Pulitzer winner Hannah-Jones at college: ‘Symbolism matters. Protests matter.'

Decorated journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, above left, participates in a guided discussion Tuesday led by SUNY Oswego’s Karol Cooper, at right.

OSWEGO — Pulitzer prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, best known for developing the New York Times’ 1619 Project, reflected this week at SUNY Oswego on the fallout of a year in American race relations highlighted by historic successes yet mired in controversy.

The decorated investigative journalist has become one of media’s most dynamic voices in the past 24 months, the peak (so far) of a long career built on incisive dispatches on issues of race, inequality and civil rights. Hannah-Jones took center stage during the college’s 32nd annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration on Tuesday, answering questions from community members, as well as participating in a guided discussion with Karol Cooper, a professor of literature and SUNY Oswego’s director of literary studies. The two women covered subjects ranging from tangible improvement of economic outcomes of black Americans to pro forma activism in the corporate world. The conversation also covered opposition to the 1619 Project, as well as the future of the longform material as part of school curriculum across the country.

The ceremony kicked off with a rendition of the unofficial Black national anthem: John Rosamond Johnson and James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed by the SUNY Oswego Gospel Choir.

Cooper and Hannah-Jones agreed immediately on one point: the surge in Black Lives Matter protests that arose from a string of acts of police brutality in the summer of 2020, which led to some of the largest demonstrations in recent history, “mattered”.

“We know that symbolism matters, we know that protests matter,” Hannah-Jones said. “In that moment, I was questioning when we saw multiracial groups of people all across the world protesting for Black Lives Matter, we also saw corporations jumping in making very performative actions around Black Lives Matter.”

The summer protests ushered in a mixed reception from corporate America. While some big conglomerates such as J.P. Morgan pledged $30 million to corporate diversity efforts, according to a report from Thomson Reuters. The same report also indicates roughly half of the 1,000 highest-valued stocks in America made public statements on racial equity.

Hannah-Jones said a question still remains if the movement will take a step forward beyond symbolic gestures.

“Are we really going to be able to translate the slogans, to translate the protests, into tangible results for black Americans?” she said. “Particularly, as I argued in one of my essays, around economics and economic disparities.”

Hannah-Jones noted some economic indicators show black Americans face discrimination based on prejudice as a direct, inescapable legacy of slavery. This claim core tenet of the Iowa native’s 1619 Project, which according to the New York Times Magazine “aims to reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States' national narrative." The longform project was initially unveiled in August 2019 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the colony of Virginia.

“Slavery and the years of racial terrorism and apartheid that we call Jim Crow that followed were all tools of economic exploitation,” Hannah-Jones said. “Most of the discrimination we see today remains so.”

The protests of summer 2020 brought a moment when people were more receptive to discussing the idea of going beyond social demonstrations to combat pervasive racism and injustice, Hannah-Jones said.

Hannah-Jones is a proponent of federal monetary reparations to Black Americans for the damages incurred through colonial and post-revolutionary chattel slavery.

“One of the easiest things to do would be to support legislation to provide reparations for descendants of slavery,” she said.

One of the closest approximations to the notion of reparations seen on Capitol Hill in recent years is the House of Representatives’ H.R. 40 bill. The legislation, proposed by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, would institute a commission to help and study the consequences and impacts of slavery and prescribe potential recommendations on material reparations, according to the congresswoman’s website.

Despite 173 Democrats cosponsoring the bill, per public records, H.R. 40 was introduced in 2019 and has yet to move beyond its subcommittee hearings, which were hosted in June that year.

One indicator of how far the conversation on race in America has come (but still with a long way to go), the 1619 Project is being used as a supplementary curriculum in at least one school in every state in the country, Hannah-Jones said.

“It is really demonstrative of the desire for educators to have supplementary material to deal with how poorly our textbooks teach about the history of race, racism, and black contributions to this country,” she said.

The 1619 Project has weathered intense criticism and ideological questions from both left-leaning and right-wing observers. In late 2019, a group of five prominent scholars wrote of “the displacement of historical understanding.” Another high-profile wave of dissent came from a cadre of Republican elected officials, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, who late last year created a so-called 1776 Commission dedicated to the creation of “patriotic education” in rebuttal to Hannah-Jones’ works.

“Whether one agrees with the project or not, this is a work of journalism that makes arguments,” she said “It was never intended to replace traditional history taught in public schools, even though that history is pretty poor.”

Hannah-Jones acknowledged the former presidential administration’s rebuttal as a form of censorship.

“To have a government attempting to censor and prohibit a work of journalism in our public schools should be deeply troubling to all of us,” she concluded.

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