A Waterloo native who won the Pulitzer Prize for leading a New York Times project that examined slavery and the historical contributions of black Americans will speak at a free public event at Waterloo West High School tonight.
“When we are not taught to think about these things or to understand the role that black Americans played, we fill in that gap with a presumption that black people haven’t done much worthy about knowing,” she said, “and that slavery was just an asterisk to the American story.”
Hannah-Jones, a 1994 graduate of Waterloo West, will appear on stage with the high school history teacher who introduced her to the date 1619.
“In that one semester, I learned more about the history and contributions of black Americans than I had learned in my first 10 years of education,” Hannah-Jones said.
Hannah-Jones described the experience as empowering and she refers to it in preface of the just released book version of The 1619 Project.
“When you start to see that history, then all of a sudden the world starts to make sense,” Hannah-Jones said. “And, I mean, that is what propelled me to do The 1619 Project and that is what I have heard from readers of all races and all ages is that no one ever taught us any of this and now I have a deeper understanding.”
Oprah Winfrey is producing a series based on The 1619 Project. The Des Moines Public Library Foundation presented Hannah-Jones with its 2021 Iowa Author Award last night.
In February, some Republicans in the state legislature criticized The 1619 Project. The governor later last spring signed a bill that did not directly mention Hannah-Jones’ work, but the new law prohibits Iowa schools from teaching that Iowa and the United States are fundamentally or systemically racist.
“I can’t tell you how profoundly disappointing it is that my own state would seek to prohibit the teaching of my work when it was in an Iowa classroom that I received the transformative experience that allowed me to have the type of success I’ve had,” Hannah-Jones said.
In January, Hannah-Jones will join the faculty at Howard University where she’s founding the Center for Journalism and Democracy. She has also established a privately-funded after school program in Waterloo for struggling readers.