Biddy Martin (00:09):
Welcome, everyone. Thank you very much for joining us. We're extremely excited about tonight's event. And let me introduce the speakers. Nikole Hannah-Jones, as so many of you know, is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes about racial injustice in the United States. In 2015, she was named journalist of the year by the National Association of Black Journalists. In 2016, you may have heard her popular two-part This American Life story, which was called The Problem We All Live With. And the story is about school desegregation in Normandy, Missouri, which is the district where Michael Brown attended high school. In 2017, she was named MacArthur fellow for her work, and I quote, reshaping the national conversation about education reform, end quote. But today, of course, Hannah Jones is best known as the creator of, and the lead writer for The 1619 Project named for the year the first enslaved Africans ended up in British North America.
This ongoing multimedia project was produced in conjunction with the New York Times magazine. It reframes American history by placing the consequences of slavery and the vast contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative. Hannah-Jones' introductory essay to The 1619 Project is entitled "Our democracy's founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true." The essay earned her the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for commentary and the acclaim project is still going strong. We heard just yesterday that Oprah Winfrey will be adapting the stories of the 1619 Project for TV and film for worldwide audiences. We welcome you, Nikole Hannah-Jones, and we're honored to have you here. Khary Oronde Polk is an Associate Professor of Black Studies and Sexuality Women's and Gender Studies at Amherst. Khary is a cultural historian of the African American diaspora. He is a specialist in LGBTQ studies and the scholar of race, gender, and sexuality in the US military.
Khary teaches courses on military history, Black European studies, queer theory, Black sexuality, and more. His astonishing book, Contagions of Empire, has just been published. The subtitle, Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad. And in this book, this very carefully and creatively researched book, Khary shows how the movement of African American soldiers and nurses around the world and the first half of the 20th century challenged American military ideals of race, of nation, of honor, and of what patriotism means. I want to thank you both for being here. We're so excited to have you Nikole, and to have you as an interviewer Khary. Thank you.
Thank you so much, Biddy, and thank everyone who's tuned in to our livestream. And of course, Nikole, welcome to Amherst. It's wonderful to have you here, albeit in our virtual colloquium. But nonetheless, welcome. And I did want to let people know that if you have questions that you can submit the questions via the website that's connected to the livestream. And I'll try to leave plenty of time for your questions as well. So Nikole, it's been nearly one year since The 1619 Project debuted in the New York Times Magazine. And since then it has become, least in my mind, a cultural touchstone, enjoying wide acclaim as well as pointed criticism from pundits, academics, and historians alike. But I think about this text, in the way in which I might also think about the miniseries Roots. So in some ways, what the miniseries Roots was to the 1970s, or what the documentary Eyes on the Prize was to the 1980s, The 1619 Project seems poised to have the same kind of transformational impact on how Americans today understand the long arc of the Black freedom struggle in the United States.
So, if you could tell us what inspired you to put this project together, and did you expect it to have the impact that it has had and continues to have?
Well, thank you for that introduction. And thank you Amherst for hosting this conversation today.
And I don't know that those comparisons are apt, I mean, everyone remembers their Roots moment, but I really appreciate you saying those words. What inspired the 1619 Project? In some ways this was a 25-year-old story that's been in my mind. I first came across the date 1619 as a high school student. That's when my the high school that I attended offered a one semester Black Studies elective. And I took that course. And in that one semester, I learned more about Black Americans and our history and our contributions then I had learned the entire public education that I received. And I initially became angry because I wanted to understand why in all those years, no one thought it was important for us to learn this history. A history that, as a Black student, had really always felt demeaning and had made me feel that we'd never really accomplished much or contributed much to our society.
And here I am in this class and learning about all of these people and all of these events and all of these contributions we made. So I became somewhat obsessed with that history. And when that course was over, I asked that teacher, his name was Ray Dow, he's the only Black male teacher I ever had, I asked him, give me another book. And every time I would read a book, I finished it, I would ask him for another book. And I just really began this inquest, this kind of self-study. And one of the books he put in my hand was Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett. And I actually didn't know what the title was referring to. And somewhere on page 35 or so, he talks about the year 1619. And I just remember it feeling almost like a lightning bolt.
I was like, holy shit. Like we were here since 1619. I had no idea that people of African descent, enslaved people, had been here that long. No one had ever taught me that date. And then it clicked to me that every American child learns about the Mayflower, which landed in 1620, a year after the White Lion, which lands in 1619, and yet no child ever was taught in America about 1619. So, the power of that erasure and how much erasure is just as important as what we're actually taught. That stuck with me even as a 16 or 17 year old child. And so I thought about the year 16, literally then. So fast forward, you know, a few years since I was in high school and what I was coming towards the end of book leave.
I think we're going to talk about that book. It's not done. But I was coming towards end of book leave. It was you know, about November of 2018. And I was thinking a lot about that. The following year was going to be the 400th anniversary of that moment and that, like so much of the history of Black Americans, so much of the history of slavery, it was probably going to pass with no national acknowledgement, no recognition. Most Americans had never heard of the date and it was just going to be erased. And how often do we get a chance to commemorate 400 years of anything in this country, but certainly something that I thought to be so foundational to the country that developed. So I was thinking what's the best way to mark that, and I just understood that I could write an essay, but an individual essay was never going to be enough to really give that date the gravity that it deserves.
And I just came up with the idea of doing an entire essay or, excuse me, entire magazine, and dedicating it through a series of essays, the entire magazine, to really examining the ongoing legacy of slavery. It was important to me that it would not be a history of slavery, that it would look at modern American society and answer that question. At my pettiest it was to answer that question that every Black person gets, which is, slavery was a long time ago, why don't you get over it? I wanted to show, essay after essay after essay, that we can't get over it because our country hasn't gotten over it. And I I've often joked, though it's not really a joke, that if you name anything in American life, I can trace it back to slavery. And so that's kind of what the project was that the legacy is very much alive, but it operates invisibly.
But if you look at all of these institutions, from our politics to our cultures, to our social norms to our legal system. Look, you know, look around American society and the fingerprints of slavery are there, but we've just ignored them. And the 1619 Project really was taking the 400th anniversary to force us to acknowledge the slavery is just as foundational to our country as anything can be considered foundational. Another answer to your other question will be much shorter, which is no, I had no idea whatsoever that the project will get the response that it got. And in fact I had panic and anxiety that I had managed to harness all of these resources from the times to produce this project. And on this one thing in American life that we never really want to talk about or grapple with, that we refuse to deal with. And if nobody read it or cared, I would never get the ability to do a project like this again. And I would also close doors on other Black and brown people coming behind me who had ambitious ideas. So the pressure was immense. I believe we had produced something powerful, but as you know, you can do something powerful and people still don't care. So there was no way I could have predicted the way that people have responded to it.
That's, I mean, that's really amazing to hear, because I think we all have these anxieties about how will our work travel, especially without us. And I guess I'm interested, you mentioned being in high school, have you heard anything specifically from either high school students or high school teachers about the project?
Yes. I got a pop up on my screen. I've heard, so for those who don't know, we partner with the Pulitzer Center and the Pulitzer Center turns journalism into high school curriculum. And so that when the 1619 Project launched as a journalism project, it also launched as a free curriculum that educators could download and begin to teach the project to their students. So I, you know, before COVID stopped real life, I was traveling all over the country and meeting with high school students and educators all over the country. And the response from students is the most unexpected, but fulfilling thing that has come out of the 1619 Project. I can't tell you how many students I heard from who said that they felt affirmed and empowered by this story that, you know, they looked around the world much like I did when I was in high school.
And I saw that the image of our communities on TV and the explanations that we were given, which is that somehow we just didn't want better. And I knew it wasn't right, but I didn't have the facts to actually be able to push back on that narrative. And for so many high school students, particularly Black students, but students of all races, this project really filled in it, made their country make more sense to them. So I can remember experiences when I was on the road of students who wrote their own essays and response to mine and recited and engaged in them. I read an essay from a student who was an immigrant from Southeast Asia. And, you know, there's a part in my essay where I talk about that. The very reason Black and brown people are able to immigrate to this country is because of the Black resistance struggle that ends in 1965, our racist immigration quota system.
And I say like, you're here because of us and you have citizenship because of Black people, and yet we never get the credit for that. And instead, what you're taught when you immigrate here, immediately is that anti-Blackness is part of your Americanization process. And this young immigrant said, I never knew that. And it changes my entire perspective on my role here on what I've been taught about Black Americans. And those kinds of transformative moments for young people, you know, I think a lot, I told that story about 1619 in high school. And I think a lot about what that meant for me. And to know that I'm able to provide this project is able to provide a sense of empowerment for young folks is just so incredibly gratifying. And as far as educators, educators, one, have been educated by the project and have really been thankful to have something to supplement what we know to be a very poor history that kids are getting. Educators are tasked with teaching from their textbooks which are highly politicized.
Well, I think it is, it's the question of the politicization of education that I'm interested in in terms of some of the critics, of the critiques that you received from these from different pundits. And I'm wondering how you receive those criticisms. Were some of them fair? Were some of the mean-spirited? Were they coded as did you feel that, that they were racist or just simply afraid of a history that they perhaps did not want to acknowledge?
I would say all of the above, depending on the critic and how I responded, depending on the day. Some days I was able to hold a higher ground and other days I had to go in there scrapping. So you know, what I will say is one, I was completely unsurprised that there would be criticism of the project. Of course there was, I mean, you're academic and you know, one, academics love to argue with each other. This is the nature of historiography. Historians provide their interpretations and other historians write counterarguments to those interpretations. That part is very normal. What's different course is that most Americans don't actually get how historiography works. So for them, there's a set of facts and that's all the facts and anything else is revision. And if historians argue with you, you must've gotten it wrong, especially when you're a journalist and this isn't even what you're trained to do.
So some of this I completely expected. You don't make certain arguments like, let's consider 1619 our true founding and not 1776, let's consider Black people are our true founding fathers. A project that is not deifying our founding or founders and not expect that you're going to get a lot of pushback. So of course I knew that there would be some, and I wanted people to be uncomfortable. We've been far too comfortable with this narrative that, this political narrative, that has tried to downplay and marginalize slavery, and treat slavery as an asterisk when it's clearly not. So that part I expected. The right wing attacks of course I expected all of that. And the right wing attacks have been largely fueled by the fact that the project has become curriculum in so many schools because they really don't want American children learning anything but a vaulted idealized history of our country.
What did surprise me, however, was the effort by some really esteemed historians to discredit the entire project. They circulated a secret letter that they tried to get a bunch of historians to sign on to. I think it's speaks to the project and also the integrity of, of many academics that they couldn't get any signatures to it outside of their five. But once they publish their letter against the project, and we responded and we published their letter in full, they didn't just move on, right? Like they kept publishing. And one in particular, Sean Wilentz of Princeton, I mean, I may as well call the name out, probably published four pieces against the project and they disputed one particular fact, which I could say I should've been more clear about, which was about the slavery being a motivation of some of the colonists during the revolutionary war.
And in hindsight, I probably shouldn't have dropped that bomb out there without a little bit more fortifying evidence. So I'll give them that, but their larger critique was, I didn't give white people enough credit. I was too mean to Abraham Lincoln and that our country was not foundationally racist, which I don't think that's a historic critique, obviously, because I don't know what history proves or disproves that. And so what you realize was that this really was a battle about the national narrative and what that national narrative should be. And that was really disheartening because it's one thing to say we disagree with this reporters interpretations of facts. It's another thing to try to discredit this work. So how I responded really, if you follow me on Twitter, just depends on the day.
Yes, indeed. I have to say that, going back to your essay for the project, that the personal anecdote that begins your essay resonated with me deeply and I'm referring to your story about your father, a veteran and the American flag that he proudly flew in your yard as you grew up. And yet as a young person, in terms of how you narrate this story, you had learned through a kind of cultural osmosis that the flag didn't really belong to African Americans and you write that quote, how could this Black man, having seen firsthand the way his country abused Black Americans, how it refused to treat us as full citizens, proudly fly it's banner. Now I come from a military family and a few weeks ago, my mother called me just around Memorial day.
And she sent my father, who served 30 years in the air force, to the dollar store to buy as many American flags as possible in order to decorate their lawn for the holiday. And it's something that's become kind of a yearly tradition in the Polk household. And so though I grew up in a military environment, when I returned to the States for college, I too learned for the first time, it felt that the flag didn't really belong to me either. And I mentioned this because there's something about the question or the paradox of Black patriotism that animates aspects of The Project, its present and its critical essays as well as the creative work. But it also seems to resolve this paradox about what it means for African Americans to serve a country that doesn't always have its interest at heart. And you may not be able to answer this, but I was wondering if you could say a bit about why American military service or African American military service across the centuries plays such an important role in your project?
Well, I think that as a country we understand, or we believe, at least, that serving in the military is the highest
exhibition of patriotism, right? Your willingness to fight for and die your country. And we know that from the very first war, the Revolutionary War that this country fought, Black people have disproportionately signed up for service. I understand that to be, and I'm sure, you're the historian, so it's weird to be asked the question from someone about their area of expertise cause you get scared, you're going to mess something up. But my lay-person's view of that is of course that a people who did not gain full legal citizenship in their country until 1968, thought that military service would be the way to prove that you were actually worthy of full citizenship, that if you were willing to fight and die for a country, that didn't even, that forced you to serve in a segregated military that often didn't want you to serve or did not allow you to serve until they started losing the war,
and then they needed extra bodies, that if you were willing to put your life on the line for this country, how could your country then say that you did not deserve the full rights of citizenship? So to this day the groups, the two groups that serve the highest in the military are Black people and native people, right? The two people who have constantly had to prove our citizenship and I think a lot about what it means to not be treated as a citizen in the only country you can claim, right? We have no other country to claim. We have no other country to go to. We speak English because we have no other language. We hold the names of Europeans because we have no ability to maintain our own ethnic names. So this is the only country Black people have.
We have nowhere else to go and yet have not ever been treated as full citizens, and the only country we can claim. And that's why my essay also argues we're the most American of all people, because we were created literally on this land. So to have to try to fight and die, just to be recognized as a citizen, and this is what we have done. And this is why I didn't understand my father. It was very hard for me to understand how you could love a country so much that demeans you in that way. But I think what I come to in the essay, and it's funny because people ask, well, when did you finally understand your dad? And I was like, as I was writing the essay. I literally was 44 years old. (Glances off screen: I'm sorry, working from home.)
I was literally writing the essay and reading Black people claiming this country and saying, when during and after slavery, they tried to send us to another land, they tried to say, we're going to free you and then y'all got to get the hell outta here. And Black people were saying, no, our ancestors died here are our people's blood is in this soil. We're not going anywhere. And it's reading that and saying like it was the smartest thing we could have done right after slavery was left this country, right. There was no reason that we should think that a country that would treat us as chattel for 250 years was a place that would ever treat us fairly and that we should stay and invest in. And yet we believed so much in these founding ideals and in our ownership, right.
Even though white people were telling us, we didn't have claims to this country, we never bought that. We believed actually that we had a tremendous claim to this country and more of a claim than anyone else. And we were not going to leave. So reading that, then I understood, I understood what my dad was saying. That you don't have the right to make me feel that I can't claim this land and I'm going to proudly. You will never see me fly an American flag. Let's be clear, but I understand my father saying I have the right to do this, and you are not going to allow me to feel that I don't. And that has been, I think, what Black people have done in serving in the military and often feeling very conflicted about it. Especially as our military service began to be used against Black and brown people and other places, there's always been this deep sense of confliction about serving empire and serving in America, but also feeling that this is the thing we must do so that we can be treated as citizens in our own land, which is why I'm really excited to read your new book.
Oh, well, thank you. Thank you. Back to 1619 Project and you know, it's really masterful and in some ways, giving us the long arc of the very long Black freedom struggle in the United States. And the many ways in which moments of achievements of rights seem to be eroding time again. From the Project you narrate about the Reconstruction era that followed the civil war and this oh-so-brief moment of Black political participation and self-determination and the 1860s and 1870s as well as the civil rights movement that occurred 100 years later in the 1960s. Often the civil rights movement is sometimes known as the second Reconstruction. So two days ago, the movement for Black Lives unveiled the breathe act, a new piece of legislation that offers concrete ways that lawmakers can create a new vision for the country that is safe for everyone, including defunding the police and divesting from incarceration, investing in new approaches to community safety, providing resources, to build healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities for everyone and enhancing the self determination of all Black communities.
Now, I'm going to ask you a question, and this is the question of whether you're feeling hopeful today or perhaps pessimistic, but is it possible that in the words of Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, the second, that we as Americans within the United States may be on the verge of a third Reconstruction?
So I'm never hopeful. Let's just be clear, and not on my best day, but you know, it's interesting question and I have such great admiration for Reverend Barber. And so I never want to say anything against the Reverend Barber. But I think it's far too early to tell if we are in a third Reconstruction or not. When we think about the civil rights movement, that was a decades long movement, that was a decades on freedom struggle, of course, Reconstruction that follows the civil war, follows the deadliest war in American history. So we're only a few weeks into this current iteration and in many ways the media has already moved on. You know, there was back-to-back coverage of the protest initially. Now they might get a few seconds on the news every day. So I'm worried that the attention that is necessary will not be sustained.
I'm worried that we're seeing a lot of very fast superficial things happening. You know, Aunt Jemima's dead now. NASCAR finally realized after all these years that it's not in their values to let people fly a traitorous flag. But what we haven't seen is Congress passing a bill that would truly reform policing. We haven't seen real action on economic justice, which is really the linchpin of inequality. No one's talking about school segregation or housing segregation, and by no one, I mean, the people in positions of power to actually change these things. So, so I don't know. I think it's gonna take a while to see how sustained this is. If we're truly going to see a second Reconstruction. Now, the climate of course is ripe, because we've only seen these kinds of massive societal thrust towards inequality or towards equality when we've had massive societal ruptures and civil war.
The civil rights movement combined with the antiwar movement and Vietnam kind of creates this environment that allows us to make this massive progress. And now, of course, we're in a global viral pandemic, that's colliding with a 400 year racial pandemic, and you have millions of people out of work. You have suddenly all of these white Americans who are having to realize that your financial circumstances can become extremely precarious and it can be totally out of your control. So the condition that Black people have regularly lived in, now you're finding millions of white Americans in that similar position, and it's not for anything that they did wrong. And I think that is allowing them to see that that can also be true for millions of Black people, that we can also be in desperate financial circumstances, and it's not because we just need to take personal responsibility.
So that type of rupture certainly creates an environment where we could see a third Reconstruction. And then of course, you know, we have a white nationalist in the White House, and millions of white Americans who were willing to accept a great deal of racism have realized that it's harming them. It's harming them in a big way. And we have a federal government that is just missing in action in this most desperate time. So for those reasons it's possible. But I don't know. And I just think I'm really skeptical about how much transformation we're going to see right now. And then we also know that both periods of Reconstruction were met by a tremendous white backlash and that these Reconstruction periods last a decade or so, and then there's immediate retrenchment and a white backlash. And so even if we are able to see some significant gains, we know what's going to come around the corner from that. So yeah, not, I'm not a pessimist. I think I'm just a realist.
Respect that. Could you tell us a little bit about your new book project and what you're learning as you re-enter, let's say the conversation concerning school segregation and desegregation.
So my, my new book project is actually my old book project that I just haven't finished yet. But for about little more than three years, I've been working on a book on school segregation. And it's really a book about the centuries long struggle for Black people to get a quality and equal education in this country. And the main narrative of the book is Detroit for a couple of reasons. Detroit is the poorest major city in the country, and it is actually the lowest performing school district in the country, but it's also the home of this landmark Supreme Court case in 1974 called Milliken V Bradley, which was a first test before the Supreme Court as to how much Brown V Board applied to the north. And the Supreme Court basically rules that Black children in Detroit did face unconstitutional school segregation, but you couldn't force white suburbs to integrate with Black cities.
And therefore it's impossible to integrate by court order in the north. And so, but the book really goes all the way back to slavery, and traces its struggle you know, beginning with Black people being the only people in the history of this country for whom it was ever illegal to learn to read and write, to after the end of the Civil War, Black people were being denied education even as they are, their tax dollars are paying for schools to be built for white children. And then today where we, you know, there's never been a single moment in American history where Black children have got the same educational resources or a quality education, and the book was going to make the argument that integration is the only tool we've ever known to provide equal education for Black children. But now I'm kind of conflicted about my argument at the end. So I'm not at that, I'm not exactly, I still believe that that's true, but I am somewhat conflicted now about whether it's the right thing to keep asking, to force our children into schools where they're not wanted. So I'm not sure how, how it's going to end, but it is tracing this centuries-long struggle for Black children to get an education.
Right. So now I want to transition to some of the questions from the viewers. How does learning about the history of Black Americans enrich advocacy and activism today?
Oh, okay, good. I started with the easy one. I don't think you can truly advocate if you don't understand the architecture that built the injustices that you're advocating for. I think what the 1619 Project tried to do, for those of you who are not too young to have seen the movie The Matrix, it's the red pill, it's the pill that allows you to see all of the coding, the invisible coding behind the structures and systems that you take for granted. And without that knowledge, what are you actually fixing and how are you fixing it? What's really important to me, and not just in the 1619 Project but in all of my work, is to show the intentionality of the inequality. That this created, that it was created with a lot of thought, that it was created with a lot of resources, and that you have to apply that same amount of thought and planning and resources to undo the socially engineered inequality as you did to create it.
And I think we just don't have the language the lexicon to understand that. And so the advocacy almost always falls short. And so often the advocacy is about worrying about, you know, are people racist in their hearts? I don't care. You can hate every Black person in America, but what you don't have a right to do is deprive Black people of resources, to discriminate against Black people in public or private spaces. And you cannot be racist at all, but because of the legacy of slavery and discrimination, you have the wealth to buy into all white neighborhoods with property values that were artificially deflated or inflated because of the government with access to the best resource schools. And it has nothing to do with your heart, but everything to do with you being a beneficiary of a system that values white people more than Black. So to me, you have to have that base of knowledge if you are going to effectively change the systems that you say you're fighting,
What can we do to dismantle the ideology of race that both rationalizes and distracts from gross inequity in US society?
I don't really get the question. I don't know how the ideology of race distracts from gross—the gross inequity, the gross inequity is created by the ideology of race. So I, I'm not, I'm not really sure how to answer that question. What I will say is like, you know, Black people didn't create race, and we could never use the language of race again, and it's not gonna erase the inequality that's been created through a system of racial cast. So I'm less concerned about how do we try to make the language or idea of race irrelevant, and I'm much more concerned about how do we actually deal with a society where everything was designed around race, and where we bring equality. I don't think ignoring what we all know is a fiction, but money is a fiction too, but I can't just go to the store and pay for things without it. Right. So something can be both a fiction and real, and we can't, I think until you deal with the fundamental underlying inequalities that race created, you can't seek to dismantle the ideology of race, because all that does then is it seeks to hide the infrastructure of the inequality
Returning to the question of education, can you comment on legacy admissions at colleges and universities?
That's a rhetorical question. What am I supposed to comment on? Of course, it's white people's affirmative action. I mean, I'm not, yeah. We know that legacy admissions is affirmative action for wealthy white people. And it is the sacred cow, even as Black and brown folks are demeaned by affirmative action. At many universities up to 25% of admissions are legacy admissions. And almost always legacy admissions are less qualified than the student body at large. So my comment is get rid of them and continue affirmative action for Black and Brown folks who actually deserve it.
The 1619 Project was enormous and enormously successful. Is there anything you would've done differently?
No, it was perfect. No I'm playing. I mean, sure. I mean, I read my essay now and I'm like, I wish I would have done this or written this better included this. We're expanding the 1619 Project into a series of books and there are several subject areas that I wish we could have covered, and we simply just didn't have the time or space. I wish the project would have engaged with diaspora some.In some ways it was intentional that it didn't because I really wanted the project to be about Black Americans, but it is a whole particularly when we're talking about the Caribbean and South America. So there will be an essay that is going to deal with that. I, I do regret that we didn't acknowledge and give more time to indigenous people and settler colonialism.
Frankly it's not an area that I have a great deal of expertise in. I wasn't as comfortable in that area. So it's a huge gaping hole in the project. I mean, the project is not about native people, but you cannot tell this story without acknowledging the role of settler colonialism in the making of America. So I'm in talks with some indigenous writers who I'm hoping will be writing an essay that better linking these stories for the project. And the other was the original project was supposed to have an essay on reparations. Trymaine Lee's piece, looking at the wealth gap was supposed to assess what is owed, but that actually worked out, I think the way it was supposed to, because then I got to write the essay that, I actually wanted to write that essay, but I just couldn't. And I got to write the essay that I wanted to write a couple of weeks ago. So those are like the big areas that I wish we had improved upon for sure.
Let's see. A big question. What do you think are the best ways white people can help the movement for reparations?
Okay, good. So I thought you were going to say like, what can white people do to end racism? And I have a very flip answer to that these days, cause I'm tired of that question, but this question I'll answer.
So there's two easy things. One, H.R.40 is the Congressional bill that has been stuck in committee for 30 years. John Conyers, Representative from Detroit, has he introduced that bill every year for 30 years and he died last year with that bill never having made it out of committee. Originally the bill was just a bill to say, let us get together a commission to study, whether we should even have reparations. We couldn't even get that out. And now the bill is actually saying, let's put together a panel to talk about how reparations should happen. So, you call your Congress people and advocate for them to actually pass that bill out of committee so that we can look at how this would occur. And the other thing is to really educate yourself and educate your fellow white people on why reparations is necessary.
The recent polling I saw on this said about 75% of Americans were opposed to reparations, majority of Black people, but the minority of everyone else. And I truly think some of that you're not going to be able to move. But I think a lot of it is, most people actually have a very visceral reaction to this idea without understanding why it's necessary, without understanding what makes the Black experience so singular, without understanding that Black people were advocating for reparations during slavery. And from the moment that slavery ended and the delay of justice should not equal the denial of justice. And also, as I argue in my piece, what is owed reparations are not just about slavery, but the 100 years of legal, racial, apartheid, and terrorism that Black people experienced until 1968. We had legal discrimination against people in every aspect of American life, simply because they descended from people who had been enslaved until 10 years before I was born. My father's generation. These people are still alive. John Lewis is still alive. So I think it is about really educating yourself on this issue and then advocating with your own folks about why this is something that the government, so to be clear, white people are not writing a check, though, if any white person wants to write me a check, I'll give my Venmo after the talk. But reparations is about a societal debt and it is paid by the government. It's not about punishing white Americans.
Anybody want my Venmo?
That's going to be on Fox news tomorrow. I shouldn't even have said it.
Oh, well this is actually, I do like this. This is an interesting question to me. The New York Times recently announced that they are going to capitalize the B in Black. Where do you stand on this conversation? And do you imagine going back to the work that you've done, especially the 1619 Project and with these new guidelines, changing things that you've written, you've written previously and capitalizing Black?
I mean, I'm certainly not going to go in and retype the B on everything that I ever wrote, but I'm a hundred percent in favor of them. When, when I first started out as a young journalist, I always capitalize the B. I think what people fail to understand is because of the very thing we talked about earlier, because we have been cut off from having any ties to another country or another ethnic group. Black people actually became an ethnic group in this country. We became a melding of the three races of people who lived here in 1619, which were African, white and indigenous the melding of every West African culture and ethnic group that was brought across the Middle Passage became one people here. And so we actually do have a distinct lineage and a distinct ethnic group.
And the capital B I think respects that I don't use African-American, it's always felt too soft to me. Black has always felt much more political and powerful. And I tweeted about this a couple of weeks ago when the Associated Press, so if you're not a journalist the Associated Press has long set the style for how you write certain things in journalism. And when the Associated Press announced, I mean, you have to learn AP style they call it as a journalism student. And when they announced that they were moving to the capitol B, I wrote about how amazing of a moment that was because I had that, you know, not literally beaten out of me, but taken out of me every time you would write the capital B, your journalism professors would mark it up. And as a journalist, the copy desk would lowercase to be automatically, and you just stopped doing it.
And so for decades, I haven't been able to, and no other journalists writing in a mainstream publication, or for that most academics have never been able to write a capital B. And so to see that change, and then finally, the New York Times also made the change was really liberating and empowering. And the sad thing is I'm so used to riding the lowercase B because I was forced to write the lowercase B for more than 20 years that I have to keep correcting it because it's not even my natural inclination, but I think it is a great and important and empowering move. And what a lot of people don't know is the NAACP also went on a campaign for Negro to get when we use the word Negro to get the N in Negro capitalized as a sign of respect, because lower casing, the way that you referred to Black people was just another indignity of not treating Black people as fully human. So Black is to me the same as calling someone Irish or calling someone Asian or Japanese. And it deserves to have that capitalization. So I'm very happy about that change.
All right. So I think we have time for one more question. I'll return to one of my questions, and it's clear that your work as a journalist and as a Tweeter is deeply inspired by the life and work of journalist and early Civil Rights activist, Ida B. Wells. And for those who don't know Nikole's Twitter handle is Ida Bay Wells which is just brilliant. But I've been thinking about her work recently, especially her work as an investigative reporter documenting lynchings in the South in the 1890s. And as I think the 1619 Project chronicles, anti-Black violence has been a regular condition of Black existence since at least 1619. With that in mind, I've been especially disturbed by the recent reports of alleged suicides by African Americans across the country over the past few weeks, which reprises the symbolic image of what Wells' worked so hard to expose. First, could you say a bit about Wells and her impact upon you as a writer and a journalist. And second, how do you, as a journalist make sense of these alleged suicides?
Sure. So Ida B. Wells was, you know, hands down the most bad ass investigative journalists of her era. This was a Black woman born into slavery who was less than five feet tall, who would go into communities where a Black man had just been lynched by a white mob and start asking questions. Asking questions to document what actually happened, and then actually expose that the myths around Black people being lynched, which were that Black people were, you know, sexual predators and violent was actually that Black people were often accused of rape after consensual sex with a white woman, or being lynched out of economic retaliation. Of course, she had her newspaper destroyed, she was run out of Memphis and I had to live in exile first in New York and then ultimately in Chicago. This woman was also a suffragist, and really tried to force the white suffragist movement to stop being racist and include black women.
She was a Civil Rights activist, one of the cofounders of the NAACP though, because she is a woman and a Black woman, she was largely kind of written out of that story. When you see that old picture of the NAACP banner talking about a man was lynched today, Ida B. Wells is the reason that the NAACP started paying attention to lynchings because more upper class Black people at that time, didn't want to touch the issue of lynching. They thought, they actually believed that it was Black men being rapist, and didn't see it as an issue that was clean enough for them. And Ida B. Wells forced this into the national global conversation and also into the NAACP. She also refused to engage in class politics. She founded organizations to help Southern migrants to adapt and succeed once they got to Chicago.
So just in every way. She hyphenated her name, refused to give up her last name and hyphenated her name at a time when women simply did not do that shit. Most women don't do that now. So in every way I've seen her as a beacon. She really innovated data reporting. She was one of the first data reporting, she was the first person to catalog the number of lynchings that were occurring and where they were occurring. And we still use some of her investigative techniques today. When I think about, you know, as a journalist, my job is to be skeptical of everything. And so it's really hard for me to give an opinion on these alleged suicides, because we don't have enough facts. And it's possible in this country, we know very possible, that at least some of these Black men were lynched. But it's also possible that some of these Black men, or all of them, killed themselves because we are seeing a rise in suicides amongst Black men nationally, if you look at the data.
So I just, I don't know. What I will say though, and I wrote this in the piece What Is Owed, is that George Floyd was lynched. Right? Like, that was a clear, and I don't use the word lynching as metaphor. I think you don't, we should never use a word with that history in our country as a metaphor. But when law enforcement, and we know that according to some studies, law enforcement participated in about 90% of all lynchings that occurred in South. So to have a law enforcement kneel on a black man's neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds until he died, that was a lynching. And at the height of lynching, about two black people were lynched every week for 90 years. And today about five black people are killed by police every week. So maybe those hangings were lynchings, but even if they weren't, we can clearly see the parallels between this extra judicial violence with no consequence.
The phrase they used to use back then was the lynchings were done by "parties unknown," even though people knew there's photographs, no one was hiding it. And every time a police officer kills a Black person, and there's no consequence, it's still as if this person was killed by a party unknown, because there's no one who would get punished for their killing. So we do have a scourge of lynchings in this country, whether it's happening with those Black men being hung or not. And I will also just add in many cases, for instance, like with Trayvon Martin who was killed in vigilante justice or injustice it was Black reporters again, who forced those stories into the national narrative. Those stories were largely ignored by white media and white journalists. And it was Black journalists. You know, you think about Wesley Lowery with his reporting on police violence at the Washington Post. Trymaine Lee is the one from MSNBC that really forced Trayvon Martin into the national message. So we're still having to play that same role that Ida B. Wells played all those years ago. That was a long answer to, I'm sorry.
Fantastic. Thank you so much. Biddy?
Biddy Martin (58:13):
Thank you. Thank you so much for that conversation. Thank you for doing the work you do, Nikole. And Khary, thank you to you. We have another event for the Amherst community on July 22nd, and the focus will be on mental health and wellness in 2020, in the summer of 2020. I hope you'll join us. We have a public health expert, Kim Leary, who's also senior vice president of the Urban Institute. And also Dr. Paula Rauch, graduate of Amherst, as is Kim, and the Davidson Chair of Psychiatry and founding director of the Marjorie Korff Parenting At a Challenging Time Program at Harvard. So join us on July 22nd on a Wednesday at 7:00 PM. And I wish that all of you out there could join me in thanking Nikole Hannah Jones and Khary Polk for such an important conversation. I wish we could listen to you for a lot longer, very much.
Thank you. Thank you so much for hosting it and thank you. I really enjoy talking with you tonight.
As well as well. Good luck on the second book.
I gotta finished the first one. Alright, bye.