The University of Houston-Downtown welcomed Nikole Hannah-Jones Feb. 9 as the featured speaker in the UHD President’s Distinguished Lecture Series on Justice, Equity & Inclusion.
The Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and scholar is widely known as the founder of the 1619 Project, an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine begun in August 2019 — the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in America.
In his opening remarks, President Loren J. Blanchard described his goal for including Hannah-Jones in the lecture series:
“It is my hope that we can learn from each other’s encounters in addressing the Black experience as well as finding possible solutions to the challenges Nikole Hannah-Jones has identified in her tremendous work.”
Hannah-Jones joined more than 700 attendees in the virtual question-and-answer session “Inclusive Excellence, The Way Forward: Truth, History and the 1619 Project.” Dr. Vida Robertson, UHD Associate Professor of English and Director of the UHD Center for Critical Race Studies, moderated the event.
“The 1619 Project provides a sense of hope and encouragement that many of my students never imagined American history would offer them,” Robertson said.
In the hour-and-a-half session, which was open to the entire UHD community, Hannah-Jones explained the impetus behind the 1619 Project. “It argues for an understanding of society that places slavery and Black contributions at the center of our national narrative,” she said. “Through a series of essays, we argue that much of the society we live in right now has been shaped by slavery.”
Hannah-Jones felt a combination of journalism and history was required to convey this critical narrative. “I wanted to use writing to (hopefully) change our society,” she said, “But I had to build in the history of slavery to help us understand how we got where we are — the racial disparity that exists today.”
She also added, “Our inability to grapple with our past and the way we have obscured the role of slavery and anti-Blackness have made it impossible for us to actually be a country that lives up to our highest ideals.” She pointed to the need for all Americans to review an unvarnished history of slavery and understand the contributions of Black Americans to America’s economic success.
When asked about the very public, very negative responses the former U.S. President and right-wing groups had to the 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones responded, “My primary message is, read the book. I want people to honestly grapple with this history. Whether we acknowledge it or not, it happened, and it is shaping our society every day.”
Blanchard noted, “These conversations can be uncomfortable, but the more we can bring them to the light of day, the better likelihood we possess of building an equitable and just future.”
Following the Q&A session, Hannah-Jones participated in a small-group session with students from UHD’s African American history and literature classes. Topics ran the gamut from Black Americans’ representation in the U.S. political structure to the nuances of integration to the idea of plantations as celebratory locations. Her final message to students:
“You control your own excellence. Focus on the things that make you as undeniable as possible,” she emphasized. “I can only imagine the light you will be for future students.”
Hannah-Jones holds a Master of Arts in Mass Communication from the University of North Carolina and a Bachelor of Arts in History and African American Studies from the University of Notre Dame. Presently, she is the Knight Chair in Race & Journalism at Howard University’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications.
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