“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’ middle school history teachers. 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.
I had spent the previous two days visiting Waterloo’s East Side, the poorest part of this neglected city of some 67,000, where the Black residents used to live. I’d seen the half-decrepit wooden houses lining empty streets, the two grocery stores, the abandoned churches, and the city’s last bordello, which closed in the late 1940s, but whose three little blue houses still stand in a vacant weed-covered lot, 10 minutes away from the Hannah home, where Hannah-Jones grew up and where Cheryl still lives today. There was a sign warning people against committing suicide in front of the railroad tracks, near the remains of the Illinois Central line. During the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970, millions of Black people fled the Jim Crow South for predominately urban lives in the North; on the Illinois Central Railroad, which connected Chicago with New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, Waterloo was a way station for many. Those who disembarked there were met on the platforms by recruiters from the city’s two main economic hubs at the time: the John Deere factory, which supplied agricultural equipment to farmers throughout the region, and the Rath Packing Company plant, whose ruined, massive brick walls and black windows still tower over the area. Hannah-Jones’ father, Milton, worked in the Rath slaughterhouse for three years in the mid-1970s.
The Annals of Iowa catalogs the names of some of Waterloo’s forgotten working-class heroes—Velma Otterman Schrader, Punchy “CIO” Ackerson, Lowell Hollenbeck—who, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, started agitating for “anti-racial unionism”; by 1950, they put together an Anti-Discrimination Committee within the slaughterhouse’s workforce. Most Black residents during that era were first hired as strikebreakers; it was only in later years, after having worked their way in with force, that they would finally be allowed to do certain low-paid, difficult jobs at the Rath plant, such as floor cleaning and carcass disposal. The Anti-Discrimination Committee was conceived by Local 46, the slaughterhouse’s union affiliated with the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA), as a strategy to push back against management’s cynical use of the city’s African Americans. It succeeded: Leading Black unionists like Russell Lasley and the Burt brothers soon joined Local 46. Attempts at racial integration were successful enough in this era that during the massive strike of 1948, when a Black strikebreaker shot a white union member dead, Local 46 was able to prevent any interracial fallout among the plant’s workers. By then, the nondiscrimination program of Local 46 had been adopted by the UPWA nationwide, in effect transforming the union into a powerful agent of the rising Civil Rights Movement across the country.
During the 1950s, the Local 46 struggle began to spill over into Waterloo as a whole, thanks largely to Anna Mae Weems, a local NAACP activist. Weems was one of the first Black women to gain admission to Rath’s all-white sliced bacon department, where she was at first met with hostility by the white women who worked there, but soon became their union representative. She quickly merged Local 46’s labor activism with the Waterloo NAACP’s civil rights program, so that both jointly fought for job opportunities for African Americans in grocery stores downtown and filed charges against restaurants that refused to hire them. It was Weems, who now is 96 years old, who invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to town in 1959. They grew so close that almost a decade later, in the spring of 1968—only a few months before King was assassinated—she traveled with him to Memphis to support the sanitation workers strike. She then returned to Waterloo to help catalyze the Black students strike at East High School—a movement that would give birth, among other things, to the first Black-owned educational radio station in Iowa, KBBG, to this day one of Waterloo’s main cultural assets.
After another period of political activity in the 1970s and early 1980s, when several Black citizens, mostly female, ran in city council and Board of Supervisors elections with biracial support, Waterloo’s activist engine eventually sputtered out. Facing structural changes in the meatpacking industry, the Rath plant began to fire its permanent employees in favor of a cheaper seasonal migrant workforce from Eastern Europe before shutting down completely in 1984-85, putting an end to Waterloo’s relative prosperity. But the lessons of the city’s consequential history remain palpable and relevant: Like Weems and King, Waterloo as a whole embodied an approach to the civil rights struggle that understood issues of race and class as overlapping.
Nothing like this was mentioned on the evening Nikole Hannah-Jones came to West High to speak on the history of race in America. The event began with a speech by a young educator and administrator there, Akwi Nji, who introduced herself as “a teacher, an artist, and also a mother,” whose work involves, she said, the creation of “textile narratives” (clothing whose colors and materials are meant to “reveal” and “unveil racial injustices”), and who praised Hannah-Jones, in the American class-blind parlance of the day, “for her work as a journalist, a writer, a communicator—which is to say, her work as an artist.” In the same vein, Nji also praised Hannah-Jones for making Time magazine’s list of what she called, in a rising crescendo, “the 100 most influential personalities IN THE WORLD.” Quentin Hart then took the stage for a briefer, more mayoral speech, before offering Hannah-Jones a giant mock key to the city, a good-humored gesture that helped underline the quasi-informality of the whole evening—the general feeling that we were witnessing a family reunion of sorts. The city’s golden child had made it big, really big—a fact that was at least as significant as the message she was here to preach.
“She was in my class a long time ago, but today, I am very much her student, inspired by her,” Denny McCabe told me the night before the event, as we shared a drink in one of the few bars downtown. McCabe, a warm man in his late 60s, who is now retired, was understandably proud of his former pupil. “Current teachers,” he would write two weeks later in the local newspaper, “when it’s just you and your students in your classroom … imagine the quiet girl in the back as a future Pulitzer Prize winner … She was in my classroom once, maybe she’s in yours now.” He told me, “I read The 1619 Project in book [form] after Nikole sent me two copies of it, and I told her in an email it really made me want to teach again. Whether they’ll have any use for an ‘old white man’ like me [at the 1619 Freedom School], I don’t know, but I’m ready to help any way I can.”
McCabe had also been a drummer in a rock band for many years. These days, clearly galvanized by Hannah-Jones’ success, he’d been reading several books on racism. “Ibram X. Kendi’s, for instance. It’s a good book! I joined the Cedar Valley Anti-Racism Coalition, too,” he said. “I held a book discussion on Zoom, during the lockdown, even though it was a nightmare and I hate Zoom.” On a whim, feeling that he should leave “the safe confines of retirement” and join the fight “in the trenches,” McCabe said he also purchased a web domain for “undergroundclassroom” just in case “there’s a setup” and 1619 gets banned, and he’s in a position to teach students the “forbidden history” that he says they would not be allowed to learn anymore in the event of a potential reactionary upsurge. “I’d do it free,” he said. “For now, I suggested my anti-racist group do a GoFundMe fundraiser to buy as many copies of The 1619 Project as we can, and offer them for free to local bookstores, so they can be passed along.”
McCabe’s enthusiasm was clearly genuine and well-founded, and my feelings of skepticism were perhaps misplaced. Who was I, a visitor from abroad, a Frenchman, neither a resident nor a citizen of the United States—what did I know of the brutality of the reactionary backlashes that do in fact disgrace American history? What did I know about living in this intemperate and volcanic country, which can seemingly go from the best to the worst version of itself almost overnight?
So I refrained from telling McCabe that from where I stood, a Pulitzer Prize winner and the most famous employee of the The New York Times, whose work has received tens of millions of dollars in grants from the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Knight Foundation, who is a tenured professor at a university as prestigious as Howard, and whose work is now a part of the school curriculum in many states—and is also being turned into a docuseries by Oprah Winfrey and Lionsgate Entertainment—hardly seems “underground.”
I recognized in McCabe that evening a kind of irreconcilable—and in my view, quintessentially American—conflict between veneration for individual success within the system, and an impulse for rebellion against the system. But this inner duality was as nothing compared with the paradoxical spectacle of the following evening, when Hannah-Jones sat down for a one-hour conversation with Ray Dial. Tall, lean, with a deep, grave voice, Dial, now 66, is the Black studies teacher whom Hannah-Jones’ mother identified as the decisive intellectual influence in her formative years. He was there at Hannah-Jones’ request, and the two spent a good part of the evening fondly remembering the way Dial would smuggle into his class texts that were, he said, otherwise unavailable at West High in the 1990s. He did so by distributing photocopies of books (“one page here and there”) and by projecting pages from his personal copies onto the wall. An admirable, almost heroic countercultural aura surrounded his anecdotes. The crowd laughed fondly with him.
Among the texts Dial introduced to his students, he said, was Lerone Bennett Jr.’s 1962 book Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1962. Hannah-Jones says it was in Bennett’s book that she first read of the fateful year 1619, when, in late August, the White Lion privateer ship landed in Point Comfort, Virginia, carrying the first Black slaves to the future United States. The date made such a profound impact on her, she explained, that two decades later, her penchant for constantly mentioning it became a kind of joke at The New York Times, until at last she found the right opportunity to use it.
A lead editor and writer at Ebony magazine for more than 50 years, Lerone Bennett Jr. was a Mississippi-born journalist who attracted attention in 1968 with an article called “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?” He answered the question in 2000 with an over 600-page volume called Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream, in which he argued that the Emancipation Proclamation, which Martin Luther King Jr. would come to see as “a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves,” did not free any slaves. In contrast to the testimony of Frederick Douglass and other emancipated Black Americans, Bennett claims that Lincoln was pro-slavery all his life, that he was “forced into [the] glory” of abolition by slaves, and that the “deportation” of Black people to overseas colonies remained, until the end, the “only racial solution” for which Lincoln had hoped. Although it never happened, the “deportation” plan was, for Bennett, proof that “racial cleansing, became, 72 years before the Third Reich … the cornerstone of President Lincoln’s policy.” One of Abraham Lincoln’s chief contributions to history, Bennett seems to argue, was to serve as inspiration for Adolf Hitler.
There was, of course, no time or inclination that evening in the West High auditorium to go into any of this. Like most of the other details of Dial and Hannah-Jones’ exchange, Bennett’s name was part of the topsoil that washed away under the heavy rains of the conversation’s main theme: slavery as the origin of the United States. Indeed, the event as a whole seemed to serve as an extension of the release of The 1619 Project by The New York Times Magazine in August 2019, which kicked up a fuss when several eminent historians accused it of factual errors, such as the claims that Abraham Lincoln maintained a consistent opposition to racial equality, and that African Americans have fought for their rights “for the most part” without non-Black support. The most salient of these apparent flaws was one of the premises of the project itself: that the American Revolutionary War was largely fought in order to protect slavery from the efforts of abolitionists in England.
I had started to try to understand this admittedly alien debate while traveling in New York, before I came to Waterloo; for me, the most memorable comment about it came from a friend who teaches literature at Columbia University (who asked to remain anonymous). “What about the inaccuracies?” she asked me, by way of explaining her support of The 1619 Project despite the historians’ objections. “Are John Ford movies accurate? Were history books of the ’50s accurate?”
“This is America,” she said. “We vulgarize everything.”
From the fall of 2019 onward, the project’s widely perceived factual inaccuracies—and the denials by Hannah-Jones and the Times that they harmed the project’s claim to history as such, rather than to mere journalistic commentary—gave Donald Trump a predictable opening for his so-called 1776 Commission, which, on the pretext of getting things right, aimed to reframe American history with the attempt to diminish the significance of the legacy of slavery. Another foreseeable consequence, it could be argued, may be found in an attempt during the summer of 2022 to replace the word “slavery” in Texas public school classrooms with the nonsensical term “involuntary relocation.” (The Texas Board of Education struck down the proposal in a unanimous decision.)
The right-wing backlash to the project has been mostly offensive, but the long-term impact of 1619’s genuine flaws may have been more damaging than anticipated. On Aug. 17, 2022, when president of the American Historical Association James H. Sweet published a column in the organization’s magazine mildly criticizing The 1619 Project for being a “powerful” journalistic event rather than a work of history, he launched a storm of criticism on Twitter, where several activist historians (most of whom, for what it’s worth, were white) demanded his immediate resignation on the perfectly circular logic that any public criticism of the project is “going to be weaponized by the right.” Others claimed the project is indeed a work of scholarship, but did not rebut any prior claims of error. Hannah-Jones, who in 2020 claimed that “I’ve always said that The 1619 Project is not a history. It is a work of journalism,” retweeted the criticism of Sweet.
This is America. We vulgarize everything.
It is episodes like these that sparked my fascination in the first place. In the course of researching, reporting, and interviewing for this story, I became less interested in finding out how exactly The 1619 Project came to be or in unearthing the gossipy details of Hannah-Jones’ role at The New York Times—a tired story, in large part, of digital-age news media business-model implosion—than in how Americans increasingly find themselves in this odd and idiosyncratic predicament: splitting into opposing camps that are more or less aware of their deliberate deviations from the truth, yet clinging desperately to ever more extreme and factional positions of unreality. To a foreign observer, at least, few things seem more distinctly American than this racially tainted, self-destructive double nature of every norm, institution, and subculture.
And what could better embody these internal American contradictions than the story of the author of The 1619 Project herself—the tirelessly careerist daughter of a civil rights-activist white mother and a troubled Black father; the formerly quiet, bookish, Midwestern, working-class girl who became one of the most powerful and influential figures at The New York Times, where she often speaks with a Southern accent strikingly displaced from the region in which she grew up; the would-be scholar of American slavery for whom history is as much about “narrative,” “memory,” and “the present” as it as about truth or “the past”; the journalist driven by a seemingly outdated faith in the power of the written word, but whose output as a public intellectual has been largely distributed through the unforgiving medium of Twitter, where her sometimes cruel, often petty tweets come under the name of Ida Bae Wells—derived from Ida B. Wells, the pioneering 19th-century journalist who was born a slave and died a legend of both the Civil Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements.
In addition to Ida Bae Wells, Nikole Hannah-Jones has frequently referred to herself as the “Beyoncé of journalism,” an appellation her critics have enjoyed ridiculing, but which mainly serves to obscure her more complex and sometimes tragic upbringing as a bright, aspirational, biracial girl from a broken town that history left behind. While her detractors are quick to point out her privilege and success as an adult, it seemed to me that America never really gave Nikole Hannah the chance to have any identity other than the one she’s locked into now.
There were no Black people in Swisher, Iowa, where Cheryl Novotny grew up on an acre in the country.
Cheryl’s mother, Pauline, was a leading environmentalist and director of the Iowa division of the conservationist Izaak Walton League of America; her father, Joseph, was a veteran of World War II and a union delegate at Square-D, the electrical equipment company where he spent most of his professional life. Both were GOP donors, and eventually Reaganites. Cheryl doesn’t know how she came to define herself from an early age “as a social justice person,” she told me. It’s just who she’s always been. But her surroundings mattered. “I was thinking about your question of how I got to be social justice conscious with my parents being conservative,” she wrote to me after we spoke in Waterloo and over the phone. “I do actually have to give them credit. Although they were conservative in their politics, they were very giving people and always doing something for others. So I do think that influenced my thinking and actions.”
The Novotnys come from a long line of ideologically utopian Czech Catholics who had settled in Iowa very early, before the Civil War, having fled the repression that followed the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe. The family chose Iowa in no small part because of the state’s many communities that supported and identified as anti-slavery Republicans.
Cheryl was 20 when she first laid eyes on the man who, despite the heavy drinking and intense arguments that would punctuate their future marriage, would remain—until the day he died in 2007—her “soulmate.” One spring day in 1972, at the University of Northern Iowa, where Cheryl was studying social work, she looked out the window of her dorm, spotted a tall, handsome Black man walking across campus with a friend of hers, and immediately went down the stairs to throw herself at him—there is no other way to put it, she says. “I never looked at another man after that.”
Milton Hannah, then 27, had pale eyes and a sad smile. He lived in Waterloo, on the East Side, where his family had settled after leaving Mississippi when he was 2 years old. When Cheryl met him he had enlisted in the U.S. Army, but because he was the youngest male in the family, he wasn’t selected for Vietnam, and was sent instead to a base in West Germany. There he reached, Cheryl believes, the rank of sergeant, “or something.”
For Cheryl, his time in Germany would always remain somewhat of a blur. He’d more or less married a German woman, she says, and was discharged for reasons he didn’t talk about very much, and never would. Decades later, in her introductory essay to The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones would allude to the “murky circumstances” of her father’s discharge, appearing to suggest that his ambitions for a military career were “stunted” because of his race. But according to Cheryl, although Milton did appeal the discharge, he never expressed the slightest resentment toward the Army, and would always consider his time there as one of the most positive experiences of his life, remaining nostalgic about it until the end.
When Cheryl and Milton got together, he had just returned to Waterloo from Germany and was hopping from one job to the next, “waiting to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life,” says Cheryl. She didn’t mind that he was a serious drinker. “Ultimately, it would become a problem between us, but only much later, after we got married and got kids. But at 20?” Cheryl was not opposed to a drink herself: She liked to have fun, she says. They partied a lot.
As for coming from different racial backgrounds, she minded even less. They moved to the East Side of Waterloo, where a majority of the population was Black, and where, because they didn’t have much money at first, they had to share a house with another family. It was a big change from what Cheryl was used to, but she adapted.
It was Pauline and Joseph, Cheryl’s parents, who made things difficult—perhaps because Milton was poorer than they were, and, yes, even though they denied it, because he was Black; perhaps also because the reasons for his military discharge were never clarified; because to leave Swisher for Waterloo’s redlined district was, in their eyes, a foolish decision; and because to live with a man without marriage was a sin, which could hardly be remedied by marrying this man. Because, in a nutshell, a mixed-race marriage in the Midwest in the 1970s, even in a place like Waterloo, was freighted with too much baggage. Cheryl’s parents not only stopped speaking to her, they explicitly disowned her.
But the rift didn’t last. Cheryl and Milton had their first child, Traci, in 1973. “Immediately,” says Cheryl, “my parents’ first thinking was, ‘We have a granddaughter now, we need to repair things.’ They ran to the hospital to see us.” The situation began to normalize after that. Milton, Cheryl, and Traci reunited with the Novotnys, and three years later, on Jan. 9, 1976, Cheryl and Milton got married. When the ceremony took place in Cedar Rapids, Cheryl was six months pregnant. In April, she gave birth to a second daughter, Nikole. By then, Cheryl’s parents had reinstated their daughter in their will. No one in the family, says Cheryl, ever mentioned race or poverty again.
Waterloo, where the Hannahs would remain, was home to the third-largest African American community in Iowa after Des Moines and Davenport—9% of the city’s population was Black. (Today, it is 15.5%.)
The reason many African Americans stopped in Iowa during the Great Migration was the same reason that, in the mid-19th century, Cheryl’s utopian ancestors decided to settle there. It was the same reason that the abolitionist John Brown used the state as his rear base for his anti-slavery raids in Kansas. Tabor, for example, in western Iowa, was founded in 1852 by Congregationalists and radical Quakers to shelter abolitionist activists and runaway slaves; it would later assist anti-slavery partisans during Bleeding Kansas and host Brown and his stockpiles of rifles before his raid on Harper’s Ferry.
The unusual concentration of socialists, anarchists, and members of religious communes in Iowa made the state a “bright radical star,” as Ulysses S. Grant would call it when he campaigned there for the 1868 presidential election. That same year, Iowans voted for a series of amendments that erased references to race in the state constitution, struck the word “white” from considerations of state census enumerations and legislative district apportionment, and lifted the ban forbidding Black people from serving in the state militia. Thereafter, Iowa regularly enjoyed one of the more civil rights-focused state legislatures in the country.
On the ground, however, things were more complex. Ever since Waterloo had outlawed saloons in 1912, bootleggers, most of them white, had set up shops in poorer neighborhoods on the East Side, where police interventions were infrequent, and where most Black people who had migrated from the South eventually settled and worked as strikebreakers for the railroads. Soon enough, Waterloo’s East Side developed an underworld of gangsters, prostitutes, drug dealers, and gamblers, many from Chicago. It didn’t take long for the local press to draw a perceived connection between the city’s growing criminality and the growing presence of African Americans. By the mid-’30s, the now-entirely Black East Side was relabeled “Smokey Row” and became a synonym for vice and gangsterism. The reputation stuck.
The absence of Jim Crow and the state’s reputation for being a “bright radical star,” in other words, did not prevent an unmistakable color line from being drawn in Waterloo. As the Black population increased, a de facto racial segregation became the norm, underpinned by a redlining system of housing. It is not too much of a stretch to wonder whether, by the mid-1970s, when Nikole Hannah was born, a kind of cognitive dissonance had become the distinctive feature of life in Waterloo. Despite its glorious civil rights history, and despite Iowa’s liberal state laws, 81% of Waterloo’s white children attended schools that were at least 90% white, according to The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, and many schools had no Black students at all. A teacher from Grant Elementary in Cedar Rapids told The Courier that her school’s student population was likely 99% Black.
This was the environment into which Cheryl and Milton’s second daughter was born—one characterized by neither the utopianism of her mother’s ancestors, nor the clear-cut Southern brutality suffered by her father’s family, but by a conspicuous gap between words and deeds that reflected how many of the accomplishments of the civil rights era remained partial, contingent, fraught, and possibly reversible. Sensitivity to these complexities may have been especially heightened for a precocious young girl who saw the color line running through her own family.
“I was living in a biracial family,” Hannah-Jones told me in a Zoom interview in late December 2021, “so there wasn’t a moment in my life where I wasn’t understanding the complexities of race. Because there was the Black side of my family and the white side of my family, and I was engaging very differently with the two sides.”
A couple of minutes later, she added: “I never identified myself as biracial. I always identified myself as Black. That’s the way my father was identified. And I knew at a very early age that my mother’s parents had disowned her after she met my father. But at the same time, I consider myself as Black with a white mother.”
“This is where America is so different from Europe,” the Paris-based American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who also grew up in a biracial family around the same time, told me. I asked Williams about Hannah-Jones’ comments because, as a Frenchman, I felt I did not quite understand them. (I also approached another American writer who has spent time in France, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who could not be reached for comment.) “In a sense, she’s right,” Williams continued. “It’s not true anymore, but this is the way she grew up. In a country and in a time where the one-drop rule was still a valid classification.”
The one-drop rule—which classified any person with even one Black ancestor (“one drop of Black blood”) as 100% Black—officially came to an end in the United States only in the year 2000, Williams informed me, to my astonishment, when the U.S. Census Bureau abandoned the “Black” and “white” binary. Not that reducing a person of mixed race to being “Black” is specific to America, of course. In the French salons of the 1840s, Alexandre Dumas, who was three-quarters white, was called a nègre (the equivalent of the American slur) more than once. Ismael Urbain, Napoleon III’s adviser for Algerian affairs in the French colonial administration during the 1860s, was born to a mulatto woman in French Guyana, and was thus defined as “Black,” including by himself, even though his complexion was all but white.
Yet the one-drop rule seems to have very idiosyncratic origins in some of the most complicated corners of the history of American racial relations. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act was passed in 1924, and in 1930, a statute passed legally defining as “Black” anyone with any known African ancestry regardless of the color of their skin. (William Faulkner would use it with maximum irony and cruelty two years later in his masterpiece Light in August). By then, the failures of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the spread of lynching and mob violence—everything, in short, that triggered the Great Migration—both formally and informally outlawed miscegenation, considered an abomination equaled only by incest.
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act also helped establish the binary classification system according to which Americans were identified by the government as either “white” or “Black.” In the early 1940s, this system was adopted by several states and at the federal level by the U.S. Census Bureau. For the following 60 years, biracial children—today the fastest growing demographic group in America—ceased to exist, as far as the government was concerned. They were simply Black.
They only officially resurfaced in 2000, when the Census Bureau’s abandonment of the Black-white dichotomy coincided with the coming-of-age of a large number of biracial children—the children of the civil rights generation. Visible for the first time at this scale, Americans like Barack Obama, Lenny Kravitz, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and the novelist Danzy Senna, among many others, could now legally identify any way they liked—Black, white, biracial, multiracial, or nonracial. But this was not the way they grew up. They grew up as Black.
One day, says Hannah-Jones, when she was 8 years old, Milton sat her and her young sisters down to explain to them that they were Black and would remain so all their life, since they would always be treated as such, just as he had—and that this would never change. In interviews and in her writing, Hannah-Jones has frequently referred to this story as the ur-moment of her racial consciousness.
In Nikole’s daily life, however, it was Cheryl, the politically committed and socially conscious Christian, who took her daughters to “a social justice type of Catholic Church,” as Cheryl described it to me, and initiated them into civil rights activism, also starting when Nikole was only 8. “Years before it became a national holiday,” Hannah-Jones confirmed for me, “our mother would take us to the Martin Luther King marches to commemorate King’s birthday.” And what about Milton? “My father?” she asked, giggling good-naturedly at the preposterousness of such a prospect. “No! He did not come to these MLK protests. Certainly not.”
To politics, Milton preferred history, particularly American military history. In 1982, after he and Cheryl bought their house on Thompson Avenue, Milton began his enduring habit of raising an American flag every morning in their garden, an homage to his Army years that Hannah-Jones would later come to see as an absurdity, given what he’d told her about the significance of the color of his skin, and hers.
That same year, in 1982, “my mom and dad enrolled my older sister and me in the school district’s voluntary desegregation program, which allowed some black kids to leave their neighborhood schools for whiter, more well-off ones on the west side of town.” This is Hannah-Jones writing in “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” the New York Times Magazine feature she published in 2016 that helped win her a $625,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. “Starting in second grade,” she wrote, “I rode the bus an hour each morning across town to the ‘best’ public school my town had to offer, Kingsley Elementary, where I was among the tiny number of working-class children and the even tinier number of black children. We did not walk to school or get dropped off by our parents on their way to work. We showed up in a yellow bus, visitors in someone else’s neighborhood, and were whisked back across the bridge each day as soon as the bell rang.”
It’s worth noting, as Hannah-Jones alludes, that busing in Waterloo at this time was indeed part of a desegregation program, but it was a desegregation program of the 1980s, when racial concerns were not perfectly distinct from economic ones. Black neighborhoods on the East Side were poor, in other words, but not all poor people in Waterloo were Black. Many non-Black poor students were also bused from bad school districts to better ones.
Hannah-Jones remains ambivalent about the program. In the 2016 Times Magazine feature, she described it “as emotionally and socially fraught, but also as academically stimulating and world-expanding.” In a Times article from November 2019, she defended busing as a helpful if imperfect tool to prevent “resegregation.” But in a 2021 Vanity Fair profile, she insisted to the writer that “being bused led me to be a very angry student.” As she told me, “Being bused out of my neighborhood and into someone else’s neighborhood, and being one of the only few Black kids in the school—I certainly started to notice a difference in treatment, and question why we had to go to school outside of our neighborhood.”
At home, Cheryl was the role model. Now a probation officer, and a familiar figure at every political and social demonstration in town, she also served as president of eight local districts of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the country’s largest trade union of public employees, to which she still belongs. Milton, on the other hand, struggled to find or hold interest in the jobs he was drifting between. He also had sustained injuries that prevented him from working more than three years at the Rath plant. He would remain professionally unstable up until 1995, when he was hired as a bus driver for the city.
“He could get very mean when he drank,” Cheryl remembers. “So I got upset and we had some rough times.” On those occasions, Nikole took refuge in reading. She read anything she could get her hands on, from issues of Time magazine to the Danielle Steel novels that lay around the house. To Cheryl, Nikole’s intellectual precocity was obvious. At age 11, modeling her interests on her mother’s, Nikole had asked for a subscription to Newsweek so she could learn about the world’s problems. As she got older, Nikole started clashing more often with her father, but not about his habits, or about the flag in the garden. “No, they fought about stupid things,” says Cheryl. “Like fishing.”
Fishing was Milton’s passion in life. He loved everything about it from beginning to end: catching the fish, bringing them back home, cleaning them, cooking them, and finally, eating what he had caught and prepared himself. It meant saving money on food, and also depending on no one—that typically American aspiration. But “Nikole was already such a compassionate person,” says Cheryl, “that each time he took her with him, she would want to catch and release. He couldn’t see it! To release what you’d caught made no sense to him. They argued about that and it could get quite intense.”
In addition to the strain of living largely by her white mother’s example while being Black in a Black neighborhood, of arguing with her Black father, and of being bused and discovering the extent to which her family belonged to the “wrong” side of town, there emerged the tension of being the very best student at school—where Nikole’s intelligence was not yet the social asset it would become later in life.
The tangled knot of these conflicts had only tightened by the time she decided to take, for the first time in her life, a class on Black studies—Ray Dial’s. She was 15-years-old when the class started in 1992, the year Bill Clinton secured key union endorsements during his presidential campaign, including from AFSCME. Cheryl was no idle voter. “I was pretty involved in politics and had some political responsibilities,” she told me. “I worked on several campaigns, and from Clinton to Obama, I met with several candidates. In 1992, I was even invited to Clinton’s inauguration in D.C. Back at home, this of course impressed Nikole a great deal.”
By then, Nikole had begun to experience at West High one of the acute problems of a clever and hardworking biracial girl. “Most of the few Black kids in high school with me were put into lower-level classes, and white kids into higher-level classes,” she told me. “I was one of the few Black kids that was put in higher-level classes, which made me all the more sensitive to those differences.”
In addition to living an increasingly divided life, in other words, between her poor but familiar neighborhood where the social codes were clear, and the wealthier school district where she might have felt less in control, Nikole now belonged to a high school where, thanks to her intellectual abilities, she was increasingly if unfairly seen as associated with white people. When her classmates clashed, it wasn’t always easy to figure out which fights were and weren’t based at least in part on race. The inherent contradictions of a school desegregation program—which, despite the best intentions, necessarily emphasize rather than deemphasize the skin color of various students—seem to mirror the budding contradictions in her own self-understanding. In such circumstances, it’s not hard to imagine how even a biracial adolescent with an intuitive ability to navigate between white and Black people might become, over time, less and less sure.
Even Ray Dial’s class—which was officially called “African-American Studies” but which he personally listed as “Introduction to Black Studies,” and which may have appeared as a kind of safe harbor when Nikole felt lost at sea—was not free from these identity tensions. One day, during a discussion in Dial’s class, a Black student whose parents belonged to the Nation of Islam rose up in his seat to declare, “We should hate all the whites.” “But I don’t hate my mom,” Nikole turned to him and said.
“I was just making the point to that kid that, ‘I’m your friend, you have a relationship with me, you can’t say these things about my mom,’ and he apologized,” she told me, recalling the incident from two decades earlier. “People don’t understand that in this country, when you’re mixed, you’re Black. I mean, look, people can identify the way they want. There are certainly people that are biracial that identify as biracial. But I never had any interest in that and I don’t think the average white American really cares.”
In the 1990s, this paradox—how to reconcile the notion that “people can identify the way they want” with the unavoidable fate that “when you’re mixed, you’re Black”—was playing out in the country at large. It was the decade when hip-hop began to eclipse rock ’n’ roll as the most creative and dynamic genre in American popular music, and when the first television station aimed at entertaining African American audiences, BET, became so successful that it listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Just as the one-drop rule was being officially relegated to the dustbin of history, and biracial kids would no longer be automatically categorized as Black, African American popular culture was becoming dominant both domestically and abroad.
“The nuances Obama finally brought up, along with the astronomical rise of certain Black celebrities like Jay-Z, didn’t exist yet,” Williams, who has written two books on the topic, told me. “If you were mixed Black and white, and you looked at all Black, you had to be fully Black. The pressure was coming from the group. There’s a lot of things to gain by emphasizing your Blackness and everything to lose by being considered white. When you’re part of an oppressed minority and you have the option of disassociating with them but you don’t, you gain an enormous amount of respect and love. There’s always a suspicion that it’s easier to be white, so you want to preemptively get rid of that suspicion, and so you declare yourself Black in a way that your dark-skinned friends would never do. As an adolescent especially, you have to be more monarchist than the king, you have to have the urgency of the convert, in playing up that aspect of your identity. Often times, in college, the more militant Black activists would be people that were light-skinned or obviously mixed.”
Hannah-Jones flatly rejects Williams’ analysis. “And this, you can use on the record,” she told Tablet by email several months after our initial interview, when asked about Williams’ comments. “Thomas Chatterton Williams, a man I have never met and whose views I broadly reject, has no idea how I developed my racial identity, nor apparently, how racial categorization and identity works in America. ... There was no pressure ‘coming from the group’ to be fully Black. And his insistence—in a country where white Americans literally architected the bounds and parameters of race, including the one-drop rule that dictated any amount of Black blood makes you Black—that it was Black people that forced race upon me and not white people is ahistorical and frankly, laughable. This line of thinking can never answer this simple question: How is it that in America, I can be biracial and considered Black, but I can never, ever be considered white? It’s ridiculous to even argue that ‘there was everything to lose by being considered white.’ One, I could never be considered white in the United States. That’s not how race works in America and he knows that. Two, reams of research catalogue the disadvantages that Black Americans continue to face in every aspect of American life, facing discrimination in education, in housing, in employment, healthcare, and nearly everything you can measure. To pretend some psychic in-group advantage counteracts all that just speaks to the intentional misunderstanding and obfuscation on race [that] Williams has made his career off of and speaks to his own conflicted relationship with Blackness, but not mine.”
It is beyond my abilities as a reporter to try to resolve the differing experiences and viewpoints of Williams and Hannah-Jones. But if it’s unfair to say that 15-year-old Nikole Hannah would indeed come to display the urgency of the convert, she did at least encounter a captivating evangelist. In addition to being a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and a charismatic teacher of Black studies, Ray Dial was also, like many great high school teachers, a master of making his teenaged pupils feel that they were being inducted into big and forbidden truths that they would never learn at home.
Born in Mobile, Alabama, the Rev. Orlando Ray Dial grew up in Los Angeles, where he and his mother moved when he was 4-years-old, and where she raised her children alone while working as a checkout girl in a department store. They lived on Main and 54th streets in South Central, not far from Watts, where as a sixth-grader he witnessed the riots in 1965. “The tanks and Jeeps equipped with machine guns going down our streets,” he told me in a series of conversations on Zoom and over the phone, “the looters who would come to our backyards to hide stuff they had stolen, the police beating people up in the streets and the bloodstain in our neighbor’s alleyway that stayed there for years after that ... You had to be afraid of the police. At the same time, I had an uncle in the Air Force in Texas, and when he came to visit us for family reunions, the same National Guard that we had seen beating people up actually escorted him to the house. So we had this dilemma, those mixed feelings toward them.”
Dial moved to Iowa in the late-’70s, studied political science as an undergraduate at Central College in Pella, worked in education and food service for several years, then started teaching at Waterloo’s West High in 1991, the year before Hannah-Jones joined his class. At the time, he was also training to become a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME, which in 1816 became the first independent protestant denomination in the world founded by Black people. Dial’s teaching certification from Central College was in world history, which allowed him to include Black history as part of a course at West High on the Eastern Hemisphere. His introduction to Black studies course was divided into three sections: One focused on life in Africa before European colonization, one on the period of enslavement, and one on “a broader Black perspective in economics,” he says.
Lerone Bennett Jr.—the historian and longtime executive editor of Ebony who saw Lincoln and Hitler on an ideological continuum—was not the only unconventional author whose work Dial assigned in his class. Another was Cheikh Anta Diop, the once-famous Senegalese historian of precolonial Africa who believed that the ancient Egyptians all had black skin. (Diop’s thesis was disproven by genetic analyses in 2010 but was widely regarded as more political than scholarly before that.) I asked Dial why he chose writers like Bennett and Diop instead of, say, Benjamin Arthur Quarles, John Hope Franklin, or other highly regarded African American historians whose seminal works on American history and slavery were readily available when he taught at West High in the early ’90s.
“Well, the class lasted one semester only,” he said. “So I would mention authors, but we didn’t have the time to really get into them. Plus, the school library was limited. The textbooks they had weren’t textbooks for high school in Black studies, and many teachers had to content themselves with little addendums. I didn’t want to do that. The students needed to see what life was like in Africa prior to slavery, prior to European colonization.”
Bennett and Diop, in any case, served only as “additional research” that supplemented the textbook that Dial says “did an excellent job” of serving as the course’s core reference material: Introduction to Black Studies by Maulana Karenga, whose name Ray Dial recalled to me in a tone of solemn respect.
Born Ronald McKinley Everett in 1941 in Parsonsburg, Maryland, Karenga moved to Watts when he was 18. After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, and having taken a Swahili name, he founded the Black nationalist US (“United Slaves”) Organization with Hakim Jamal, a relative of Malcolm X, in 1965 in the wake of the riots. In our conversations, Dial, like Karenga in his books and on his website (he is now 81), presented US as a humanist organization that aimed to unite each current of the Black struggle—a vivid contrast to its reputation as a separatist group that advocated for a “return” to Swahili culture, and which participated in frequent clashes with the more Marxist- and Maoist-oriented Black Panthers. Dial never met Karenga and did not formally belong to US, he told me, “because you didn’t need to, you just had to push the door and go in,” which he did regularly in Watts between 1967 and 1973. During this period, the rivalry between the two groups had turned into an open, violent war in Los Angeles, culminating in a shootout in a UCLA building on Jan. 17, 1969, when two Black Panthers, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, were killed.
Whether this internecine war emerged organically remains a matter of speculation. Both US and the Black Panthers were targets of the FBI’s famous domestic infiltration program, COINTELPRO, which targeted not only militant groups but nonviolent civil rights leaders like Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King Jr. In his 2016 book Revolution’s End: The Patty Hearst Kidnapping, Mind Control, and the Secret History of Donald DeFreeze and the SLA, the journalist Brad Schreiber claims that “Karenga and his followers were clearly favored by law enforcement,” and had secret meetings with then-chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Thomas Reddin. Louis E. Tackwood, an FBI informant who wrote his memoirs, The Glass House Tapes, in 1973, claimed that he served as a liaison between Karenga and the LAPD in exchange for money and weapons. A few weeks after King’s assassination, according to a Wall Street Journal article written during the period, “Mr. Karenga slipped into Sacramento for a private chat with Governor Ronald Reagan, at the Governor’s request.”
Karenga also appears, in a way, on the fringes of the Patty Hearst kidnapping case, through a statement the heiress made in 1975 after her arrest, when—to defend herself against charges of complicity with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which had abducted her—she claimed to have been brainwashed by SLA leader Donald DeFreeze. “I had to memorize what each head of the seven-headed cobra meant,” she said. “Of course, later on, I learned that he had lifted that from the Kwanzaa celebration.”
The seven-headed cobra, which appeared on the SLA flag, is taken from the “seven principles” of Kwanzaa, the “African American and Pan-African holiday celebrated by millions throughout the world African community,” according to the official Kwanzaa website. Kwanzaa was invented in 1966, in the wake of the Watts riots, by Maulana Karenga. Whatever connection may have existed between Karenga and DeFreeze—who is widely assumed to have had close contacts in federal law enforcement and the U.S. intelligence community at the time—has never been clarified. By the time of Hearst’s arrest, in any case, Karenga’s US Organization was moribund, and Karenga himself was in jail—convicted of felony assault and false imprisonment for having beaten and tortured two former female members (“African Queens”) of his cult, apparently under the influence of drugs. He was paroled in 1975.
Awarded a Ph.D. in 1976 for his thesis, “Afro-American Nationalism: Social Strategy and Struggle for Community,” by the United States International University in San Diego, and another in social ethics by the University of Southern California in 1994 for his thesis, “The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt: A Study in Classical African Ethics,” Karenga delivered a eulogy in 2001 at the funeral service of New Black Panther Party (NBPP) leader Khalid Abdul Muhammad. In a famously antisemitic speech in Baltimore a few years earlier, Muhammad had denounced “the bloodsuckers of the poor … that old no-good Jew, that old imposter Jew, that old hooked-nose, bagel-eating, lox-eating, Johnny-come-lately, perpetrating-a-fraud, just-crawled-out-of-the-caves-and-hills-of-Europe, so-called damn Jew.” In his eulogy, Karenga praised Muhammad for being “a warrior who would not quit the battlefield.” Needless to say, the Southern Poverty Law Center states that the NBPP is “a virulently racist and antisemetic organization,” and the Anti-Defamation League refers to it as “the most extreme organized racist and anti-Semitic African-American group in the United States.”
Karenga’s Introduction to Black Studies, which Ray Dial used as the textbook of reference in his West High course, contains several mentions of Kawaida (Swahili for “tradition” or “reason”), the author’s reactionary nationalist philosophy. At times the book reads like bluster, with Karenga mentioning his own former US Organization as “the most structured and widespread body of Black nationalist thought in the country” during the 1960s, and Kawaida as “the most structured and influential theory of the Black Cultural Revolution”—an overstatement, to say the least. At other times, the book reads like a manifesto, in which American history is drawn upon selectively in order to illustrate a somewhat mystical vision of world history based on Afrocentricity. “Black studies” is not defined in the book as a branch of history, but as “the systematic and critical study of the totality of historical and current Black thought,” divided up into seven sections that, unsurprisingly, match the seven principles of Kwanzaa (unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith).
Not incidentally, the book also contains material on comparative religious studies, in which King Solomon, and the Hebrews in general, are said to have borrowed most of their beliefs from Black ancient Egyptians. Near the end of the book, Karenga warns against the dangers and delusions of seeking allies: He denounces, in particular, “the myths that Jews are Blacks’ best friends,” and that “there is a moral affinity between Blacks and Jews based on similar suffering.” “These myths suggest or seek to foster a unity or commonality of interest that do not exist,” he adds, “and thus produce a political practice and thought based on false premises problematic to Black interests.”
It’s hard to know precisely what role Dial’s class played in the formation of Nikole Hannah’s self-understanding, or in her budding intellectual development. The class was scheduled for one semester only, and after it was over, Dial and Hannah-Jones lost contact until, according to Dial, they reconnected “six or seven years ago” when he happened to be watching a PBS program in which “a woman with red hair and a Southern accent” was reporting from Ferguson, Missouri, on the shooting of Michael Brown. “I kept looking and she looked familiar,” Dial told me, “and suddenly I thought, ‘Of course, it’s Nikole!’” He found her email address at the Times and wrote to her: “Do you remember me?” “Of course I remember you,” he says she replied. “You’re the reason I’m a writer.”
There is no reason to doubt Dial’s account of their email exchange: In November 2021, when West High invited Hannah-Jones to return home and present The 1619 Project book, she not only chose him as her interlocutor for the evening, but spoke as if he was one of the main inspirations for it. “I hadn’t ever gotten much of Black history before I took his class, or heard that academic discussion about inequality in a way that I did with him,” she told me during our Zoom interview a month after the event. “Yet I had always paid attention to race and politics. I was not a normal child in that regard, so he did not teach me that. What I think he gave me is the historical and social background to put what I was feeling and experiencing into context in ways I hadn’t had before.”
According to both Cheryl and Ray Dial, that year—1992—was also the moment in Nikole’s life when parts of her personality began to change. “The quiet girl in the back” that Denny McCabe remembers had become a vocal student leader in the rising culture wars at West High. At Dial’s suggestion, she also began to write about racial issues in the student newspaper. “When Black students organized a walkout to get the attention of the superintendent because they thought they weren’t treated fairly,” Dial told me, “she was one of the strong leaders who directly challenged the superintendent.”
In 1994, Nikole Hannah graduated West High and left Waterloo for the University of Notre Dame, the prestigious, mostly white, middle-class Catholic school in Indiana, where she studied history and African American studies. According to Cheryl, during her freshman year, Nikole experienced an intense quasi-depression.
“Believe it or not, but when she was still at home Nikole did not like to travel or go anyplace. She was very much a homebody. She did not want to leave,” Cheryl told me. “So when she did go to Notre Dame, being away from home was very hard on her. One day in the beginning of her freshman year there, she called me to complain: ‘Mom, I can’t stay here!’”
Following one such phone call, Cheryl and Milton drove the 370 miles from Waterloo to Notre Dame because it was too expensive to fly. On the evening they arrived, Milton stayed in a hotel room while Cheryl took Nikole to a McDonald’s downtown to talk over the situation. After that, remembers Cheryl, “We got back to the car, and when she realized I wasn’t bringing her back home but to her dorm instead, she literally yelled, ‘What are you doing?!’ Yes, I forced her to stay. But I was right. Two days later she called to say she had finally found a girlfriend at Notre Dame and they had just partied all night.” The friend was also one of Notre Dame’s few Black students.
“I had never been away from home before, and it was certainly hard to leave my family,” Hannah-Jones told me. “My aunts, my uncles, my sisters, they all lived in Iowa. And to leave them for a very elite place … I come from a working-class family and a working-class neighborhood, and to end up in that elite, white institution, it was very challenging. I felt very isolated. Plus, I could not come home very often because my parents did not have the money for plane tickets.”
Her seeming ambivalence about the experience echoes the malaise with which she has written and spoken about being bused in Waterloo. But soon, things got worse at Notre Dame than they ever did in high school. “I stopped going to class and was told I would [have to] withdraw from the university or I was going to flunk out,” she told me. “That made me very, very angry. So I got my shit together and graduated.”
One part of how she got her shit together is enlightening. On Nov. 9, 1995, one month after Columbus Day, a student named Fred Kelly published a letter to the editor in the student newspaper, The Observer, called “Natural Law Over Multiculturalism: God Bless Columbus,” in which he criticized Native American culture and traditions and referred to American Indians as “savages,” which understandably triggered a storm of reactions from readers, one of whom was Nikole.
Still available in The Observer’s archives, Nikole’s answer to Kelly’s piece, titled “Modern Savagery,” is worth quoting from, not because of some of the stranger historical claims she made—she is hardly the only college student guilty of such excesses—but because it conveys a more exact sense of the hold that Ray Dial’s class, and in particular the Afrocentric mythology of the texts he assigned, evidently still had on her when she was 20-years-old, at the height of the previous incarnation of America’s culture wars:
I find it hard to believe that any member of the white race can have the audacity and hypocrisy to call any other culture savage. The white race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager and thief of the modern world. Europeans have colonized and destroyed the indigenous populations on every continent of this planet. (…) Christopher Columbus and those like him were no different than Hitler. The crimes they committed were unnecessarily cruel and can only be described as acts of the devil. Africans had been to the Americas long before Columbus or any Europeans. The difference is that Africans had the decency and respect for human life to learn from the Native Americans and trade technology with them. The pyramids of the Aztecs and the great stone heads of the Olmecs are lasting monuments to the friendship of these two peoples.
She ended the article on a magnanimous note: “But after everything that those barbaric devils did, I do not hate them or their descendants. I understand that, because of some lacking, they needed to constantly prove their superiority … Fred Kelly, I pity you.”
Hannah-Jones claims—and there is no reason to doubt her—that it was at Notre Dame that she was called a “god-damn nigger” for the first time in her life, and that after she reported the incident to the university administration, nothing was done, because her verbal abuser played on the school’s legendary football team. In 1996, she wrote again to The Observer, commenting: “I guess I have been lucky, because despite all of the things that white people have done to me, it took twenty years before one called me a nigger.” “In closing,” she continued, “if the white boy who called my friends and me niggers is reading this, I would like to thank you for reminding me that Notre Dame is yours, but with me being a strong black woman, the world is mine.”
By the end of the 1990s, the impending end to America’s binary racial classification system arriving much too late, whatever interest Nikole Hannah might have had in seeing herself as biracial was gone.
Two decades later, in August 2019, only eight months after Nikole Hannah-Jones had pitched the idea to her editors, The New York Times Magazine published The 1619 Project, a series of essays that “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” It caught fire immediately. “After it was off the newsstand, we made it available for single-copy purchase at the NYT online store,” Jake Silverstein, chief editor of The New York Times Magazine, explained to me by email. “We had never before made an individual issue of the magazine available for purchase like this (and we have not since). It sold out in hours. When we replenished the supply, it sold out again in hours. All told we sold another 60,000+ copies from the online store. We also printed an extra 250,000 copies of the issue to give away through partners. The audio podcast was #1 in the iTunes story while it was rolling out in fall 2019.”
The mammoth success of 1619 consecrated Hannah-Jones as a journalist—a journey that began in 2003, after graduating with a master’s from the University of North Carolina Hussman School of Media and Journalism. Over the ensuing decade, she worked as a cub reporter at the News & Observer in Raleigh, then at Portland’s daily The Oregonian, followed by a stint as an education reporter at ProPublica, before joining the The New York Times Magazine in 2014. “She was pretty much on my radar even before she joined us,” Silverstein told me. “It was clear that she wanted to write not just about education, but also about race in American society, and how racism affects it. She had the reputation to be a powerful, determined journalist who would be able to push through the resistance that all investigative journalists encounter when they do their work.”
Before the end of her fifth year at the Times, Hannah-Jones repaid the bet that Silverstein placed on her with a masterstroke of commercial media publicity. As a work of history, however, or even as a piece of journalism, The 1619 Project was an imbroglio. The first serious rebuttal to the project was penned on Sept. 6, 2019, by the journalists and historians Niles Niemuth, Tom Mackaman, and David North, but was comfortably ignored by the Times, likely owing to its publication in a digital Trotskyist rag, the World Socialist Web Site. But the Times had a harder time ignoring a letter it received soon after from five more prominent and mainstream historians, including giants of American letters like James McPherson and Gordon Wood, which it decided to publish on Dec. 29 above a “response” from Silverstein that was twice as long.
The historians’ letter objected to three of The 1619 Project’s historical claims that it said were factually incorrect (as distinct from matters of historical interpretation): that the Revolutionary War was largely fought to protect slavery from English abolitionists, that Abraham Lincoln maintained a consistent opposition to racial equality, and that African Americans have fought for their rights “for the most part” alone. Each of these claims appeared in Hannah-Jones’ opening essay; all of them are traceable to the worldviews not just of writers like David Waldstreicher, Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen, Gerald Horne, and Sylvia Frey, whom Hannah-Jones and Silverstein have cited as influences and sources, but of Lerone Bennett Jr. and Maulana Karenga, the eccentric minds she encountered as an unusually gifted but vulnerable and typically impressionable teenager—a more prosaic explanation for the origins of The 1619 Project than has typically been considered. (The 2021 Vanity Fair profile of Hannah-Jones reports that “She has been, in one way or the other, thinking about [what would become The 1619 Project] since high school, when Dial gave her Before the Mayflower, a seminal history of the Black American experience by Lerone Bennett Jr." When asked several months after our initial interview whether Karenga and Bennett indeed influenced her thinking on American history as reflected in The 1619 Project, requests for comment went unanswered.)
In March 2020, the historian Leslie M. Harris of Northwestern University, an eminent scholar of African American history, claimed in a Politico article that while helping “fact-check the 1619 Project,” she had “vigorously” opposed the idea “that the patriots fought the American Revolution in large part to preserve slavery in North America,” but that the Times ignored her. The Times responded to this second major public embarrassment by discreetly altering Hannah-Jones’ essay on its website and publishing another personal note from Silverstein and an editor’s note at the bottom: “A passage has been adjusted to make clear that a desire to protect slavery was among the motivations of some of the colonists who fought the Revolutionary War, not among the motivations of all of them.” Hannah-Jones later confessed to The Washington Post and Vanity Fair that she was “tortured” by the correction and “wounded” by the criticism, and that she had started to drink.
And then, less than nine months after the publication of 1619, in the wake of all its attendant fury, and while millions of Americans remained in lockdown, a white police officer in Minneapolis was filmed on camera slowly murdering an unarmed Black man named George Floyd, sparking a national uproar from which the country has not yet recovered—but which appeared to spare Hannah-Jones and the Times staff, which had started to descend into a spate of publicly aired internal recriminations and firings, further self-reflection. However tainted, The 1619 Project would eventually earn Hannah-Jones a tenured professorship at one of the country’s best and most storied universities, some $20 million in grants for her work at a new Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard, two honorary degrees, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The sense of an omnipresent and unchanging past, so different from the writings and speeches of King and the rhetoric of Obama, is everywhere in Hannah-Jones’ work.
Back in Paris, I made one last call—to Frank B. Wilderson III, professor of African American studies and drama at the University of California, Irvine. Wilderson is the scholar behind the theory of Afropessimism, which is also the title of his fascinating 2020 book, and which holds that the Black experience in America has always been and will always be one of perpetual bondage.
When I asked Wilderson about the resonance of The 1619 Project, his answer, though more academic, was strikingly similar to what Milton Hannah believed intuitively—that his daughters were Black, and would always be Black, because in America such things do not change. “You cannot think of Black time as a narrative arc of progression,” Wilderson told me. “You have to think of Black time as historical stillness, a time that is flat, where nothing essential ever changes.”
Wilderson explained what he sees as the return of a certain despair among African Americans as the result, in large part, of the speed with which their country’s political context seemed to switch between Obama and Trump—and more importantly, by the contrast between this apparent pace of change and what can be called, according to Wilderson, a Black conception of time.
“There are these moments in this country of kind of intra-Black conversation, which seems hopeful, and you find that the language is as though Black people are human beings with rights and claims,” he told me. “But then something happens and the language changes. And it suddenly sounds as if Black people are in chains in 1823. It’s a kind of zeitgeist that’s hard to get a hold of, and that ‘something’ always goes back to slavery. I think what I call Afropessimism kind of emerges out of this context, and I think The 1619 Project does as well.”
“For instance,” Wilderson continued, “I may live in a brand new condo, have a very large salary and go to the restaurant when I want to. And that’s important, and it’s very different from my great-great-grandfather, who spent his life in chains on the Mississippi River. But does it mean that my relationship to the world has changed essentially? No, it has not. And the proof of that is that every Black family has someone in prison or on parole or something of the kind. Captivity remains the structure of Black life.”
Wilderson’s tragic theory offers one of the more interesting ways to understand how a biracial child of the Civil Rights Movement like Nikole Hannah-Jones could come to be seen as an authentically timeless representation of the Black experience in America, rather than as someone for whom good timing may have been crucial—that is, someone whose stratospheric success might be less easy to imagine outside the context of the narrow period between 2015-20, when the twin media phenomenona of Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter helped rescue the imploding business model of a news corporation like The New York Times.
Indeed, the sense of an omnipresent and unchanging past, so different from the writings and speeches of King and the rhetoric of Obama, is everywhere in Hannah-Jones’ work: in the way she sometimes seems to regard being bused to West High as a kind of continuation of the humiliation suffered by Rosa Parks, but without the redemptive quality for which Parks’ example is typically remembered; in “Ghosts of Greenwood,” a 2014 essay she wrote for ProPublica on the brutal history of her father’s family in Mississippi, an implicit self-portrait that she paints as if it were happening in the present (and which may help explain the later-life emergence of a Southern accent); in “Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City,” published in the Times Magazine in 2016, in which she analyzes the flaws of the U.S. public school system through the exclusive lens that “[l]egally and culturally, we’ve come to accept segregation once again.”
What do Hannah-Jones’ widely perceived shortcomings as a journalist weigh in the scales of “Black time,” and her obviously sincere feel for it? Critics have enjoyed reminding readers of pieces like “The Cuba we don’t know,” an apology for the Castro regime that Hannah-Jones wrote as a staff reporter at The Oregonian in 2008, in which she praised “the revolution” for freeing Black Cubans from “codified racism,” skirting over the notorious discrimination suffered by the island’s Black citizens. (In an interview 11 years later, she repeated her claim: “in places that are truly at least biracial countries, Cuba actually has the least inequality, and that’s largely due to socialism, which I’m sure no one wants to hear.”) In 2017, a little more than two years after she was hired at the Times Magazine, she published “A Principal Is Accused of Being a Communist, Rattling a Brooklyn School,” which conflated non-Black minorities with “whites,” drawing ire from many Times readers—whom Hannah-Jones, with the support of Times management, according to one source at the paper, denounced as “racists.” (No corrections were issued.)
On Dec. 11, 2019, four months after the release of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones delivered a speech in Houston to inaugurate the Emancipation Park Conservancy’s new lecture series, Emancipation Conversations, “establishing a forum for transformative conversations surrounding the Black Experience.” Her appearance was sponsored by the Shell Oil Company, the Houston-based U.S. subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell. At the time (and still today), Shell has been implicated in lawsuits over its complicity in massive human rights violations committed by the Nigerian government, including mass murder, torture, rape, and the hanging in 1995 of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the environmentalist activist and writer.
According to Trevon Austin and Bill Van Auken, also of the World Socialist Web Site, who attended the event in Houston, Hannah-Jones was introduced by the evening’s moderator, Melanie Lawson, a local TV journalist: “I want to take a moment first to recognize tonight’s presenting sponsor. And you might know this name, it’s a giant in our community, Shell Oil. And if someone is here from Shell Oil will you please stand or wave or all of the above? Do we have some Shell folks? There we go.” According to Austin and Van Auken, “The audience responded with an ovation, in which Hannah-Jones joined in,” after which Lawson continued: “Yeah, don’t be shy about this. Shell people stand up so we can thank you. We appreciate you. We know this event would not be possible without your very generous donation.”
Such scenes make it hard to hold in one’s mind, simultaneously, the genuinely unjust racial and economic conditions into which Hannah-Jones was born, and the heights of power and affluence she has nevertheless scaled—and to regard this trajectory of her turbulent life not only as essentially unchanged, but as a fair representation of the impossibility of meaningful change in the lives of African Americans. That her own life has transformed so dramatically—and in precisely the self-made, bootstrapping, deliriously ambitious manner that Americans venerate above all else—cannot but suggest a certain ambivalence, or else a degree of mythologizing, behind the theory of America she submits. Indeed, at nearly every step of her journey—from Ray Dial’s classroom to The New York Times—she has been encouraged not to puncture America’s traditional founding myths with the weapon of historical or journalistic truth, but to swap one set of myths for another.
There is also the possibility, of course, that in trying to understand something about Americans by trying to understand Nikole Hannah-Jones, I simply failed. Perhaps it is because I am a European Jew with generally warm feelings about the United States, but I cannot be brought to see American society—which is caught again in one of its routine fits of mass cultural upheaval, whose aftershocks ripple across the oceans and remind all the world of its cultural domination—as intrinsically incapable of transformation. What, after all, is the current attempt by so many Americans—Black and white, liberal and conservative, elite and populist—to overthrow and move beyond the memory of the Civil Rights Movement, the most sparkling moment in all their history, if not a clear demonstration of it? If nothing else, it seems, America is a country with a frightening, almost maniacal capacity for change—however brilliant, however destructive.
An earlier version of this article misstated that Nikole Hannah-Jones’ first name used to be spelled ‘Nicole’ based on mistaken articles in The Observer, the University of Notre Dame’s student newspaper, from 1995-1997. Her name has been spelled ‘Nikole’ since birth. The spelling has been corrected.
Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.