“We were a biracial family, and as such we had all met racial issues one way or another,” said Cheryl Novotny Hannah, the mother of perhaps the most famous and influential journalist in America today. “But after Nikole took Mr. Dial’s Black history class at West High School at 16, she was talking about Black stuff all the time.”
It was Nov. 23, 2021, the week of Thanksgiving, at West High School’s auditorium in Waterloo, Iowa. I’d spotted Cheryl—a silver-blond woman of 70 with a round face and a big, warm smile that both highlighted and tempered her outspokenness—as she struggled between the rows of chairs, clinging to her walker, making her way toward the front row. She sat a few seats away from thin, young, charismatic Quentin Hart, Waterloo’s first Black mayor, recently reelected for the fourth time, whose website quoted at length from the hometown hero and the evening’s star guest, Nikole Hannah-Jones. I was sitting two rows behind, with Denny McCabe, one of Hannah-Jones’ high school history teachers, and his wife. Behind us, filling up roughly two-thirds of the auditorium, a crowd of some 700 people was waiting for Hannah-Jones to appear onstage alongside Ray Dial, the Black studies teacher who first introduced her to the significance of the year 1619, and to unconventional writers who would influence her thinking on American history. They were here to present the book version of “The 1619 Project,” which had been released a week earlier. A handful of kids—the future after-school students of the 1619 Freedom School program that Hannah-Jones would open soon in downtown Waterloo, I was told—were also in attendance.
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