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Hulu Brings ‘The 1619 Project’ To Life In A Six-Part Documentary, Analyzing A Difficult History

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ exploration of the history and legacy of slavery in America outlines how we got here from that date 400 years ago.

In 2019, The New York Times Magazine launched the 1619 Project, coinciding with the 400th anniversary of enslaved Africans arriving on Colonial American shores. Heralded by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, it went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and spurred multiple dialogues about the history of Africans in America and their descendants.

Now Hannah-Jones, who last year founded Howard University’s Center for Journalism and Democracy, is leading a new discussion around the project, but this time on streaming media as The 1619 Project, comes to Hulu in a six-part series available Jan. 26.

Sharing the role of executive producer with Oprah Winfrey, Hannah-Jones takes viewers through multiple aspects of the legacy of enslavement and its political, social and economic results over the course of generations.

“We are the only people in the history of the United States for whom it was ever illegal to learn to read and write,” she told BET.com during a press junket. “Because there was an understanding that that knowledge is how we would gain our liberation and how we would gain the thirst for liberation. But we don't live in an era where you can keep us from knowledge anymore.”

It’s not lost on Hannah-Jones that the teaching of this difficult history is not without its challenges. In fact, in 2021, five historians wrote directly to the Times accusing the project of having “factual errors” But the Times defended the work in a response to those historians with the magazine’s editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein writing: “Within the world of academic history, differing views exist, if not over what precisely happened, then about why it happened, who made it happen, how to interpret the motivations of historical actors and what it all means.”

Since that time, political controversies over the teaching of critical race theory have impacted elections, and recently, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barred the teaching of AP African American history courses in the state’s schools, accusing it of being agenda-driven. According to Hannah-Jones, it is a moment that sees school boards, politicians and other government entities wrongly trying to challenge and erase those histories and stories.

“We know that our history has always been targeted in this country – this is not new. There were the textbook wars in the 1980s with Ronald Reagan,” she said. “We had the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative that began right after slavery to try to diminish the role of slavery and diminish the actions of Black people to build democracy at the end of slavery, so this is an old story for Black folks.”

Hannah-Jones says this current political climate in which the teaching of Black history is being banned in some places, and libraries, teachers and writers are under attack, she isn’t surprised that her own work in print and even on screen is being challenged, and the impact is the opposite of what those who would suppress her work would want.

1619: What You Need To Know About The First African Slaves In America

But she lays out the case for reanalyzing that very history to illustrate a particular way that unresolved racial issues of the past still impact Black life in the modern day. For example in the episode entitled “Fear,” she explains how slave revolts led to Jim Crow segregation, which led to incidents like the slayings of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, which ultimately brings society to an era in which that was repeated in the death of George Floyd.

“In some ways, Black Americans facing police and vigilante violence is as familiar a story as you can have in America,” she said. “And yet, we wanted to contextualize why do we treat Black people like this? Why do we have this innate fear that somehow legitimizes this violence that that black Americans, particularly Black males, have to deal with. And I think that the power of this episode is even though it will feel familiar at the beginning, I think that people will be very surprised and grateful for the understanding and contextualization.”

“The 1619 Project” launches on Hulu on Thursday, January 26.

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