Nikole Hannah Jones with photo frames behind her

Untold History and History to be Told: A Conversation with 1619 Project Founder Nikole Hannah-Jones

This week, the Trinity Commons Speaker Series welcomed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, the initiator and facilitator of the 1619 Project. What an honor for us to welcome her to Trinity. Her mission, as she named it, of telling the truth of history through the stories of Black Americans, is remaking the way Americans understand our collective heritage and common life.

Nikole’s reporting tells us that right here in New York City, our schools, our policing, and our housing policies are borne out of racist histories and can be changed. I turned off my Zoom link inspired for the work ahead. If you were able to join us, I hope you did too.

Image of a Zoom call with the Rev. Winnie Varghese and Nikole Hannah-Jones
The Rev. Winnie Varghese (at left) led an online conversation and Q&A with Nikole Hannah-Jones (at right).

A few points of reflection particularly resonated with me. First, the New York City Public School system is among the most segregated of the large school systems in this country. The solution, as Nikole proposes, is to organize our schools by neighborhood, so that our schools reflect the wonderful diversity of our city. We should not be pigeon-holing kids and limiting their futures in the name of school choice.

As has been widely reported, the 1619 Project has been adopted as a curriculum in several school districts: Chicago Public Schools; Washington, DC; Buffalo, NY; and has been proposed to be banned in others. In New York City, some schools are using the 1619 curriculum, but not all.

The Pulitzer Center Announces Initiative to Bring the 1619 Project to Schools
The Pulitzer Center is the education partner for the 1619 Project. 

Other ways we can get involved in creating the future we want is by supporting Reparations Act H.R. 40, which would address the fundamental injustice of slavery in the U.S. and original colonies between 1619 and 1864, study it, and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations. It has been introduced in Congress every year for 30 years, but political will stalls, and the bill never makes it out of committee.

American history does not have to be about exceptionalism or nationalism, blame or pride. It can be a truth-telling that helps us to understand how we got here and teaches us that everyone belongs and is a part of our greater story.

At Trinity, social justice is one of our core values, and racial justice is one of our strategic mission areas, which we support through our congregational ministries, grant-making, and advocacy. As Nikole said in the discussion last night, a church that follows Jesus has to care about telling the truth and working to make our society more fair. We must care about our schools and actively pursue a better future for our children and our society. Nikole also encouraged us to look beyond abstraction like “education reform” to the specific practices and policies that lead to school desegregation. And, we must stick with the work for as long as it takes.

Right before the Civil War, Unitarian minister Theodore Parker wrote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and Barack Obama both used the quote to mark the potential for social change in their time, and Dr. King added “but time is neutral.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, when asked about this idea, responded that a better image might be a circle. We seem to act for change, see change happen, and then watch the reaction to the change take us back to where we were. Change takes a long time and is not inevitable, but, she added, if we are working toward justice knowing there will be a reaction, but persisting, we can make a change, and maybe begin to beat that circle into an arc. We must.


For further reading:

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

The 1619 Project Curriculum

Full Issue of the 1619 Project

NYC'S Inaugural Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation (nycASID)

WeTeachNYC - Curriculum Guide

NYC Liberation School