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A Project About The First Enslaved Africans On American Shores Wins A Pulitzer Prize

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In August of 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed on American shores. Last year the New York Times launched The 1619 Project. Its aim was to reframe the American narrative around slavery 400 years after that first arrival. Nikole Hannah-Jones created the project and just won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her introductory essay.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome, and congratulations.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: You know, it's an enormous task to view American history through a different lens, and reading the essay, I thought, this could fill several books. So how did you focus the task in front of you? I mean, like, when you told friends what you were trying to do with the essay, what did you say to them?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, I guess I should start by saying this has filled several books.

SHAPIRO: Right. Yes (laughter).

HANNAH-JONES: You know, I relied very heavily on the work of historians for this. This essay was about democracy and the unparalleled role that black Americans have played almost always without getting credit and actually creating the democracy that we have and making those glorious words of the declaration actually true for all Americans.

SHAPIRO: Because you do begin with the detail of the flag that your father always flew outside your childhood home, I'm curious how writing this helped you better understand your own family.

HANNAH-JONES: There's a part in that opening where I say, you know, as a child, you think you know so much when, in fact, you understand so little and that I finally understood why my dad flew this flag that, when I was young, used to deeply embarrass me. And people ask me all the time, well, how - you know, when did you come to that realization? And I said, when I was writing the piece. And that's actually true. I truly never really got my father's patriotism until I was immersed for weeks upon weeks reading about black people's really dogged patriotism and dogged belief in a country that has never treated us as full citizens. And thinking about what that meant allowed me, as a 42-year-old woman, to finally understand where my father was coming from, which is kind of miraculous.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. And did it shape how you think about patriotism and your relationship to this country?

HANNAH-JONES: For sure. We've all kind of been fed this particular type of patriotism and that, you know, patriotism is this unquestioning loyalty to a certain brand of Americana. And that necessarily excludes so many of us who were on the outside of those patriotic borders for our entire history in this country.

But when you think that patriotism is actually truly believing in these founding ideals of equality and saying, our country is not there, but we are going to challenge our country, and we are going to be honest about our country, that is actually true patriotism. And black Americans certainly can claim not the flag-pin-wearing, outward, abstract notion of patriotism but the type of patriotism that has been built through the blood sacrifice of black Americans and so many other marginalized people. So yes.

SHAPIRO: I want to ask you about another aspect of yesterday's Pulitzers, which is that Ida B. Wells, the groundbreaking journalist from the late 1800s - African American woman who fought for racial and women's equality - received a special Pulitzer Prize citation yesterday. Your Twitter profile name is Ida Bae Wells - B-A-E. You're one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Society at UNC Chapel Hill. So what meaning does it hold for you that the two of you, working more than a century apart from each other, received this honor on the same day?

HANNAH-JONES: I have long said that Ida B. Wells is my spiritual godmother. I understand that my ability to do the work that I do is only because Ida B. Wells existed. And in 1894 The New York Times called Ida B. Wells a slanderous and nasty-minded mulatress because of her advocacy and reporting about the lynching of black men in the South. And for me...

SHAPIRO: The New York Times, your own current employer.

HANNAH-JONES: Yes. And here I am more than 125 years later, receiving the Pulitzer Prize on the same day as Ida B. Wells from the same newspaper that called her that and for writing about the legacy of slavery. I am not a religious person, but there is some cosmic intervention that feels like it happened there.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Nikole Hannah-Jones is a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, and her essay launching The 1619 Project just won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.

Congratulations, and thank you for talking with us about it.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you so very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.