Nikole Hannah-Jones Delivers NU’s MLK Dream Week Keynote

Illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Nicole Hannah-Jones. The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Project 1619 was the keynote speaker at Northwestern’s 2022 MLK Dream Week.

In Waterloo, Iowa, a young black woman faced a crossroads at her predominantly white high school: tell her story and that of her black classmates or remain silent.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Project 1619 and writer for The New York Times Magazine, decided to take up the challenge. Today, she has made it her profession.

Concluding Northwestern’s Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration and Dream Week 2022, Hannah-Jones virtually addressed the community on Monday. She discussed the 1619 Project, her initiative highlighting the lived experience of black people in American history, as well as her personal experience.

Hannah-Jones said she attributes her success to her upbringing, with her curiosity about black history sparked in high school.

“I wasn’t much younger than a lot of students on that (Zoom call) when I took my high school black studies elective,” she said. “I learned more about black history — not just in America but around the world — than I had learned in my entire career.”

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker moderated the keynote and provided insight into the critique of how the project is taught in schools.

“This project has been weaponized by the (political) right,” Whitaker said. “People lose their minds in their criticism.”

Whitaker also praised the way Hannah-Jones’ work serves to “stimulate and agitate change” in the fight against racial injustice.

Responding to those who disregard the centrality of racism in American history, Hannah-Jones discussed the importance of race in the United States.

“Ever since we became a multiracial country, race has been a fundamental organizing principle in our politics, our science, our culture, our music, our language,” Hannah-Jones said. “I just don’t know how else to argue.”

Although race is fundamental in the American setting, Hannah-Jones said Martin Luther King Jr. was whitewashed throughout history as a dreamer, while she viewed him as a radical doer.

She said she finds it interesting how few Americans know about King’s heritage.

“(King) explained that America was probably going to become one of the failed civilizations because we can’t get over our racism,” Hannah-Jones said. “But you hardly hear any of that.”

Candace Bergeron Lenard, associate director of student and community engagement at the Pritzker School of Law, helped plan Hannah-Jones’ attendance at MLK Dream Week.

She said Hannah-Jones is a beacon of hope for today’s society.

“Our underlying theme this year for MLK Week was ‘And Today I Still Have Hope,’ and she embodies that,” Lenard said. “She highlights these major issues and focuses on them. We have a long way to go, but hopefully we will get there eventually.

Hannah-Jones stressed the importance for future generations to continue her legacy of centralizing the black experience.

In August, Hannah-Jones joined Howard University as the first Knight Professor of Race and Journalism. Through this position, she founded the Center for Journalism and Democracy train and mentor investigative journalists of color. She said she hopes to expand this work to other historically black colleges and universities.

“I hope my work lays the foundation for a future that I probably won’t see but can help achieve,” Hannah-Jones said. “This job is about trying to create the world we want, even if we don’t see it.”

E-mail: [email protected]

Twitter: @charlottehrlich

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