Hours after Mount Holyoke College held its first virtual Convocation, community members gathered online once more to participate in the Common Read keynote. As this year’s Common Read is The 1619 Project, the event was a conversation between Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, and New York Times journalist and creator of the initiative, Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Sanders-McMurtry began the conversation as, she said, the College “begin[s] our work in becoming an anti-racist institution,” alluding to the recently published anti-racism action plan.
Hannah-Jones said she first heard the date 1619, when enslaved Africans were brought to Virginia, when she was in high school. She had taken an elective African-American history course and read the book “Before the Mayflower: A History of Black America” by Lerone Bennett Jr.
“It felt like a lightning bolt — I had never heard that date before,” she said. “It was a moment of transformation.”
Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer for commentary for her introductory essay. “Slavery is as foundational to America as the principles of freedom, yet it’s been treated as marginal,” she said. “If you want to understand the moment we’re in right now … then you have to understand the corrosive nature of that founding hypocrisy.”
Sanders-McMurtry asked about the popularity of The 1619 Project. “Did you ever imagine it?” she asked. “It sold out! People were lined up!”
“I’m building upon the legacy of so many Black scholars, teachers and activists,” Hannah-Jones said. “They all made the path possible.” She said when she initially pitched the project, “I had no idea if people would care. I was as shocked as anyone else.”
While The 1619 Project has been lauded, there are some who have labeled it “anti-American” and “historical revisionism.”
Hannah-Jones said, “People who make those comments haven’t read the project or my opening essay. It was the most patriotic piece I’ve ever written.”
She said she hopes the use of the project in colleges and universities would lead to discussion and further research. “We stated what our objective was. What I hope is it will lead students to be more critical of what we know and what we think we know. It should foster brilliant conversations about framing.”
Sanders-McMurtry asked what was next for The 1619 Project, and Hannah-Jones announced that it was being expanded into a book.
“The book will fill in some of the bigger gaps that were left out,” she said. It will feature eight new essays, covering the diaspora, literature, the Black church, and connecting what happened with Black Americans with the Indigenous people of North America.
Sanders-McMurtry asked what Hannah-Jones would say to college students.
“I did not dream this big at all [in college]. My ambition was to write about Black folks in the South. Maybe I should have dreamed bigger!” she said, laughing. Hannah-Jones then addressed the question.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said. “When I was in college, it seemed that everyone had their s--- together more than I did. And, understand you can’t control anything outside yourself, but you can control your own excellence.
“Also — this is to everyone — if you do make it, try to be for the person who comes behind you, the person you needed for yourself.”
The keynote was the first event centered around The 1619 Project. The Mount Holyoke community will be engaging with the project throughout the year.