Award-Winning Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones Speaks at Rutgers‒Camden

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole Hannah-Jones

By Jeanne Leong

In a thought-provoking and inspiring virtual lecture at Rutgers University‒Camden, nearly 1,000 people joined on their computers or phones to listen to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones lead a discussion about issues surrounding racial and social justice.

On Thursday, Sept. 24, Hannah-Jones spoke to students, faculty, staff, alumni, and guests as part of the Rutgers Reads program at Rutgers–Camden, which annually provides a communal read for incoming first-year undergraduate students for a shared, intellectually engaging experience that also serves as an introduction to academic life at Rutgers University–Camden.

Hannah-Jones speaking from her home during the lecture.

Hannah-Jones speaking from her home during the lecture.

During Rutgers Reads 2020, students explored works related to “The 1619 Project,” published by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of slavery in America. Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize in Commentary in May 2020 for her “sweeping, provocative, and personal essay for the groundbreaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”

During this Rutgers–Camden event, Hannah-Jones answered questions about issues such as how the essays from “The 1619 Project” can be used in schools to teach students of all ages, ways to improve race relations, and how she responds to claims by critics that the project is unpatriotic.

Hannah-Jones noted that the essays are works of journalism, with writers relying on the research of historians and other scholars to make their arguments.

“I could not do my work without scholarship,” said Hannah-Jones to her Rutgers audience. “We bring people into the ivory tower. I can’t do what I do without your work, and often times, you guys are not writing for a mass audience, and we can do that.”

She added that she considers it a bonus that teachers throughout the nation are using “The 1619 Project” as a teaching tool. “I hope it leads students to question why do we know what we know, how did we come to know it, and who decides,” said Hannah-Jones. “I don’t think anyone should take any one piece, anything, as the truth and the only truth.”

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway speaks to students during the presentation.

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway

Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway, a historian who specializes in post-emancipation United States history, offered comments during a session with students. “I stand particularly in awe with all of you, our Rutgers–Camden students,” said Holloway. “You are not shying away from confronting the challenges of our world head on. You chose Rutgers and Rutgers in Camden to become leaders, and through your work in Rutgers Reads, you are displaying an openness to honest conversation, a desire to participate in civic discourse, and a willingness to support each other.”

Regarding critics who characterize “The1619 Project” as unpatriotic, Hannah-Jones shared her belief that the project is tremendously patriotic because it says the United States’ founding ideals are majestic.

“It says those founding ideals were beautiful,” Hannah-Jones explained. “Black people have played this unparalleled role in trying to perfect those ideals. I hope it charges us all as Americans to try to live up to those ideals.”

According to William FitzGerald, an associate professor of English at Rutgers University–Camden and organizer of the Rutgers Reads program, “We selected Nikole Hannah-Jones for her impactful work in investigative journalism that doesn’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions about our present, in light of our past,” he said.

“In reading pieces by Ms. Hannah-Jones on education and segregation and ‘The 1619 Project,’ our students have expressed both interest in and surprise about how much they don’t know about the forces that have shaped their experiences in school and society. They have valued the deep research and engaging writing of these pieces.”

Previous Rutgers Reads authors include Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the book Hidden Figures; The Underground Railroad author Colson Whitehead; and Matthew Desmond, author of the book Evicted.

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