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A Call For Reparations: How America Might Narrow The Racial Wealth Gap

Jun 24, 2020

The killing of George Floyd has ignited protests and inspired conversations — and changes — across the globe. But New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones says more needs to be done to address America's racial wealth gap.

"Very few Americans have created all of their wealth on their own; it's passed down through generations and then built upon," Hannah-Jones says. "Black Americans never really had a chance to do that."

Hannah-Jones traces the wealth gap to slavery, and the fact that enslaved people were not allowed to own property. She notes that the legalized segregation and racial terrorism that followed slavery exacerbated the problem and "prevented generation after generation of Black Americans from acquiring the type of wealth or foothold in the economy that allows you to live a life that is much more typical of white Americans."

Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for creating the 1619 project at The New York Times, which tracks the legacy of slavery. Her latest article for the Times Magazine, What is Owed, makes the case for economic reparations for Black Americans.

"Reparations, to me, is about repair," she says. "In the context specifically of Black Americans, reparations has to do with 250 years of chattel slavery, followed by another 100 years of legalized segregation or apartheid and racial terrorism, and how that impacted the economic well-being of Black Americans."


Interview highlights

On the wealth gap between white Americans and Black Americans

Black Americans never really had a chance to [create wealth]. Of course, 250 years of slavery where they are unable to accumulate any capital and then coming out of slavery, Black Americans face the dragnet of discrimination and segregation that further prevented them from building any type of wealth. Black people were denied access to colleges, were denied access to high schools, were denied access to higher paying jobs. And when Black people were able to get some land or to build a business, oftentimes they face those businesses being stolen or burned down or destroyed.

So we saw really from 1619 until 1968, when the last of the civil rights legislation was passed saying you could no longer discriminate against Black Americans, Black people being denied access to the primary wealth-building tools, homeownership, federally financed loans, the G.I. Bill to be able to purchase housing that white Americans use to build their wealth. And so what we see today is the stark chasm that was built up over generations, and then only made worse by the fact that today Black Americans still face discrimination across the spectrum of American life.

On calling for a national conversation about reparations

I think that reparations can't just be any one thing. I think that you have to have targeted investment in Black communities and Black schools that have been generationally under-resourced. You certainly need to have a commitment to strong enforcement of existing civil rights laws, because reparations don't do any good if you're still facing rampant employment and housing and educational discrimination. But the center of any reparations program has to be cash payments. The only thing that closes a wealth gap is money.

You cannot close a racial wealth gap without transferring wealth to the people who have the gap. So cash payments to me have to be central to any program. - Nikole Hannah-Jones

I think a lot of the times when we have these discussions about, well, let's give scholarships and let's pay for Black people to go to college — one, the facts show that Black people with a college degree still earn less than white people, still have less wealth than white Americans who have a high school degree. So, again, that discomfort with a cash payment is something I think we need to understand is also racialized. And this belief that Black people are not deserving or won't spend their money the way that people think that they should. But you cannot close a racial wealth gap without transferring wealth to the people who have the gap. So cash payments to me have to be central to any program.

On the conversation about reparations at the time of emancipation

We are often taught in this country that Black people are emancipated and then everyone is on an even footing. We don't often question what does that mean to be emancipated after 250 years of bondage — to be emancipated with no job, no home, no money, no clothes, no bed, no pots, nothing. Enslaved people were unable to own anything or to accrue anything at all. And so what happens at emancipation is this expectation that the government should help formerly enslaved people to get a foothold. And what Black people wanted more than anything was land. ...

There are stories of mass starvation of Black people after they had been freed, having to leave the plantation and find shelter in burned out buildings, trying to forage for food in burned-out fields. It was a devastating period for Black people. This country decided that it was going to do nothing, that it owed these people nothing. - Nikole Hannah-Jones

So Gen. Sherman takes that to heart and he issues Field Order 15 and Field Order 15 declares that Black families will get 40 acres of former Confederate land, and that they will be able to work that land. ... But unfortunately, that period was very, very brief. President Lincoln was assassinated and he was replaced by his vice president, Andrew Johnson, who was a Southerner who was a white supremacist and who believed, like many white Americans at that time, that Black people were deserving of nothing after slavery, that they should be grateful for their freedom. And he confiscated the land and returned the land to the former confederates. And that ended the only real effort in the history of this country to provide reparations for those who have been enslaved. And that really left formerly enslaved people in absolute devastating poverty. There are stories of mass starvation of Black people after they had been freed, having to leave the plantation and find shelter in burned out buildings, trying to forage for food in burned-out fields. It was a devastating period for Black people. This country decided that it was going to do nothing, that it owed these people nothing.

On why she uses the term "enslaved person" and not "slave" in her writing

It was very important in the 1619 Project and whenever I write about this, to not use language that further dehumanizes people who every system and structure was designed to dehumanize. I think when we hear the word "slave," we think of slavery as being the essence of that person. But if you call someone an enslaved person, then it speaks to a condition. These people were not slaves. Someone chose to force them into the condition of slavery, and that language to me is very important, as is using the word "enslaver" over slave owner because these people didn't have a moral right to own another human being, even though the society allowed it, and I think it needs to be active, that this was an active system of people choosing to treat other human beings as property.

Nikole Hannah-Jones has received the MacArthur "Genius Award," as well as a Peabody Award and George Polk Award. She co-founded the Ida Be Well Society for Investigative Reporting, which is dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color.
The New York Times

On where the concept of the 1619 Project came from

[As a kid] I never knew that enslaved people, that African people, that my people, had been on this land that long, that we actually arrived here before the pilgrims. And I think I understood even at that moment that there was a reason we had all heard about the ship, the Mayflower, and there was a reason none of us had been taught about the ship, the White Lion, even though it arrived a year earlier and was just as significant. So that intentional erasure and the power of that erasure stuck with me. ...

So as the 400-year anniversary was approaching, [I] had this nagging feeling in my stomach, a very unsettling feeling that this tremendous anniversary ... that I thought was so foundational to the American story was going to pass, and it was likely going to have very little fanfare. Most Americans probably wouldn't ever even hear of the date. And like so much about the history of Black Americans and slavery, it was going to be buried and marginalized. And here I am at The New York Times and I have a huge megaphone and platform. I could do something about that. But I didn't want it to be a history. ... I wanted to use that anniversary as a time, not to just examine what happened in the past, but to really help us focus on how if you look across modern American life, so much of our institutions, our politics, our culture can be traced back to slavery and bring that story from the margins and make it a central.

On talking to her 10-year-old daughter about the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations against police brutality

The simple way that you talk about things with a younger child just doesn't work anymore. She wants to know why. And it is the hardest thing as a parent when your child asks you, "Why would that police officer do that to him?" And you don't have an answer because you don't know why. And how do you explain to your child the sweep of 400 years of history that leads this man to think that that would be OK and he wouldn't get in trouble and to feel so little humanity towards this man because he's a Black man?

Those are really hard conversations. And I often wonder if I'm failing at them, if I'm either telling her too much or not explaining it well enough, because, of course, this is tough as a parent ... wanting to protect your child's innocence as long as possible. But being Black in this country and [I understand that] by protecting her too much, I'm actually harming her. I need to prepare her for the world. I need to give her the armor and the language and the understanding to know how the world is going to see her and treat her and people like her. And it's probably one of the things about parenting that I question myself the most [about].

On the challenge of having conversations about race with white people

I personally don't have a problem talking with anybody about race ... but the challenge — particularly when you're talking to people who are not Black — is the bases of knowledge are just so different. It can be hard to have the same conversation. Black people have to study race. We cannot survive without understanding how race works in this country, without understanding white Americans. It is not a luxury for us not to know, and white Americans can largely exist in society without having to understand that history, without having to understand the social science, really not having to engage [with] it with any level of depth. And so when you're trying to have that conversation, there's so much groundwork that has to come first. And that can be really challenging, because it seems like you can't ever really get to the meat of it.

Then the other thing is, it's very hard for white Americans not to take it personally and get defensive when you're talking about structures that exist and will exist whether an individual person is racist or not. And it speaks to the really superficial way we've dealt with racism in this country, it's either, "Are you saying I'm a bad person?" It's not about that. You don't have to be a bad person to buy a house in a neighborhood that was a creation of racist housing policies. But you are benefiting from those racist housing policies. So I think to me, that is the most challenging part. We don't have a common language and understanding of our history and ... why things are like they are. And a lot of Black folks just get frustrated and don't feel like we should constantly have to teach things that are easy to know.

Amy Salit and Joel Wolfram produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Black Americans protesting the violation of their rights are a defining tradition of this country. Most of these uprisings have brought consternation and hand-wringing, but few have brought cultural change. It feels different this time. That's what Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in her new article in The New York Times Magazine, where she is a correspondent focusing on racial justice. Her article is headlined, If true justice and equality are to be achieved in the U.S., it must finally take seriously what it owes Black Americans. The article uses history to make the case for reparations.

Nikole Hannah-Jones created the 1619 Project at The New York Times. It started off as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine devoted to the legacy of slavery published 400 years after the first Africans arrived as enslaved people in the English colony of Virginia. The 1619 Project expanded to become an ongoing series of articles, videos, podcasts and discussions about the history and legacy of slavery. Last month, Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for the essay she contributed to the project. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was killed, sparking protests around the world.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award, as well as a Peabody Award and a George Polk Award. She co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which is dedicated to increasing the ranks of investigative reporters of color.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the Pulitzer and The 1619 Project. So I want to get to that first sentence in your new article - it feels different this time. What are some of the changes you see coming out of the protests that makes you think it's different this time?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me on the show again. The first thing is the sustained nature of these protests. It hasn't been just a few days. It's been weeks, in some places, of daily protest. It is how far spread the protests are. Protests have occurred in all 50 states. Protests have occurred in all-white towns with pretty terrible racial track records. It's the multiracial nature of the protests. Oftentimes these protests are almost exclusively or very heavily Black. But we are seeing protesters of all races. And it's also the multigenerational nature of the protests. You're seeing, you know, everyone from little kids to elderly people on canes.

So that definitely is something that feels different, as well as how quickly some of the changes are occurring. People have been, for instance, protesting and trying to fight to get Confederate monuments and other monuments to people who openly engaged in white supremacy down for decades. And now, all of these jurisdictions that said they didn't have the power nor the will to do it are doing it overnight. We in New York already have a police reform bill that passed in the State House getting rid of chokeholds, trying to force the names of police officers who have been accused of violating certain protocols and practices to be made public. So in some ways, you've seen very swift changes that we have not seen before because of the sustained nature of the protests. But I should say that with a caveat. The larger, more important and structural changes, of course, have not occurred yet.

GROSS: Yeah, I want to quote from your article. You write, if we're truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. So you would like to see this moment lead to a national conversation about reparations. So what does the word reparations mean to you?

HANNAH-JONES: Reparations to me - and if you notice in the piece, which is quite long, we don't even use the word reparations until the very end section of the piece because it's such a charged word. But what it means to me is, it is restitution. It is when a country or a community or a corporation that has done something egregious to a person or a group of people tries to restore or repair the damage that was done. And that is what reparations is to me.

In the context specifically of Black Americans, reparations has to do with 250 years of chattel slavery, followed by another 100 years of legalized segregation or apartheid and racial terrorism and how that impacted the economic well-being of Black Americans, how that prevented generation after generation Black Americans from acquiring the type of wealth or foothold in the economy that allows you to live a life that is much more typical of white Americans, that allows you to truly take advantage of the bounty of this country. So reparations to me is about repair.

GROSS: You say that this conversation about reparations actually dates back to the period just after the emancipation of enslaved people. What was the conversation like then? What was being discussed?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, actually, the concept of reparations for slavery begins even before emancipation. Enslaved people who had gotten their freedom had begun trying to sue to get some kind of compensation for their enslavement even during slavery. But what happens at emancipation - we are often taught in this country that Black people are emancipated, and then everyone is on an even footing. We don't often question, what does that mean to be emancipated after 250 years of bondage, to be emancipated with no job, no home, no money, no clothes, no bed, no pots, nothing? Enslaved people were unable to own anything or to accrue anything at all.

And so what happens at emancipation is this expectation that the government should help formerly enslaved people to get a foothold. And what Black people wanted more than anything was land. They didn't want dependency on the government. They wanted to be given some of the land that they had worked for generations so that they could become independent, so that they could make their own money and be independent of the white people who had ruled over them.

And there were Black men who had served in the Union army - there was a meeting that was held between some of these men and some generals from the Union army. And they asked, well, what do you want? And what they said is, we want land. We want land so that we can be prosperous and be our own people. So General Sherman takes that to heart, and he issues Field Order No. 15. And Field Order No. 15 declares that Black families will get 40 acres of former Confederate land, and that they will be able to work that land. And actually at the time, it was a loan. It wasn't even being given to enslaved people. It was on loan, and they would eventually make enough money and pay for the land. And for a brief period of time, this is what happened. A small number of formerly enslaved people in the Georgia Sea Islands and in coastal South Carolina had the land that they had once worked for white people turned over to them, and they began to farm it.

But unfortunately, that period was very, very brief. President Lincoln was assassinated, and he was replaced by his vice president, Andrew Johnson, who was a Southerner, who was a white supremacist and who believed, like many white Americans at that time, that Black people were deserving of nothing after slavery, that they should be grateful for their freedom. And he confiscated the land and returned the land to the former Confederates.

And that ended the only real effort in the history of this country to provide reparations for those who had been enslaved. And it really left formerly enslaved people in absolute, devastating poverty. There are stories of mass starvations of Black people after they had been freed, you know, having to leave the plantation and find shelter in burned-out buildings, of trying to forage for food in burned-out fields. It was a devastating period for Black people, and this country decided that it was going to do nothing, that it owed these people nothing.

GROSS: And the Black people who had been enslaved had worked their lives for no pay, no property, no right to keep their family together. And slavery ends, and they get nothing; they're left with nothing.

HANNAH-JONES: Exactly. I mean, think about this great wealth that was created, was literally created through their labor and the way that the laws around slavery were, that Black people could not own property. As property, they could not own property. So anything that they accrued, everything that came from their labor, went automatically to the people who owned them. Their children belonged to the people who owned them. It was illegal for Black people in many places to even make a will. You could not have heirs if you were Black. You could not bequeath anything onto your children. So everything that you earned, that you made, all of the products of your labor went to the enslavers.

GROSS: Some people might be thinking, well, but slavery was so long ago. But as you point out, the history of slavery in the U.S. - well, it actually starts before the U.S. was the U.S. But if you go back to the colonies, the history of slavery here is longer than the history of freedom for Black people.

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely. So we practiced slavery in the British colonies that would become the United States starting in the year 1619, so for 250 years. We have not had slavery in this country for 150 years. But even that is a little misleading because, of course, the end of slavery is followed by a 100-year period of legal discrimination in this country. So Black people have only had full rights of citizenship - we have only lived in a country where it was not legal to discriminate against people simply because they descended from those who had been enslaved for a half a century.

My father was born into a country where discrimination against Black people was legal. My father was born on a sharecropping farm, a cotton farm, in Greenwood, Miss., where our family had once been enslaved. So we like to think that this was a long time ago, and 150 years is a long time. But when you think about the cumulative nature of disadvantage, I think it's not that long at all.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is headlined, "If True Justice And Equality Are To Be Achieved In The U.S., It Must Finally Take Seriously What It Owes Black Americans." We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created The New York Times' 1619 Project examining the legacy of slavery. Her essay won a Pulitzer Prize. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is about the roots of racial inequality and the conversation we need to have about what the U.S. owes Black Americans.

So I just want to take note of the fact that, in your writing, you don't use the word slave; you use the word enslaved person or enslaved people. And it's a interesting distinction, and I want you to talk about that.

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. So it was very important in The 1619 Project and whenever I write about this to not use language that further dehumanizes people who every system and structure was designed to dehumanize. I think when we hear the word slave, we think of slavery as being the essence of that person. But if you call someone an enslaved person, then it speaks to a condition. Slavery was not. These people were not slaves. Someone chose to force them into the condition of slavery.

And that language, to me, is very important, as is using the word enslaver over slave owner because these people didn't have a moral right to own another human being, even though the society allowed it. And I think it needs to be active that this was an active system of people choosing to treat other human beings as property.

GROSS: Let's talk about the wealth gap. You write about how Black people haven't had the generational wealth to pass on to their children and to their grandchildren. And you trace that back to slavery and back to post-Reconstruction and back to segregation in the South, and you also describe the difference between income and generational wealth. So let's start there.

HANNAH-JONES: Sure. So income is what you get in your paycheck. You go to work. You work for certain hours a week, and then you get a paycheck, and that's what most of us use to pay our bills every month. But wealth is your assets minus your debts, and so wealth tends to be something that we don't create just on our own. A lot of us in this country inherit wealth, and we get money from our family members if we want to go to college or we want to purchase a home. So wealth is what's actually accumulated over time. Very few Americans have created all of their wealth on their own; it's passed down through generations and then built upon. Black Americans never really had a chance to do that. Of course, 250 years of slavery, where they're unable to accumulate any capital. And then coming out of slavery, Black Americans face the dragnet of discrimination and segregation that further prevented them from building any type of wealth. Black people were denied access to colleges, were denied access to high schools, were denied access to higher paying jobs. And when Black people were able to get some land or to build a business, oftentimes, they faced those businesses being stolen or burned down or destroyed.

So we saw, really, from 1619 until 1968, when the last of the civil rights legislation was passed saying you could no longer discriminate against Black Americans, Black people being denied access to the primary wealth-building tools - homeownership, federally financed loans, you know, the GI Bill, to be able to purchase housing - that white Americans used to build their wealth. And so what we see today is this stark chasm that was built up over generations, and then only made worse by the fact that, today, Black Americans still face discrimination across the spectrum of American life.

GROSS: Do you see reparations as cash, as opportunity, as jobs, as housing? What do you think is the best way of doing something with lasting impact and with impact that could last over generations?

HANNAH-JONES: I think that reparations can't just be any one thing. I think that you have to have targeted investment in Black communities and Black schools that have been generationally under-resourced. You certainly need to have a commitment to strong enforcement of existing civil rights laws because reparations don't do any good if you're still facing rampant employment and housing and educational discrimination. But the center of any reparations program has to be cash payments. The only thing that closes a wealth gap is money.

And, I think, a lot of the times when we have these discussions about, well, let's give scholarships and let's, you know, pay for Black people to go to college - one, the facts show that Black people with a college degree still earn less than white people, still have less wealth than white Americans who have a high school degree. So again, that discomfort with a cash payment is something I think we need to understand is also racialized, and this belief that Black people are not deserving or won't spend their money the way that people think that they should. But you cannot close a racial wealth gap without transferring wealth to the people who have the gap. So cash payments, to me, have to be center to any program.

GROSS: So how much? I mean, cash payments could be, like, $100, $1,000, 10,000, 100,000. Like, has that been part of the conversation yet, like, how much money are we talking about?

HANNAH-JONES: There's certainly different scholars and activists who have worked on figures. Frankly, I'm less worried about the technical arguments. We can figure out how to send someone to the moon. We certainly can figure out a calculus for how much the descendants should get, how much is practical. What's much more challenging is convincing Americans that this is the right thing to do.

If we look at what the wealth gap is, some people would say payments of 100,000 to $170,000 to close the racial wealth gap. Some people would argue for more. Some people would argue for less. But this is why there has been a bill to study the issue of reparations in Congress now for more than 30 years to answer those questions. And yet, Congress will not even pass the bill out of committee.

GROSS: Yeah. The bill was introduced by the late John Conyers. What's in the bill?

HANNAH-JONES: I mean, the bill is to produce a study committee to, actually, just study the issue of reparations. Should the descendants of enslaved people in this country be paid reparations? How would a program work? So all of those questions that people love to throw up to say, well, we can't do reparations because, how would we do it? Well, there's been a bill that would study how to do it. And it has not been able to get enough support to get out of committee in Congress.

So those are all questions that can be answered. The hardest part is to get the will in a society that has tried to downplay slavery, that has tried to downplay the role that racism has played and has tried to downplay the singularity of the Black experience that no other group in this country has had the same experience. And so I think that has been the biggest issue that we faced.

GROSS: We need to take another break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is headlined "If True Justice And Equality Are To Be Achieved In The U.S., It Must Finally Take Seriously What It Owes Black Americans." We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created the New York Times' 1619 Project, examining the legacy of slavery. Her essay for the project won a Pulitzer Prize this year. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is about the roots of racial inequality and the conversation we need to have about what the U.S. owes Black Americans.

What reaction do you get when you talk about reparations with white people?

HANNAH-JONES: It depends. I haven't had a ton of conversations. This hasn't been my life's work. It's been something I've thought about for a long time, but it's not something that I've talked about regularly in public spaces. I think the initial response is almost always a defensiveness, almost always a sense that this is - the concept of reparations is unfair. Well, what about, you know, poor white people? Why should Black people get something for something that happened a long time ago?

And I try to steer right into that discomfort. What is it about, you know, talking about reparations for Black people specifically? Because we understand the concept of reparations in the law. If someone - you know, a hospital kills my husband because of malpractice, we understand that even though I'm not the victim that financial compensation in our law is a right way to address what has happened. We have paid reparations to the Japanese, for instance. We understand when Germany paid reparations to Holocaust survivors.

So we get that concept in the law, but we have a very visceral reaction to Black people getting reparations. And that speaks to this ongoing narrative in America that tries to downplay slavery and that we've really internalized a sense that Black people are undeserving and have gotten enough. So I tried to steer when I have those conversations with white Americans right into that discomfort and then make the case because I think if you read my article, my article is a response to every reason I have heard white Americans give about why Black people should not receive reparations. And if you just look at the facts of it, if you're open to the facts of it, I think it is hard to come away saying that this is not the moral and just thing to do.

GROSS: You write that reparations aren't about punishing white people. I think that's an important point because I think a lot of people feel like it is about that.

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. I mean, I wanted to address that head-on because I wanted to really get at why do we have this kind of visceral response, negative response to the idea of making restitution to people who we held in chattel slavery and who we allowed, really, the most egregious discrimination, legal discrimination that's antithetical to our idea of who we believe we are as Americans and why do we respond that way. And I think it's because a lot of white Americans feel that reparations is a personal attack or a personal affront, that they are being accused of something or they are expected to feel guilty about things that they did not personally do.

It's important to understand that reparations are to be paid by the federal government, that the federal government sanctioned the institution of slavery, and that this is a societal debt. It is not the debt of one race. It is certainly not the debt of people who did not themselves engage in slavery or Jim Crow, but it is a debt that our society owes. And as I say in the piece, you don't get to just claim the good parts of the society, a part of a society that makes you proud, that glorifies your country. You have to also own up to a society's wrongs. People should not feel that reparations is something personal. It is not.

GROSS: Let's talk about The 1619 Project. This was a series of articles, videos, poems, reflections on the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved people arriving in the colonies. It was in Virginia. How did you think of the idea?

HANNAH-JONES: So I've been in some ways thinking about the year 1619 and its significance since I was in high school, and that's when I first came across a date in a book that my African American studies teacher gave me by Lerone Bennett called "Before The Mayflower." And when I saw that date, it was like a lightning bolt because as, you know, a high school student, my entire education I'd never heard that date. And I never knew that enslaved people, that African people, that my people had been on this land that long, that we actually arrived here before the pilgrims. And I think I understood even at that moment that there was a reason we had all heard about the ship the Mayflower, and there was a reason none of us had been taught about the ship the White Lion even though it arrived a year earlier and was just as significant.

So that intentional erasure and the power of that erasure has stuck with me. And, you know, it's been a few years since I've been in high school, so it's stuck with me all of those years. And so as the 400th anniversary was approaching, I just kept - I had this nagging feeling in my stomach. It was a very unsettling feeling that this tremendous anniversary - when in America do we get to commemorate 400 years of anything? But one that I thought was so foundational to the American story was going to pass, and it was likely going to have very little fanfare. Most Americans probably would never even hear of the day. And like so much about the history of Black Americans and slavery, it was going to be buried and marginalized. And here I am at the New York Times, and I have a huge megaphone and platform. I could do something about that.

But I didn't want it to be a history. What was so important - my life's work has been about trying to help us draw the connections from slavery, from legal segregation to the present and show that so much about the America we live in right now can be traced back to that legacy if we only open our eyes to it. And I wanted to use that anniversary as a time not to just examine what happened in the past, but to really help us focus on how if you look across modern American life, so much of our institutions, our politics, our culture can be traced back to slavery and bring that story from the margins and make it central.

GROSS: In looking at the history of slavery and the legacy of slavery, what was the emotional impact of that? I'm wondering if you were angry a lot of the time just immersing yourself in history and in the injustices of the past.

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, absolutely. This was the hardest project I ever worked on for many reasons. But the intensity of spending pretty much every waking moment for nine months reading about the kind of constant atrocities that Black Americans went through - looking at images, reading first-person accounts, reading history. And I read, you know, every single piece that went in the magazine. It was - it took a toll. I was angry. And I was sad a lot. I cried a lot working on this project. My husband can tell you I definitely had a short fuse. I drank too much. I ate too much. It took a toll on my body. And it took a toll on me mentally. And on top of that was the pressure of having to try to get this right, that if we were going to undertake this project to try to tell this 400-year sweep of history of people who have been so intensely marginalized both in society and in popular media, that the pressure to do it justice was very high. So yeah, it was - some of the period feels like a blur. It was very emotional. And it was very straining.

GROSS: And then add to that the emotions surrounding the recent police killings of African Americans and the protests surrounding them. Did that add to both your anger and the emotion?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. There's no way that it couldn't. I mean, I think of where a lot of times white Americans have tended to view these incidents as kind of tragic but unrelated incidents - Black people do not. And we see them as part of a lineage of an ongoing struggle and mistreatment. And we feel them very personally. And when I saw what happened - you know, first, of course, it was Ahmaud Arbery. There was Breonna Taylor. That's not unusual that we have these succession of Black people being killed either by vigilantes or by police. But I don't think I'd ever seen anything as horrific in the modern era as that police officer kneeling on George Floyd's neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.

As I write in the piece, I don't use the word lynching to describe anything but lynchings. I don't think that's a word that we should use as metaphor. But that felt like watching a lynching. And it was devastating. I couldn't watch the whole thing. I definitely cried. My friends - we were talking a lot during that period about the toll of that. And I felt - I think, like so many Black people - really, really helpless and really, really hopeless. And writing is the one way that I could feel powerful in a moment where it feels like we don't have power.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is headlined "If True Justice And Equality Are To Be Achieved In The U.S., It Must Finally Take Seriously What It Owes Black Americans." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created The New York Times' 1619 Project examining the legacy of slavery. Her essay won a Pulitzer Prize. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is about the roots of racial inequality and the conversation we need to have about what the U.S. owes Black Americans.

I know you're a parent. And I don't how old your child is, but I'm wondering if both The 1619 Project and the police killing of George Floyd and the protests surrounding that have led to conversations with your child beyond the conversations you typically have about racism in the U.S.

HANNAH-JONES: Absolutely, though I should say we talk about race all the time in my household. It's the nature of my work. I - my daughter has had books on slavery and Jim Crow since she was 3 years old. So it's something that we talk about a lot. But, you know, she's 10 years old now. And her understanding of the world is very different. And the kind of simple way that you talk about things with a younger child just don't work anymore. She wants to know why. And it is the hardest thing as a parent when your child asks you, why would that police officer do that to him? And you don't have an answer because you don't know why. And how do you explain to your child, you know, the sweep of 400 years of history that leads this man to think that that would be OK and he wouldn't get in trouble and to feel so little humanity towards this man because he's a Black man?

Those are really hard conversations, and I often wonder if I'm failing at them, if I'm either telling her too much or not explaining it well enough because, of course, there's this tug as a parent between wanting to protect your child's innocence as long as possible, but being Black in this country and understanding by protecting her too much, I'm actually harming her. I need to prepare her for the world. I need to give her the armor and the language and the understanding to know how the world is going to see her and treat her and people like her. And it's probably one of the things about parenting that I question myself the most, that I don't know if I'm doing right.

You know, I've taken my daughter to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. She has stood in the room with Emmett Till's casket and seen the image that Mamie Till showed of her son's decomposing body. So she has seen some things like that, and she does have an understanding. But I think any human being should have struggled to watch that entire tape. And I didn't watch it, and I certainly didn't want her to see the whole thing. But I didn't shield her from seeing any of it because I also think it is really important for her to understand what's happening in the world and why.

GROSS: How did she handle that?

HANNAH-JONES: She had a lot of questions. She was mostly - she just couldn't understand why, and she kept asking me, why would he do that? And no matter how many different ways I tried to answer the question, it didn't make sense to her. And thank God for that because once she gets to be my age, you have a jaded sense of the why, and I'm glad she doesn't have that yet.

GROSS: I want to talk about your family's story. Your father was born into a family of sharecroppers in Mississippi, which you describe as an apartheid state when he was young. What made his county in Mississippi especially bad?

HANNAH-JONES: So my dad's hometown is Greenwood, Miss. Greenwood, Miss., is in the Delta. It considered itself the cotton capital of the world. It was a majority-Black town. But around the time that my dad was born, it was a majority-Black town with no Black people voting, and all the elected officials were white, and it was run like a feudal community. So Mississippi had the largest Black population in the country. At that time, it was a majority-Black population. And because of that, white people used an extreme level of violence to control the majority population.

And my dad's county was the most violent of them all. Mississippi had the most lynchings of any state in the country. And Leflore County, which is the county that Greenwood is in, had the most lynchings of any county in the state of Mississippi, including mass lynchings when a group of Black sharecroppers tried to form a sharecropping union in order to get their wages for what they earned. This was the place that was the center of Freedom Summer in 1964, when Black activists came down to try to organize Black people in - across the South but particularly Mississippi to get voting rights.

And it was extremely violent. People were assassinated, killed. Medgar Evers was killed not too far from there. So it was a really devastating and violent place to be a Black person, and that is why so many Mississippians fled, including my family.

GROSS: So your father has two siblings, and his mother left in the 1940s for the North. Was there, like, a precipitating incident where his mother said, this is it - we're leaving? Or was it just the accumulation of all the injustices and indignities and violence?

HANNAH-JONES: It was the accumulation. It was that my - the way the family lore is - and of course, I can't, unfortunately, verify any of this - is they start putting the kids out in the field at about the age of 3. That's when the children could help bring water to the workers in the cotton field, and that was the age that my father's older brother was when they left the South. So the family lore is that, at that age, when they started to put her oldest child out in the field to start bringing water, my grandmother decided that she was going to make her way up North, that she did not want her children growing up picking cotton. And so she was the first to leave, and all but one of her siblings followed her and left the South.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nikole Hannah-Jones. She is a contributor to The New York Times Magazine. She writes about racial inequality. Her new article is called "If True Justice And Equality Are To Be Achieved In The U.S., It Must Finally Take Seriously What It Owes Black Americans." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created The New York Times' 1619 Project examining the legacy of slavery. Her essay for the project won a Pulitzer Prize this year. Her new article in The New York Times Magazine is about the roots of racial inequality and the conversation we need to have about what the U.S. owes Black Americans.

So the family, your father's family, ended up in Iowa. I don't think of Iowa as a major destination during the Great Migration. How did they end up in Iowa?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah, so if you if you read Isabel Wilkerson's majestic book on the Great Migration, "The Warmth Of Other Suns," she talks about how the migration from the South to the North followed the train lines. And so the Illinois Central was the train line that went from Mississippi up to Chicago, and so that was the migration route that our family followed. And Waterloo, Iowa, was a stop on that train before it got to Chicago. Black people had begun to migrate there helping to build the railroad. There were beef packing plants there, as well as a John Deere plant, where Black folks could make a decent wage with very little skills. So this was just one of the way stations.

And there are tons of these small Midwestern towns all, you know, in Iowa and Illinois and Indiana, where Black people decided to make a living, who - it's important to know that these are deeply agrarian people. These are folks who are coming - the migration from Mississippi was a migration of sharecroppers. These are people who were not educated, who did not have a lot of skills. And so going to places that had factory work, meatpacking work where you didn't have to have a lot of skills was very critical. And so that's - that was our story.

GROSS: So part of the reason your father's family left was to get away from segregation, from the violence against Black people, the lynchings. Your grandmother's only options were cleaning white people's houses or picking cotton, so they end up in Iowa and end up living in a segregated neighborhood. And your grandmother ends up cleaning white people's houses. Did she live long enough to talk about how she felt about her life in the north and whether she was disappointed in what she found and what the opportunities were?

HANNAH-JONES: So my grandmother died when I was an undergraduate. And I think like a lot of people my age, I have a lot of regrets that I just wasn't curious enough when she was still alive. But I did talk a lot to her sisters. Her sisters outlived her. My great aunt Charlotte (ph), who I went to Mississippi with to write about Freedom Summer, is still living. She's in her 90s. And I would go and try to talk to them about what it was like and found - and this is something we find a lot of that generation who lived through racial segregation - they didn't want to talk about it. This was an extremely degrading experience. Being Black in Mississippi and then being Black in segregated Midwest, there was a lot of degradation that went into that.

GROSS: I think this is a time in America when there is now a national conversation about race and about systemic inequality and the police. And race is harder for some people to talk about than others. Is it hard for you to talk about race with people who you don't know well and with people who you do know well? I'm sure it's easier to talk about race with people who, like you, are African American. But with people who are not, what are some of the difficulties that you have or that you perceive the people you're talking to as having when the subject of race is addressed?

HANNAH-JONES: So I don't have a problem - I personally don't have a problem talking with anybody about race. I do this for a living. I write about race for a living. I've studied this for, you know, more than two decades. But the challenge, particularly when you're talking to people who are not Black, is the bases of knowledge are just so different. It can be hard to have the same conversation. Black people have to study race. We cannot survive without understanding how race works in this country, without understanding white Americans. You know, it is not a luxury for us not to know. And white Americans can largely exist in society without having to understand that history, without having to understand the social science, really not having to engage on it with any level of depth. And so when you're trying to have that conversation, there's, like, so much groundwork that has to come first. And that can be really challenging because it seems like you can't ever really get to the meat of it.

And then the other thing is, it's very hard for white Americans not to take personally and get defensive when you're talking about structures that exist and will exist whether an individual person is racist or not. And it speaks to the really superficial way we've dealt with racism in this country as either, like, are you saying I'm a bad person? It's not about that, right? Like, you don't have to be a bad person to buy a house in a neighborhood that was a creation of racist housing policies. But you are benefiting from those racist housing policies. So I think to me, that is the most challenging part, is we don't have a common language and understanding of our history and where and why things are like they are. And a lot of Black folks just get frustrated and don't feel like we should constantly have to teach things that are easy to know.

GROSS: Nikole Hannah-Jones, it's been great to have you back on her show. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, and I wish you and your family good health.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you. You as well.

GROSS: Nikole Hannah-Jones created the New York Times' 1619 Project and is a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine focusing on racial injustice. Her new article in the magazine is headlined, If true justice and equality are to be achieved in the U.S., it must finally take seriously what it owes Black Americans.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Christine Baranski, who stars in "The Good Fight," playing a smart progressive lawyer. It's a spinoff of "The Good Wife." She's also known for her comedic roles on stage and screen and for being in stage and screen musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Chicago," "Mamma Mia!," and "Mame." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joe Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN MCBRIDE'S "SISTER ROSA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.