journalism) was initially denied a tenured position at the University of North Carolina. When university officials changed their minds, Hannah-Jones turned them down and accepted a position at the historically Black Howard University.
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Once the original project published in August of 2019, we had several studios that reached out to us asking to create something for television or film based on The 1619 Project. We signed a big development deal with Lionsgate, and it just made sense that the first iteration for TV or film of The 1619 Project would be a documentary series.
Paste: How has life changed for you throughout this whole thing; the article series, the book and now the documentary, both negatively and positively?
Hannah-Jones: I think the biggest thing is, for most of my career as a journalist, I mean I’m a print reporter—I didn’t expect people would know what I looked like. I didn’t expect people would know my name. I didn’t expect to become a symbol, either a symbol people really love or a symbol that people really revile.
So I had to learn to live publicly in a different way and to not have kind of that anonymity that most print reporters have. For the most part, it’s been a tremendous blessing because I also have gotten to see what this work means to so many people. And of course, you become a journalist because you want to have an impact. And whether you love 1619 or hate 1619, you know the date 1619, so I’ve been successful.
Paste: Will this be the same audience as the essay series and the book, or do you want this to be a different audience?
Hannah-Jones: Oh, yes, I’m sure it will be a different audience, just because the reach of television as a medium is just so much greater than you can ever get from a magazine project or from a book. Since we announced and released the teaser, folks are like, “I’ve never got around to reading the book but I can’t wait to see the documentary.” And those are really the people that we’re hoping to reach.
Paste: Were people surprised to find out that you were biracial?
Hannah-Jones: I think some people are surprised. Some people aren’t. I mean it’s not a secret. I was in the documentary on being biracial called The Loving Generation some years ago. I’ve talked about it, and in America, if people watched the race episode, they’ll learn a lot of the history of this. Of course, we know that there have always been biracial Black people who identify as Black because that’s how race works in this country. So I imagine some people are surprised and many people aren’t.
Paste: For the people who don’t know, critical race theory is such a [controversial] subject. Can you define it in your way of feeling and thinking about it?
Hannah-Jones: Sure. There’s the “critical race theory” that we’re all talking about now, which is a result of a Republican propaganda campaign. And then there’s the actual critical race theory, which is a legal theory that looks at why is it some 50-60 years after the Civil Rights Movement—when Black Americans achieved equal legal rights—that we still see so much inequality in American society? Particularly when it comes to Black Americans.
It is a theory that tries to analyze the way that racism and racial disadvantage has been structured into our society. The way that it is systemic and therefore still replicates even though the legal barriers have fallen, which to me is not controversial at all. And just to be clear, The 1619 Project is called Critical Race Theory. It’s not critical race theory, but certainly, I’ve been influenced by critical race theory and I believe in the theory.
Paste: What are your feelings about  now that you’ve done all of these different projects? Do you think it achieved all you wanted to?
Hannah-Jones: In some ways this project has exceeded everything I could have ever imagined. I just wanted to do a project in the magazine about the legacy of slavery, and couldn’t have imagined at that point that it would become all of these different iterations. So I had a goal, which seemed in some ways ridiculous when I first pitched the project, as I wanted Americans to know the date 1619. And I wanted 1619 to become a part of the national lexicon. I certainly think that has been achieved, but the larger goal of the project is redress for the legacy of slavery, and redress, meaning reparations. That’s a project that is as yet unfinished but that I hope this work will help further.
Paste: What does reparations look like for you?
Hannah-Jones:To me, reparations is multipronged, but it begins with individual cash payments to descendants of American slavery. And then it also includes substantial investment into Black neighborhoods, Black institutions and also strong enforcement of existing civil rights laws.
But I’m also not the person who thinks I have all the answers about how reparations should look. And I think ultimately, reparations, what it looks like, needs to be decided by the people who should receive them.
The 1619 Project is currently streaming on Hulu.
Diedre Johnson is a Los Angeles-based writer covering entertainment in its many forms. You can follow her @diedremichelle.