“Education Leads to Liberation”: Nikole Hannah-Jones on The 1619 Project & Teaching Black History
Written by GRB on 27/05/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
As attacks on the teaching of Black history escalate in Florida and other states, we turn to two of the nation’s most acclaimed storytellers: the Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Lee and the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on The 1619 Project. They both spoke last Friday on the birthday of Malcolm X at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center, which is housed in the former Audubon Ballroom in New York where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. Last Friday marked what would have been Malcolm’s 98th birthday. We begin with Nikole Hannah-Jones.
NIKOLE HANNAH–JONES: I was a sophomore in high school when I first read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. And it was one of those three transformative texts in my life. I could never see myself as a Black person the same after reading that text. A year later, I sat in a movie theater in Waterloo, Iowa, captivated by Mr. Lee’s brilliant storytelling in Malcolm X. And to this day, anybody who knows me —
SPIKE LEE: Just say Denzel Washington!
NIKOLE HANNAH–JONES: Anybody who knows me knows that’s my favorite movie. I’ve watched that movie so many times. And I just was watching it recently on Delta. And if you going to the newspaper archives of The Waterloo Courier, you will see a young Nikole Hannah-Jones with the Malcolm X — the X medallion on, after I had led the walkout of my school demanding Black history be taught to all students at our high school.
So, I’m honored to be here with you tonight and to stand in this room, in this very room in 1964 where Malcolm X said, “Plymouth Rock did not land on us; the rock was landed on us.” Right? And I would never imagine that one day I would be standing here right now trying to tell the story of another ship that arrived a year before the Mayflower.
The same year I read Malcolm X’s book, I read another book by a historian called Lerone Bennett, and that book was called Before the Mayflower. And it told the story of not 1620, but 1619. And we know every American child learns that story of the Mayflower, and yet the story of another ship, called the White Lion, has been erased from the story of America, because we like to tell the stories that glorify our country, and we want to hide those ugly parts.
I realized at that moment, as a 16-year-old child, that history is not simply what happened on what day and who did it, but what powerful people want us to remember about what happened. And so, what we commonly call history is actually memory. And that memory in the United States has been shaped too often by white men in power who want us to remember the history of a country that never existed.
My work is to ensure that before you ever learn about the Mayflower in 1620, you’re going to learn about that ship in 1619 called the White Lion. You’re going to learn about our stories of resistance, of the contributions of Black Americans, and we will not be erased from the narrative of a country that our ancestors built.
So, to stand here in this very space, on this hallowed ground, is an incredible honor. I am honored to be here with all of the honorees tonight. And I think about that book 30 years ago, how my life has been inspired by Malcolm X, inspired by Lerone Bennett, inspired by all of the truth tellers.
And then we see why they’re trying to ban our history. Right? Because once you learn your history, you don’t accept your place. Once you learn your history, you challenge the way that power is wielded against the vulnerable. So that’s why they want to outlaw our history, because history will radicalize us. History will open our eyes. There’s a reason we’re the only people in the history of the United States for whom it was ever illegal to learn to read and write, because we know — right? — that education leads to liberation. And you can’t keep a people down who understand their history.
So, I promise you all tonight I will try to uphold the great legacy of one of our most ardent truth tellers, a man who stood up to power all across this nation. And as long as I have breath, they won’t bury our history. We will tell the truth. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on The 1619 Project, speaking last Friday at the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center in New York at an event to mark what would have been Malcolm X’s 98th birthday.