Tomorrow, Hulu releases its highly anticipated six-part docu-series “The 1619 Project” — an extension of The New York Times number one bestselling “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” created by renowned Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. Fans and critics alike are waiting with bated breath for the expansion of this groundbreaking project executive produced by Nikole Hannah Jones, Roger Ross Williams, Caitlin Roper, Kathleen Lingo, and Oprah Winfrey. Masterfully tag lined as the “greatest story ever told,” the series builds on the original project to reframe the country’s history by contextualizing America’s “national narrative” through an investigation of the lasting effects of slavery and the immeasurable contributions of Black Americans in building the country. Each episode – “Democracy,” “Race,” “Music,” “Capitalism,” “Fear,” and “Justice” is hosted by Hannah-Jones and is adapted from essays from the original project.
Committed to confronting the country’s sorted relationship with racial injustice, award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones has built her career on chronicling and exposing the malignancy of racism in America. She has investigated issues such as the failure of the federal government to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, school resegregation across the country — and most recently —her revolutionary work with The New York Times (and now with Hulu) on “The 1619 Project.” The groundbreaking project has received worldwide recognition and has given voice and presence to the contributions and legacy of Black Americans, who have been historically silenced and made invisible through racial oppression and institutionalized racism. In fact, the project was so well received that she was awarded the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for her lead essay, “Our Democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” Hannah-Jones also co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a training, and mentorship organization dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color. However, these monumental accomplishments have not come without a cost.
The 1619 Project has generated just as much criticism and debate as it has celebration, acclaim, and support. Despite the meticulous evidence of historical facts presented throughout each essay, some historians and conservatives have called it “propaganda” and argued its merit and credibility. So much so that the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – Hannah-Jones’ alma mater — denied her tenure in 2021. According to the Legal Defense Fund, “despite her exceptional and exemplary journalism credentials and having received a faculty recommendation of tenure for the Knight Foundation-endowed Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was effectively and discriminatorily denied tenure in 2021 by the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill’s Board of Trustees.”
In response to the decision, Hannah-Jones, shared this was a challenging time for her, and understandably so. However, she persevered and accepted Howard University’s invitation to become its inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting. She recently launched the university’s Center for Journalism & Democracy in 2022. As uncomfortable as conversations about racism in America might be, the release of Hulu’s “The 1619 Project” to highlight the landmark work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times could not have come at a better time.
Many argue that racism is just as synonymous with American culture as baseball and apple pie, and continued acts of racial violence, injustice, and inequity directed toward minoritized groups are further evidence of that point. Historians and supporters of the project argue that continuing to present American history through a romanticized lens of peaceful colonization further insulates white supremacist culture. Furthermore, the country’s history must be told truthfully, thoughtfully, and analytically. Not to blame or impose guilt or shame but rather to educate, heal, and move the needle in improving racial equity in America.
Forbes: What led to Hulu’s interest in turning “The 1619 Project” into a docuseries?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Once we published The 1619 Project in August of 2019, it was not long before we were contacted by several studios interested in turning the project into TV and film. We signed a development deal with Lionsgate and brought in Harper Studios as a partner. Then, we just started shopping for a documentary series because that seemed like the most obvious first TV or film iteration. We ultimately went with ABC and Hulu just because of how much they understood the vision of what we were trying to do and the reach. When you partner with Hulu, you have access to so many different platforms, and they seemed to really get that; even though we were turning this into a new medium, it still had to remain unflinching, and we still had to be focused on the work of the project. So, that is how that partnership came together, and they have been a tremendous partner for us.
Forbes: As a Black woman doing this work, how has it been for you to deal with the criticisms and critiques of the project and some of the work you have done?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: If you want to do this type of work, you expect that you are going to face critique and criticism if you are doing it right. I did not get into journalism to make powerful people comfortable. I actually got into journalism to afflict the comfortable. So, some of the criticism is expected. It’s a testament to me and the power of the work. You do not spend a lot of time attacking something that you do not think is significant or that you are not worried about.
With that said, I am also a human being, and as strong as we may be as Black women, we still feel pain. We still have dark moments, and I’ve certainly had those over the last few years. But again, I always try to remember that, on my worst day, I don’t know suffering compared to what our ancestors have gone through. If they could get through it, I certainly can get through it. It just means that I’m doing the work that I’m supposed to be doing.
Forbes: To that end, do you feel this work should be the sole responsibility of Black people and other people of color, or should white journalists and white people, in general, be more engaged in more intentional abolitionist activism?
Nikole Hannah-Janes: I think we all should be telling these stories. I do not think that it is the obligation of Black journalists to be exposing these truths and telling these stories. But I also think the inverse of that can happen — where we get shut out of being able to tell our own stories in a big way and do not necessarily get the support of platforms or large media outlets to be able to tell our stories. So, it should be both. White Americans created these systems that we’re fighting against. So, it is their job to also expose those systems while not shutting us out from being able to do this work in the major and significant ways we want to.
Forbes: What do you want critics of “The 1619 Project” to walk away with after watching the docuseries?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: Well, I hope they will approach watching it with an open mind. I want people to engage with the project instead of just basing their opinion on what others who don’t want the project to exist have said. Because I think the arguments are pretty hard to dispute. So, I really want people to have an open mind, and I think you can’t produce an ambitious project and expect there will not be critique.
We are making an argument, and maybe at the end of the series, you think we have made it. Or, maybe at the end of the series, you do not think we’ve made it. I never expected that people have to agree with my journalism, but I want them to engage with it in good faith, take it on its merits, and be open that your mind might be changed by the things that you learn. So, my hope is that people actually watch it and are open to its ideas. What they do with that is up to them. As with any project, you can’t expect consensus on all things, and I do not on this either.
Forbes: What is next for Nikole Hannah-Jones and “The 1619 Project”?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: I do not know what’s next right now. I have spent the last four years literally working on nothing but “The 1619 Project” in its various forms, and I have spent the last two years working on this documentary series. It goes out into the world tomorrow — at least the first two episodes. So, I want to get the series out and then have some space to think about where I want to go next and what’s the next thing that I want to work on. This project was a massive undertaking. Two years and six episodes on a streaming service is a lot. So, I want to enjoy it. I want to spend a little bit of time just letting it breathe a bit.
Forbes: How do you feel working on this project over the years has shaped you?
Nikole Hannah-Jones: I have never felt more attuned to my purpose than I have over the last four years while working on this project. It has exceeded every possible ambition I could have had for it. But much more importantly than that, I’ve spent the last three years traveling all across the country — traveling across the globe talking about this work. It is such an affirmation to see what this work means to people, particularly Black people. I have been transformed. There is no doubt that I am working in my purpose and that this is what I was called to do. That’s an amazing feeling.