Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has been reporting on race, education and segregation for decades, picking up the MacArthur Fellowship, Polk and Peabody awards along the way. Now at The New York Times Magazine, where she created The 1619 Project, she said she’s “doing exactly what I’ve worked my entire career to do … The only reason I ever wanted to become a journalist was to write about racial inequalities.”
Her narratives blanket the Black experience, from deeply entrenched racial inequalities within schools to the lasting legacy of slavery in America. Each one wrapped in history with race as a common thread. Never has that been clearer than with The 1619 Project, which centers slavery at the heart of this country’s history.
There’s more to come: The 1619 Project is expanding thanks to the involvement of media giants Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Have you always been someone who doesn’t mind stirring things up?
I was raised in a household where we talked a lot about social justice. In high school, my girlfriend and I and some other Black kids tried to start this club called the Cultural Enrichment Club. We led walkouts to try to get Black Studies to be mandatory and a yearlong course. We marched on the administration building to try to get them to address what we thought was unfair treatment. I was very active in the high school and was featured in the newspaper for that activism. Really my whole career was trying to organize my fellow students and also trying to address what I thought was a fundamental racial unfairness of our school.
Did you have any Black teachers?
I had one. Mr. Dial, who was my Black Studies and Economics teacher. I told him our high school newspaper never talked about the kids like us and our experiences, and he said that I should join. I made a proposal to have a column called “From the African Perspective,” and then did a presentation in front of the newspaper. They ended up allowing me and the white girl who had also applied to be a columnist, even though they only had one position. I won my first journalism award from the Iowa High School Press Association for a big column I did on all the stereotypes that the bused Black kids faced. That’s kind of where I got hooked on the idea of both studying African American history and becoming a journalist.
Do you remember any of the columns you wrote that stood out?
The first column I ever wrote was an investigation into whether Jesus was Black or white. It certainly caused an uproar. I was certainly proud of that.
What was Notre Dame like for you?
Academically, it was easy. But culturally, it was very, very difficult — a very small Black population and very wealthy, elite white population. Quite conservative, even though they probably didn’t consider themselves that way. The first place I was ever called a nigger. I felt extremely isolated. And the small Black population there, we just really stuck together. Well, all the people of color because we were such a small population altogether. It was not to me a welcoming and warm place, and I have not been back — maybe once since I graduated almost 20 years ago.
Why UNC-Chapel Hill for your master’s in journalism?
I only applied to graduate schools in the South. UNC sent me a letter saying that I was being considered for a full-ride fellowship that also came with a stipend. That’s why I went — it was all paid for and an excellent program.
What was your first beat after you were hired by the Raleigh News & Observer?
Education. I got hired right after No Child Left Behind. I became intensely interested in the issue of school and segregation and inequality just by virtue of covering the schools in a very segregated and unequal school district.
And your experiences at The Oregonian?
That was a dark period. At that time, The Oregonian was really known as a narrative paper. In my cover letter — I’ll never forget it — I was very direct. I wrote: “I want to write about race. This is why I became a journalist.” So if this is not what they wanted in a reporter, don’t bother with me. They hired me. About a year in — I started off in a bureau — I got hired to work downtown in the main office. From the moment I went downtown, my wanting to write about race became a problem. Basically, I was told I was wanting to write about Black people too much, that I was being too biased. It got so bad that I literally was considering leaving journalism. I had all these stories I wanted to write and I would pitch them and be told “no” when I’d see the same story in The New York Times two weeks later. The only reason I didn’t leave journalism is because it was 2006, 2007, 2008 and the bottom had fallen out of the industry, so I couldn’t find a job somewhere else. But I also could not think of what else I wanted to do with my life. I couldn’t give up on journalism, because all that I wanted to do was what I felt was my mission to do.
How was being at ProPublica different, and was it transformative personally or professionally after being at The Oregonian?
ProPublica was a very liberating experience. Before I agreed to come there, I had a conversation with Steve Engelberg about my struggles at The Oregonian and told him if I couldn’t write about the things that were important to me, then I wasn’t interested in coming. He assured me that they were hiring me to do the work that I wanted to do and that’s exactly what happened there. I got to pick whatever stories I wanted to do, I was able to do them and get the support that I needed to do them. That was also the first time I really started my official job as investigative reporter, and where I got the time, resources and the support to do long-term, long-form projects. That’s where my work started to get a national platform.
Some of the stories that you did there on racism and police brutality are just as easily publishable today.
We are a country founded on racial inequality and a caste system and we put a lot of effort into maintaining that. So no work of journalism, no matter how profound, is going to have the power to fundamentally change the structure of our society.
And then The New York Times came calling.
I remember walking down and getting on the subway, and I just started crying because I was actually kind of in shock. I had never applied. I never considered I would work [there]. I didn’t have those types of ambitions. I made it very clear that I didn’t think I was New York Times material. I knew there was only one type of job I was going to take at the Times and that was to work at the magazine.
When do you feel most in your element as an investigative reporter?
I love digging through documents, really trying to find that document that someone didn’t want you to see that really illuminates the wrong that you’re trying to write about. It was the chase — tracking down people, tracking down sources, sometimes calling the same person five, six, seven, eight times trying to get them to speak with you or pass you documents. Getting those breakthroughs that come from all of your digging is like adrenaline and accomplishment — and I actually kind of miss that.
If someone comes at you on Twitter you serve it right back to them. How does your self-proclamation of “smart and thuggish” come into play when responding to these tweets?
I don’t come from a refined household or a refined community. Respect is really important where I come from because sometimes it’s literally all that you had. And because of that, oftentimes I’m like, Nikole, don’t even respond. But when you’ve had to prove yourself your entire life … I just don’t find a need to play games and put on airs. If you come to me with something crazy, don’t think just because I work with The New York Times that I’m not going to come at you back. That’s not me. I don’t have a New York Times pedigree; I don’t have a pedigree at all. And if you’re going to be disrespectful then expect that I’m going to push back on that. There are certainly times where I wish I don’t and where I’m just like, you need to log off Twitter. But as a Black woman, there are just so many people who have always tried to disrespect me my whole life, that I just don’t have any tolerance for it.
You cofounded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Journalism. What was the need?
It’s so important for all three of us founders to not just find success ourselves but to help other people find that success. We train hundreds of journalists [and] help Black journalists expose the way that power is wielded against our community and to do the type of reporting that can change lives.
As a Black mother, how have you explained to your daughter what’s going on with this state of anti-Black racism and police brutality?
How do you explain when your daughter’s asking you: “Why would that police officer do that to that man?” There’s no reason, there’s no good reason. And she’ll ask me the same questions, sometimes three or four times, because the answer’s not satisfactory. I tell her he shouldn’t have done that. It was wrong and it was nothing that man did to deserve that. Then I try to explain the history to her. I don’t try to shield her from these things. This is the world we live in, and I have to give her the armor to exist in this world.
Do you feel that The 1619 Project was a culmination of what you are here to do?
“Culmination” feels like that’s it. Hopefully, that’s not it. I’ve been studying Black history for 25 years, reporting for almost two decades and I do think all of my work, thinking, studying and the things I’ve gone through in my career to get me to be in a position to even bring something like The 1619 Project into the world — yeah, I think it is a culmination of all that came before. The 1619 Project is a once-in-a-career project and I don’t need to top it. It will stand on its own. I’ll do — other work, and I hope I’ll do other great work. But I am perfectly content in understanding that I will never do anything like this project again. I don’t need to and I don’t feel badly about that.
What role will you have in the future of the project now that Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate are involved?
I’ll be producing and involved in all the creative decisions about how we expand, what projects we do, who we partner with and what stories we tell. I’m a writer, and I’m not a TV or film producer, so I’m really interested in having conversations with creatives on their ideas about the project. Certainly, the most natural fit is a documentary series that follows along the lines of the podcast and the magazine. But there’s tons of different ways that we can go with this, including Broadway or a scripted miniseries or limited series — really unlimited avenues. What’s most important to me, though, is that every single thing we produce really adheres to, and has fidelity to, the rigors and strengths of the project. That we don’t produce anything that’s watered down.
How does it all feel?
Very surreal. I don’t know quite what to make of it all. I just produced a project that I thought needed to be written and didn’t give any thought to what might come of it — had no ambition outside of trying to produce the best work of journalism that we could produce so that it would captivate people. And that a place like Lionsgate and someone like Oprah would want to work to expand it into areas that weren’t even on my mind is amazing and surreal and unexpected. And I think it’s just important that because this was not ever my vision, or my desire, that the only thing that really matters to me out of all of this is that we produce work that I can still be proud of and that still tells this story and our stories in an honest way.
How has 45’s presidency transformed your work?
In some ways, the beginning of the Trump presidency made my work more challenging, because lots of white progressives wanted to blame everything on Trump and not really look at the way that Democrats and cities run by so-called liberals were maintaining and producing inequality. During Obama, a lot of white people wanted to believe we were post-racial. They really didn’t understand why certain reporters like myself wanted to keep dragging up this race stuff. No one’s making that argument now.
I counted 13 mentions of reparations in your latest essay [What Is Owed], leading me to the 13th Amendment. Coincidental or intentional?
Totally coincidental. I didn’t decode a secret message in there. That would’ve been poetic but I can’t take credit for that. Maybe that was the ancestors intervening.
What are your battle scars that people don’t see?
People don’t realize how personally I take my work and how important it is. People say a lot of dismissive and ugly things, and it actually really does bother me because I really do this work out of a sense of mission. I work really hard at it and I take a lot of pride in it. … When I was working on 1619, I didn’t weigh myself but I must’ve gained 20 pounds. I was drinking a lot, I was eating a lot and I wasn’t sleeping very well. Cried a lot. So clearly, there’s an emotional and mental tax of doing this type of work. Luckily, I’ve been using the shutdown to try and reclaim that part of my life. This work does take a toll on you, and part of that toll is that there’s no separation. I’m not writing about someone else’s community. I’m writing about my own. So it’s not like at 6 o’clock when it’s time to go home, I’m done with the work. It’s always there and that can be hard.
Would you ever want to teach history?
I would love to teach. Probably not history, probably journalism. But the type of journalism that I do, which is deeply historical. And I would love to do that at an HBCU at some point. If it was in a three- to fi ve-year plan, it would be in addition to journalism, because I’m not done writing yet and I have more work to do.
Photo by James Estrin/The New York Times