Opinion | What’s Really Behind the 1619 Backlash? An Interview With Nikole Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I’m Ezra Klein, and this is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
So before we get started today, we’re going to be doing an Ask Me Anything episode. So if you’ve got questions you would like to hear me answer on the show, send them to email@example.com. Again, that is firstname.lastname@example.org.
My guests today need little introduction. Nikole Hannah-Jones is an award-winning investigative journalist for the New York Times Magazine, where she led the 1619 Project. She won a Pulitzer Prize for the lead essay in that. She’s also done amazing work over the years on racial inequality and segregation in the American education system. Ta-Nehisi Coates, of course, is the author of the National Book Award winner, “Between the World and Me,” the Oprah Book Club pick, “The Water Dancer,” essays like “The Case for Reparations,” Marvel comics like “Captain America” and “Black Panther.” And now he’s writing the next Superman movie. So he’s a busy guy.
They’re both busy, but the official reason for this conversation is that they’re adding another affiliation. Both of them are taking faculty positions at Howard University. In Hannah-Jones’s case, this comes after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill initially recommended her for a position, but then over the objections of the faculty, the university’s board of trustees denied her tenure because, as best as we can tell, some of them were uncomfortable with the 1619 Project. Then under more political pressure, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reversed that decision and tried to offer her tenure. But Hannah-Jones decided to go to Howard.
And so the conversation begins in what Hannah-Jones and Coates are trying to build at Howard. But the conversation revolves around a topic that they’ve both wrestled with across their careers — how to understand and teach America’s history. You have heard plenty by now about the fights over critical race theory, about teaching the 1619 Project, bills that are passing in different Republican states on those issues.
I’m interested here in the fight behind that fight. Why this battle over American history now? On some level, who cares? Why is there so much more electricity over how we understand our past than how we describe our present? What are the stakes? What changes when the story a country tells about itself changes? What changes when who has the power to tell that story changes? And why is now the moment for this collision?
So that conversation takes us to all sorts of places: the 1619 Project and the backlash to it, of course, the cracked foundations of American democracy, the political uses of American exceptionalism, whether patriotism can coexist with realism and even regret, the relationship between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And then at the end, we widen out to the work of journalism, to the craft of writing, to the toxicity of Twitter, the nonfiction they love, the lessons children and students teach us, and much more. As always, my email, email@example.com.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, welcome to the show.
Thanks for having us.
So this conversation has a news peg, which is that you’re both going to take faculty positions at Howard University in the fall. And so, Ta-Nehisi, let me start with the why here. When you write or say anything at this point, you have an audience now of hundreds of thousands of people, often millions of people. So why put the energy into teaching single classrooms at a time?
Well, I mean, putting aside the fact that I think the craft of writing is very, very important, that it has a significant role, in a functioning democracy, putting aside just enjoying the company of young people and the music that they listen to and what they think is cool and how they keep my mind young, there is the fact of when you write or you practice any sort of craft for a long period of time, a kind of muscle memory takes over. It has to.
You have to stop thinking about things after a while. You have to just kind of do them. I find it to be an incredible intellectual exercise to have to effectively reengineer and explain to a novice why a piece of journalism that you really, really admire works, and not to be able to just retreat to, it’s just really good.
I always tell my students, we live in a time wherein people could be doing all sorts of things besides reading you. You are in competition with a smartphone. You’re in competition with a video game console. You’re in competition with HBO Max and Apple and all sorts of streaming options at this point. You have to write with a sense of immediacy. And so I think there’s something really, really, really important about teaching that about it, imparting that lesson to young people, especially at this moment. And at the same time, I think it’s good for me. I think it’s actually good for me to do that.
I love that point about competition. Back when I ran Vox, people would always ask me about my competition and say, FiveThirtyEight.
I said, no, no, no. If somebody reads FiveThirtyEight —
— they’re going to read us. My competition is Xbox, right? I get you from things that are objectively a lot more fun to do than read us. And —
— that’s a lot of weight on the writer. But you said something right at the beginning of that, that there’s a connection between writing and a functional democracy. And Nikole, you’re building a journalism and democracy center there. So tell me about the vision for it and particularly the journalism- democracy connection you’re drawing. Why not just a journalism center?
Well, I’ve always believed that having people whose job it is to inform the public, but also to hold powerful people to account is critical to have a functioning democracy. This is one area where I’m actually aligned with this nation’s founders, who believe that you could not have a democracy if you didn’t have citizens who were educated about the politicians they were going to be voting for and about the policies that they were going to be supporting.
And as a Black American who’s also spent a lot of time studying the very particular role of the Black press, I think that you just can’t disentangle these two things: that if our press is not healthy, if our press is not covering the politics of our country in a way that is honest, in a way that gets to the truth and is more than stenography, then our democracy can’t be healthy.
And history is littered with examples of that. We can look at how mainstream media covered the civil rights movement at its beginning. We can look at how mainstream media covered Reconstruction and then redemption and the failures of the press, and the mainstream press siding with white supremacy is what then creates the narrative and passes along the narrative that allows for our democracy to fail.
So I think we are in another pivotal moment right now in our country, where our country is on the cusp of something. Which direction we go, we don’t yet know. But I don’t think that journalism is rising to the occasion as it needs to be. And so part of my mission as a journalist, the reason I ever wanted to become a journalist in the first place, was to really fight on behalf of those who don’t wield power in this country.
And that system of checks and balances is off. The press is the firewall of our democracy. And I think that firewall is not holding right now. And what better place to bolster that than to train up the next generation of journalists who are going to be going into newsrooms, hopefully armed with the proper tools to do what journalism needs to do in this moment?
I think it’s really, really important to talk about that nexus of race and democracy. I think one of the things that’s happening right now, if you consider the fact that for most of this country’s history, Black people have been written out of the body politic. We have the experiment of Reconstruction, and we have the experiment that began in the post civil rights movement.
But even for most of the post civil rights movement, the fight has been, in terms of getting access and still is, access to the ballot box. And that was the fight during Reconstruction. I would say that this moment is singular in terms of African American writers and journalists having access to the kind of megaphones that they have had access to, compared to in the past.
When I was a student at Howard, a 1619 Project was just unimaginable. It was unimaginable that The New York Times would actually hand over editorship to someone like Nikole. Not just a Black journalist, but a Black journalist who would posit a very different imagining of this country’s origins, that she would then convene various journalists and writers and poets themselves to come in. And that was the kind of project that just didn’t happen. And I think something that’s happened in the past 10 years is there’s been — and I guess a little more than 10 years, but I really think this is a reflection of Obama’s election — there have been a number of African American voices who have been wielding power in the arena of journalism. And I would argue successfully wielding power, by which I mean actually producing really, really, really, really great journalism. And not just talking about Nikole, but I think about Wesley Lowery, who I think, this year, is on his second Pulitzer now.
When I was thinking about becoming a journalist — and I think Nikole would say the same — these kinds of things were inconceivable. And I actually believe that maybe there are — and I think Nikole does, too — that there’s some lessons to be learned over what we’ve seen over the past 10 years in terms of an approach to journalism.
When you think about building that curriculum then, Nikole, what are some of those lessons?
Well, one, I think we are taught in our trade to be skeptical, right? And yet I don’t think that we are nearly as skeptical of whether or not our democratic institutions will hold as we should be. In fact, I think that most of the people who are covering politics in this country right now actually believe that in the end, everything will work out. I don’t think that that’s true. And I think we should not have a political reporting class that believes that that’s true.
So the lessons that we’ll be teaching in the Center is to study history. And if you understand that we’ve only had, really, a semblance of true democracy in this country since 1965, and that that was a decades long, bloody, violent struggle with bombings and assassinations and lynchings, then you would tend to take a very different look at where we are in our political system today and whether we should be very concerned about this wave of voter suppression bills that are being passed across the country. Because I think that is a fundamental ingredient that’s really missing from the way that we are covering our nation.
So, in some ways, this is going to be teaching really basic investigative reporting skills and then infusing them with what I think is the necessary ingredient to be able to adequately cover our country, which is you have to have an understanding of the basis of racism, racial inequality, and the way that race is the primary organizing factor in American political life.
Nikole, you know the example I think of most specifically? I think about the cops.
And maybe this is less true today, but certainly when we were coming up, covering cops was like a beat that folks at daily started on — Nikole, I don’t know if you started there. But that was a thing, back in the day. And the cops were the authority. Cops didn’t lie. Cops said X, Y and Z just happened, this happened. And yet I would say those of us from African American neighborhoods who have grown up in African American neighborhoods, and even maybe some of us who had not, were intimately aware that cops were not unimpeachable sources of truth.
And so, as Nikole was saying, they teach us skepticism. But I think if you’re approaching it with all the history in mind and with the experiences of a broader group of people with a truly, truly egalitarian view of who gets to talk and who doesn’t get to talk, perhaps we would be more skeptical of voices that, in fact, are often given unimpeachable authority.
Absolutely. I mean, I talk about — I use policing and the way that mainstream media has covered policing as a primary example of what I’m talking about, which is exactly what Ta-Nehisi says. You think about Walter Scott. You think about Eric Garner and the initial police reports. And it took citizens who functioned as citizen journalists to bypass the press and go directly to social media with their videos to dispute the official report. So that’s not objective, unbiased journalism, right? That is journalism that is giving too much deference to power. And I think we have to change that formula.
One thing that I think is embedded here is that what journalism, what American society takes for granted, reflects the history we tell ourselves, what we take for granted in our own history and what we don’t. And there’s this old line that journalism is a first draft of history.
But when I think, Ta-Nehisi, about the coterie of Black journalists you’ve been talking about, or you were talking about a few minutes ago, I’m struck by how much of the focus is actually on changing our sense of that historical story, changing what we take for granted in our history. To use an example that already came up, not taking for granted the idea that our institutions are democratic. Because for much of our history, they have not been. As someone that I think has led in a bunch of that, tell me a bit about that relationship between journalism and history and how those two things fit into each other.
If you think about it almost like biography of a person, right, if you believe that you’re profiling somebody — say you’re just writing a standard profile for a magazine. And you believe that person has never done anything wrong. You believe that person has never told a lie. If they have done something wrong, it was effectively in service of something good. You believe that they are morally unimpeachable. You believe that the world is filled with bad people, except this person. You’re going to write about that person in a certain way, even if the story you’re talking about is in the moment right now. If that’s that person’s history, that’s their biography, that affects how you cover them.
If you believe you’re covering a human being, who is human like all other human beings, who makes mistakes like all other human beings, who sometimes does good things like all other human beings, and other times, does things that are quite evil, like other human beings, that their biography is a mix of those things, and that that should always be taken into account, you’re going to cover that person in a very, very different way. You’re going to write about that person in a very, very different way.
And I would argue that for much of journalism’s history, the version of America has been the former. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ve done some wrong. We did have slavery. That happened. We weren’t always nice to the Native Americans. But in general, we are a force for good in the world. Those kind of our presumptions have generally gone into the coverage. And it’s invisible. It’s never actually said.
But it reflects a lack of skepticism towards power. It reflects, I would argue, even at this very moment, an inability among some journalists to imagine it, all of this going away, a lack of a sense of tragedy. Because the sense is that, well, we have the oldest democracy in the world, that’s the perspective. How could it not be here tomorrow? I think it’s slowly, slowly beginning to dawn on people that things are a little different. But if your notion of American history is very different, if you believe as I believe, and I think as a lot of African Americans believe, that democracy has mostly been a goal in this country at various periods, attained at various brief periods of time, but generally that has been a struggle, the way you cover our country is just very, very different.
Nikole I was thinking about the reaction to the 1619 Project as we were coming closer to this conversation. And one of the things that occurred to me, relating to what Ta-Nehisi just said, is that your work up until then was very heavily about modern school segregation. It was implicating people alive today, including a lot of folks who think of themselves as good liberals, love reading The New York Times, in basically resegregating the educational system. And on some level you think that would generate a much more heated response than anyone could say about people who have been dead for hundreds of years, right?
But it wasn’t that way. And so here is for you, why do you think the fury over critique of the past, over this question of the American story biography, proved so much stronger than critique of the American present, which implicates people here and around right now?
That’s such a great question and something I have thought about endlessly, because, yes, my work up until the 1619 Project was very pointedly calling out individuals for sustaining an immoral system right now, and particularly white liberals for saying they have ideals that they clearly don’t live up to. And I’ve never seen this type of the ferocity of the push-back.
But then again it makes sense because the entire reason the 1619 Project had to exist in the first place is that we have been willfully opposed to grappling with who we are as a country. And that any group of individuals who are making decisions right now about choices that they’re going to make about school or housing, or whatever, can still feel that they are part of a great nation. And we stumble sometimes, it’s complicated,
Mistakes were made.
Right. Things that happened in the past that make it hard. But we are — we come from a great people. And what’s clear is that whether you are a progressive or a conservative, many, many white Americans have a vested interest in that mythology of American exceptionalism and greatness, and that we are a pure nation, right? That we are this world’s best hope. And clearly, the 1619 Project intentionally was seeking to unsettle that narrative.
And I guess the last thing I’ll say is even in a story about school segregation or housing segregation, or think about the way we tell like Hollywood stories of racial progress, there’s always good white people at the center of that story. And people can put themselves into that position even if they probably wouldn’t have been in that position during the historic periods that we’re studying. And what the 1619 Project does is it actually displaces white people from the center of American greatness and places Black people there.
And I think that is also part of what angers people so much. It is not just saying the men who founded us they did some pretty terrible things, like engaged in human bondage and human trafficking. But also, your whole idea about democracy actually comes from Black resistance. I think that’s just too much for people to accept. It’s the way that we kind of divide our country in our heads between North and South, that the true heart of America is the abolitionists North and the evil or backwards part were Southern slaveholders, but that’s not who America really is.
I’m arguing that all of America, like Malcolm X said, was the South, anything South of the Canadian border was the South in that way. But also that Black people are the center of the American story. And you don’t have a country built on 400 years of racial caste and think that, that is something that people will easily accept.
I think if I could just take not just the 1619 Project, but the 1619 Project as an example of what’s going on right now and why there is such fierce push for the state — and I just I really, really have to emphasize it’s the state — to ban certain things on certain ways of looking at history. Nikole’s work pre- 1619, as incredible as it was and as award winning as it was — National Magazine awards, I’m going to embarrass you, Nikole right now, Polk, Peabody, et cetera, all the awards that we journalists aspire to — if you think about a tree, those works, you think about school segregation or you think about myself looking at housing segregation, you’re critiquing the branches of the tree?
But 1619 goes right to the root, you see. It goes right, right to the root of who we are. I always tell people when you’re talking about Thomas Jefferson, he was brilliant, certainly had attributes that we would describe as good, et cetera, George Washington having attributes that we would describe as good, courageous, gave up the presidency, didn’t declare himself king, et cetera. But what does it mean to know that without enslavement, without the destruction of Black families, without the exploitation of Black labor, without labor guaranteed through torture, these men would not exist as we know them today.
Thomas Jefferson wasn’t moonlighting as a slaveholder, George Washington wasn’t moonlighting as a slave holder. That was their career. That was how they garnered the resources to go off and do these other great things that we so admire and we praise. What does it mean to know your founder’s occupation was slave holding? What does it mean to have to accept the fact that the deadliest war in this country’s history for Americans was launched to preserve enslavement? How can you understand those facts and then go off and invade another country and talk about how you’re going to install Jeffersonian democracy with a straight face?
It’s difficult. It changes the story. It decentralizes the individual; your individual goodness is irrelevant. There is a system at work here. There’s something larger than you, bigger than you. It doesn’t matter how good of a person George Washington was, no one cares. No one cares. No one cares about Thomas Jefferson, they don’t matter. This is how it happened. This is the root of it, and if you had been there, you would have done the same thing.
This is like really, really, really I think disturbing because it removes America and the American project from the place that we’ve traditionally held it. City on the Hill, act of divinity, act of Providence, and puts it down here in the valley of normal everyday human beings. And who are you when you’re down there? Like what are you — what is special now, what is your identity? What are you then if not the first in the world’s oldest democracy?
I think that that is an important point. And again, I think this is what has united in some ways opposition to the project across the political spectrum. If you look at the laws that are being passed, the argument isn’t that we can’t teach this because these are not factually accurate. What they’re saying is that if we teach these to kids, our kids might think we are a racist nation. So think about what that is saying. That if we teach the true history of our country, if we teach these facts, then the logical conclusion that our children will come to is that we are fundamentally a racist nation. And so we cannot teach those facts.
That is what this opposition is about. And it is not incidental that it comes after we follow the election of the first Black president, which was deeply unsettling to the idea of power in this country. We follow that up by electing Donald Trump and then we see in the final year of his presidency these global protests for Black Lives Matter. And you see rate of support for Black Lives Matter rise above 50 percent for the first time in the history of that movement.
And then you see this intense backlash against 1619 Project, this creation of this fake controversy around critical race theory and this massive push back against teaching a more accurate reflection of our history that unsettles this narrative of American exceptionalism and forces us to confront what we were actually built upon, which is that America would be unrecognizable without chattel slavery. That’s where this push-back is coming from.
And it is also happening, as Ta-Nehisi and I have both noted before, in the same places that are pushing and passing this wave of voter suppression laws. Because it is the narrative that allows the policies to be passed. It is the narrative that you guys are under attack, you are losing your demographic advantage, Black people and other people of color are not legitimate citizens, they never have been, they want to steal your history, they want to make you feel like are less than them — it is that narrative that then justifies these anti-democratic policies that are being passed.
And we can’t purge slavocracy from the American story the way that the Germans could purge Nazism. Because if you remove all of the symbols to enslavers, you have to get rid of 12 of our first 15 presidents. There’s nothing there, you can’t purge that from the American story and still have the American story the way that you could purge Nazis from dramatic public recognition of this history. And so what we have to do instead is to obscure it, to hide it, to make it seem like it wasn’t what it was.
I want to pick up on one of the fears you identified in the article, which is, I think, a lot of the bills going through particularly Republican legislatures right now are basically playing on the fear of white parents, many white parents, that their kids are going to get taught your nation is racist, you’re racist by virtue of being white, by being part of whiteness, and like it ends there, right? It’s like all right, have a good summer everybody.
To use a term used a minute ago Ta-Nehisi, what is the question of what this means? So OK you’re learning in history class at your nation is deeply checkered, that important parts of the roots of the tree are not just complicated but immoral, immoral in a way nobody really denies now, and that that’s part of the tree, you can’t separate off, and that there is certain kinds of power and status and privilege that flows through even until today. And then what? Like you have a story, stories matter because you build upon them, and then what? Are we just changing who the good and bad guys are of the story, or what is being built on this?
No I don’t think so. Remarkably, I actually think there is a way forward. Like there’s a really, I would argue, beautiful way forward. This move to Howard on the one hand has certainly garnered just a lot of praise, and I want to be really, really clear about that, overly the majority of it has been praised. But it’s also opened up all of these other questions, OK? What about other HBCUs, is Howard in a different tier, people are showering resources over here? What about the labor situation at Howard University? What about the union? What about sexual assault at HBCUs? Are we taking it seriously?
And I’ll be honest with you and say at first I was annoyed. Like at first I was like, can I just get a second of peace man? Do you know how hard it was to get this done? But as I thought about it, I think the conversation reflects something true about life, that this is what it is, it’s constant struggle. Question after question after question. There is no place where you reside and you get to feel like you are the good guy in the story.
And I think African Americans are actually, if I expand that out a little bit, are deeply, deeply familiar with that. If you look at our political tradition, it’s all arguing. It’s all arguing. Are we doing this enough? Are we being fair enough to this portion of our tribe? Have we done this? Should we even be thinking about tribe? And so I think the future … if you accept, as Nikole pointed out, on the one hand, you say 12 of the first 15, well, their career was slave holding. So where does that leave us? Who are we? What you are as a human being? You are a community of human beings.
And these are things that human beings do, and part of your story, part of your story certainly could be — just freestyle, off the top of my head — is we’re trying to do better. We have words that we wrote on paper and we are trying to live up to them. And very often, we do not. Very often in fact, we actually fail.
Indeed, the very ability to write those words in the first place was founded on a notion that we totally reject. But who amongst us gets to belong to a family where we feel everybody in that family has always been noble at all points in time. Who amongst us gets to honestly strip ourselves naked and look at our own biography and feel like we were always noble and we were always right? There’s a kind of humanness, a kind of grace I would even argue, that can be found if you can submit yourself to the notion that you’re not required to be perfect, you’re not required to be the good guy in the story. That in fact to try to do that is in many ways a rejection of your own humanity.
I think that is clearly very true. What I’ve been telling to people who are concerned about these 1619 bans and how do we talk about this history is that it’s complex. And that even at the darkest moments in this country, there was also always a biracial, sometimes a multiracial group of citizens, who are pushing for it —
— to be better. Who were fighting for this country to live up to its highest ideals. And so it’s not simply saying, as those who oppose a more accurate, a more well-rounded understanding of our history say, that they’re teaching kids to hate whiteness or to hate all white people. We don’t get the 13th, 14th or 15th Amendment passed without white people who believed in this as well because Black people could not serve in Congress to pass those laws.
So we have to have a balance. And I think we can withstand that, and what I’m saying is we can teach our children what George Washington did that was great, and we can also teach our children what George Washington did that was terrible. Because as I told my own daughter, who doesn’t do this anymore but she used to ask me all the time when she was some younger, particularly she went from being born into a country with the first Black president to witnessing Donald Trump, and she would ask me all the time, is that person good or bad momma? Are they good or bad? And I’d say most people are both.
You can’t just put a person in a category as being good or bad, but that’s how we’ve wanted to teach the history of this country, and we have to be more honest. No one is responsible for what our ancestors did before us. We’re not responsible for the good things, so you don’t want to own up to slavery then also you can’t claim the Declaration because you also didn’t sign the Declaration of Independence. None of us are responsible for what our ancestors did. But we are responsible for what we do now.
And we do have the ability to build a country that is different, that is not held hostage to the past. But we won’t do that by denying that upon which we were built. Because that past is shaping us. It is shaping our country, our politics, our culture, our economics, whether we acknowledge it or not. And all I’m saying is let us acknowledge that upon which we were built so that we can try to actually become the country of these majestic ideals. And I do believe the ideals are majestic, we just have failed to live up to them.
When I started paying attention to politics in the late ‘90s, early let’s say before 9/11 right here, I would say the implicit understanding that you got from coverage of America was that America was a finished product, right? Like late ‘90s, Bill Clinton era America, in the way the press and mostly white press covered it was that America is finished product, oldest democracy in the world, greatest democracy in the world, awesome economy, things are getting better. There is an end of history nature to the way America thought about itself.
And maybe this makes me a little weird, but I’ve always thought there’s something invigorating about the idea that there are great political challenges still here. That it wasn’t like, oh the work of creating America fell to everyone who came before me and now I get to play on the internet, but that arguably there’s never been a great multiethnic democracy in the world. But certainly there has not been one here, that to the extent that we’re a multiethnic democracy at all, it’s only been since the ‘60s, and it’s been real inconsistent even there, real halting.
And there’s a lot of questions about like what makes democracy, and I want to get to some of those, but it just never struck me as a — I don’t know, it feels like you’re supposed to want there to be big challenges and big things to strive for and things where you get your generation’s name etched in history too. And the idea that America isn’t finished, and in fact that there’s quite a lot to do, and that our history shows it, that never really struck me as as depressing as it seems to strike other people.
Yeah, Ezra I think that’s a great point. And again, I keep going back to this idea of being human. If we just extend our notion of what human beings are out to community, and then from community to nation, all of this makes sense. I mean, I can’t believe I have to say this but it certainly isn’t my reading that there is something in the bones of Americans, and that they have therefore created some evil empire. My reading is this is what human beings do, and what we’re trying to hopefully do is erect structures to curb our worst instincts and endorse and give incentives to our better angels. That seems to be the work.
I do think, though, that you don’t have power without justification for power. Power tends to justify itself. We’ve mentioned a few times, the efforts of redemption and the overthrow of Reconstruction. It really is not a mistake that the Lost Cause came right along with it. It’s never been enough to actually do something to somebody, you always have to have some sort of logic behind it that justifies it. Whereas, I think for African Americans, the notion of struggling with good and evil, the idea that you aren’t simply the good guy in the story is quite old. I mean, if the example I think about all the time is how Malcolm X was like — basically, what Christ was in other people’s houses, Malcolm X was in my house.
And my father told me quite early on that Black men killed him. And I had to grapple with, how could it be that this a great quote unquote “racial savior” was killed by other Black people? But the mental work of having to do that is actually quite beautiful; it gets you to, as far as I’m concerned, to the basic humanity of all people.
Nikole, I want to talk a bit about democracy directly. We’ve touched on it throughout here but, going back to the opening essay you did in 1619, it’s very much about Black Americans as the perfectors of American democracy. And there’s this literalization of that struggle over the past couple of years, where you have Barack Obama win the presidency, a very small- d democratic president and also a very pluralistic president in the way he approaches American politics, like very much the virtues that are often attached to a complicated democracy I think he tries to personally embody. And his very presidency turns the Republican Party in a very explicit way into a vehicle for the anti-democratic strain in American life, which has always been there but is split between the parties, at other times has actually its locus inside the Democratic Party, but under Donald Trump — then the aftermath of the election, January 6, the whole big lie, the kind of bills we’re seeing now — like there’s a real … the election of Barack Obama brings democracy to the fore as the central political issue in the country in a way that has not been true in my lifetime, and I don’t think is true except in other moments of racial progress or conflict. And so I’m curious from the perspective of the work you’ve done, like how you think about this moment in that continuity.
So one I just I want to go back just a bit to your last question, which is, I know you didn’t use the word excitement, but this anticipation about the idea of struggle. And that in and of itself is a luxury. That there are different types of struggle. And the struggle of Black Americans has been the struggle to have your very humanity recognized, to be recognized as a citizen of the only country you’ve ever known, to not have your rights violated, to not have your rights legally proscribed. And this is a different struggle than struggling to make things better, right? Struggling to make our society better and looking forward to that.
So I guess I just want to trouble that idea. Like, I’m excited about certain types of struggle, but it is fundamentally immoral and unfair that the defining Black struggle for 400 years has been just the struggle for basic rights and basic humanity, and the ability to as a people thrive in the same way that other communities are. And I would be extremely grateful if we never have to continue that particular type of struggle that has defined our existence here.
So what happened with Obama, when you are a student of history, was the most predictable thing in the world. It’s the same thing that we saw after the period of Reconstruction, which is white people in this country can elect candidates without having very many people of color support that candidate, which is how Republicans have been winning. Though that has become clearly less so because the demographics of our country are shifting and that’s why you’re seeing now these efforts to really shrink the body politic and those who can participate in electoral politics. So Obama had to be a pluralist because he is a Black man in a country where Black people are 13 percent of the population, and you only can win by building a coalition across racial groups.
But what I think that then did, when Obama was able to win with a white minority but a heavy majority of every other racial group, that sent kind of a frightening message I think to even some of the white people who voted for him. That you can ascend to the presidency as a person of color, as the person from the group that is the bottom of American racial caste, and not have to get most white people to vote for you. Now this was true with most Democrats I think since the late 1960s that they haven’t won a white majority, but they were still white people who were ascending to the highest office of the land, to the symbolism of American power. So to then see Obama fall with Trump I think was the most predictable thing in the world, because a message needed to be sent about what this country was.
I want to pick up on something Nikole said there about Trump, and this gets at what I meant when I said that there’s a literalization of that kind of history happening, which is there’s a strange way in which, for Donald Trump to be presented or to present himself on some level, as the champion of a traditionalist America is really quite backwards, because he embodies a story, like forces you to see it, that people wanted to forget. And that — particularly white people wanted to forget. And that he has think really profoundly changed the narratives.
And I’d be curious to hear the both of you, and I know your work on this started before Trump, but when you think about the ways the last couple of years have gone, if you didn’t get him, if you got Jeb Bush, if you got Marco Rubio, if you got one of the others, do you think there would have been less of a receptiveness to a reconsidering of American history? Do you think Donald Trump like sort of paradoxically embodied something that allowed other arguments to take hold that would have been easier for people to try to brush away with virtually anyone else?
Absolutely. I’ve thought about this a lot as well, and to be clear, 1619 Project had nothing to do with Trump, even though some people seem to think I somehow went back in time and made the 400th anniversary fall during the Trump presidency just so I could create the 1619 Project during his presidency, but if this project had come out under Obama let’s say, I don’t think it would have had the same reception and the same impact. Because of course, the narrative of the Obama years was that his election had ushered in this post-racial era.
So the fact that Trump begins his campaign talking about Mexican rapists, there was really a denial of not racial undertones, racial overtones of his candidacy. But that began to change during his actual presidency. And the rhetoric became much less obscure and much more explicit. And I think many white Americans were trying to understand how does this happen and why are all of these people who don’t look like the image I have in my head of what a racist looks like, why are they supporting him or why are they saying the things that they’re saying? And these are my family members who are openly supporting Trump and his racist rhetoric.
And no, that wouldn’t have been the same with someone like Jeb Bush. Jeb Bush might have done policies that increased racial disparities or that Black Americans might have found harmful, but he wouldn’t have done it with the explicit rhetoric of Trump and his supporters. And that gives cover and deniability, and it makes everyone feel OK about it. And Trump didn’t allow us to deny what was happening in front of our eyes, and people then had to confront what does that say about who we are.
Ta-Nehisi, when we talked last February, you said something that’s been on my mind a bit, which is that to the extent you see real power changing in this country, you see it in culture rather than politics. And what’s struck me since then is how much you see that collision. Like the left I do think is wielding some real cultural power, and the right is very explicitly using political power to block it. Passing bills about what you can and can’t teach, a bunch of state legislatures passing laws that reshape how easy it is for people to vote or who ends up administering elections? And I’m curious how you see that interplay of cultural and political power now.
I think that’s still true. I was listening to your podcast with my buddy Eve Ewing, and she was talking about writing “Ironheart” and being brought in, and I don’t know if you, I don’t think you guys got to this, but I have to say that for all the things that I cover, for all the things that I write about, the comments are always nastiest when it comes to comic books, or “Superman,” or anything, you know, now it’s “Superman,” anything like that. These are always the — I mean, people lose their minds.
Now one way of looking at is saying, grow up you bunch of babies, right? But another way of looking at that is thinking about the space in which heroes traditionally occupy the iconography, what they mean for a country, what they mean for a state. And I think for so long these kind of figures, they aren’t just passive means of entertainment. They carry information I would argue about who is human and who is not, who’s allowed to be human and who is not.
I’ve always thought more than — if I can speak this way, and I hope this isn’t trivializing, I’m about to, I know when I say this, end up on some … somebody is going clip this and remove the context, but I think it’s important to say — I think the symbol of Barack Obama was always at least as, if not more troubling than any policy he would actually pass.
I think it was more important than any rhetoric, any speech he gave. I mean, his speech was always very open and always very more than open, and I would argue sometimes it obscured some things, in fact. Obscured some truth in its efforts to extend an olive branch. But the fact of his Blackness was the single most threatening factor, and I don’t think that was again because of the policy, I think it was the statement that it said.
If a Black president has, and had, so much meaning for African Americans, I just think it’s worth grappling with — and I didn’t do this at the time myself, but — what was the meaning of the line of white male presidents that preceded him? What was the meaning of that? What was the import of it? If my identity is tied to this privilege and part of the privilege is that I am eligible to be a member of this particular club, doesn’t mean I’ll ever be a member, but by birth I am eligible to be a member and other people are not — when that’s stripped away from me what does that mean?
And it’s happening at a time when — look, when I was a kid, all the heroes, all the action stars, everybody was white. Everybody was white. And by and large, white dudes, that was their province. And you’re seeing that being stripped, so who am I now? What is my identity? What do I have? What do I believe? And then in sashays Trump, to tell you the exact answer to that? This is your place, this is your power, this is yours, this will always be yours.
The hypothetical that you offered us I think was very helpful, but the inverse of that is, and I know you know as well, but Trump did win. You know what I mean? And so what does that ultimately say? I think it was actually his cultural power, as much as anything, that got him there. Certainly wasn’t any policy.
And if I could just quickly add on to that, because when I was interviewing white voters after Trump’s win, and I specifically went back to my home state of Iowa, which had gone for Obama twice, of course. It was Obama winning the Iowa primary in one of the whitest states in the country that convinced people that he could be a viable presidential candidate. And I interviewed white voters who had voted for Obama at least once and then went for Trump.
And what they told me, for them, and I think for many white Americans even those who didn’t vote for him, Obama was to provide a racial absolution. And him being elected meant they didn’t want to hear about racism anymore. If we could elect you, even if I didn’t personally vote for you, if this nation could elect a Black man to be president, then we don’t want to hear about racial inequality, we don’t want to hear about racial injustice, we want to be purged of that, we have been absolved of this nation’s sins.
And what I heard again and again was when Obama said something about Trayvon, think about the most innocuous thing he could have said, which was he could have been my son. A Black man saying a Black boy could have been his son is not radical, it is not disparaging to anyone, it’s just saying he could have been my son.
It’s not a policy proposal, it’s not reparations.
Right. It’s not doing anything but showing a bit of empathy. They said to me, right? He picked the side on that day. Obama picked a side and he decided he wasn’t going to be a president of all races, the post-racial, and now I’m seeing Black Lives Matter protesters laying down in the street and they’re complaining about how hard it is to be Black, but Michelle and Barack and their kids are in the White House, right? The like City of the Hill of whiteness. And you want me to now talk about how hard life is for Black people. That’s the reason I voted for him because I didn’t want to hear about that anymore.
I want to hold on the question of culture for a minute because Ta-Nehisi, in the past couple of years you’ve moved much more directly into shaping that imaginarium. You got comic books like “Black Panther” and “Captain America,” you write fiction, now you’re writing the Superman movie, what are you trying to make it possible for people to imagine?
I probably have shared this anecdote before, but I did this deep dive and all of this writing back when I was at The Atlantic on the Civil War, and the amazing thing to me was that the facts of the Civil War were as clear as one plus one. The enslavers of that period said this is why we’re launching a war. They put it in a declaration, they were absolutely crystal clear about it. And I can remember being a boy going to Gettysburg and like not seeing, this is the old, the way Gettysburg was before, not one iota of anything about enslavement. And well into my adult life, not quite clear on the role of enslavement itself in the Civil War.
And so I went through this period and I started blogging about the facts of it. And I would get people that just couldn’t face it. I mean, evidence was right there, it was so clear. And eventually what became clear to me was this is not — and I think this is even true today. Obviously I believe in the importance of history and the importance of facts given the conversation that we’re having here, but some of this ain’t fact based man. Some of this is like back in the lizard brain or whatever brain we assign to deciding what the world should look like.
This is rude to say, but there are people that I recognize I can never get to because their imagination is already formed. And when their imagination is formed, no amount of facts can dislodge them. The kids, however, the kids who are in the process of having their imagination formed, who in the process of deciding, or not even deciding but being influenced in such a way to figure out what are the boundaries of humanity, that’s an ongoing battle.
And so like I think about 2018 the movie “Black Panther,” and I think about seeing white kids dress up as the Black Panther. This sounds small. This sounds really, really small. And I want to be clear, there’s a way in which this kind of symbolism certainly can be co-opted and not tied to any sort of material events. But I keep going back to this, there’s a reason why in 1962 they raised the Confederate flag over the Capitol of South Carolina. The symbols actually matter because they communicate something about the imagination, and in the imagination is where all of the policies happen. All the policy happens within there.
And I just think so much of our rhetoric about what we think is quote unquote “politics” actually displays our imagination. There’s an old New Republic cover that I go back to time after time, and on it ostensibly the cover story is supposed to be about passing welfare reform in 1996. And a picture is of this caricature of this Black woman sitting there smoking with a child next to her. And it just plays on the worst stereotypes and the worst ideas about Black people that you can imagine. I think it would be significantly harder to do that cover today. I think part of it is that the imagination at least a little bit has shifted. Certainly the newsrooms have shifted too, but the imagination has shifted.
And so for me I could advocate for all of the policies in the world, I continue to advocate for those policies. I’m not I’m not done with journalism yet, I’m not done with opinion journalism yet, but it really, really occurred to me that there’s a generation that is being formed right now that’s deciding what they will allow to be possible. What they will be capable of imagining. And the root of that isn’t necessarily the kind of journalism that I love that I was doing, the root of that is the stories we tell. And I just I wanted to be a part of that fight.
I think in the time I still have here for, what I want to do, if you’ll indulge me, there’s a couple of just journalism education related questions. Because you do it now, you’re thinking about doing it, and I think people who don’t get to take the classes will enjoy some of it. So I’ll just ask a couple of these to both of you, and starting with you Nikole, what’s just a piece of non-fiction journals have you love teaching?
Well, I’m not teaching yet, but I think one of my favorite pieces both as a reader and a thinker and as someone who just likes to deconstruct how great writers make arguments is my favorite piece by Ta-Nehisi which is “Fear of a Black President.” I actually didn’t even know Ta-Nehisi, I didn’t know him as a writer, and I picked the magazine up in the airport just because of the cover, didn’t even how to pronounce his name. I told him the first time we met I listened to recordings of him saying his name or someone saying his name so I would pronounce it the right way. And it was a very long article and I read it twice back to back.
The first time I read it just for I mean, the content. It was exhilarating. And then the second time I read it for the structure, for the way he was both peeling back and building at the same time. So that’s one of my favorite pieces of nonfiction journalism, and one that I will certainly teach.
Probably the one I find myself going back to every semester is Kathryn Shulz’s “The Really Big One,” which is, whoo! I get chills just thinking about that piece. I always talk about how I want to tell my students like what you’re trying to do, you’re trying to get to the point where your writing actually haunts people. Where you know what I mean? When people think about your writing they get that little shiver down their spine that I just got thinking about “The Really Big One.”
“The Really Big One” is a story about a tidal wave, or I guess a tsunami is probably a better way to put it, that repeatedly hits the Pacific Northwest, is destined to hit the Pacific Northwest, and we don’t know when. The tools of journalism employed there are just absolutely, absolutely incredible. Kathryn begins with a convention of seismologists who are in Japan right at the moment when that tsunami hits Japan and hits the nuclear power plant there — forgive me I’m blanking on all of the details — but they’re there right now. They happen to be at that convention. It’s the perfect lead, you got seismologists at a convention of seismologists about the greatest seismological event to happen in their lifetime for their particular field.
And she is wondrous, just wondrous at taking your hand and walking you through why this is bad. And not just why this is bad, but why we refuse to do anything about it. I always tell my students that when you’re really, really writing, it’s not just the lede that gets people, but actually it’s the ending that kills them. That by the time you get to that ending, you should be going so hard that as great as the lede was to bring them in, by the time you get to that propulsive power, the end is like, my God I didn’t think you had anything left in the tank and you actually did.
So when I think about Kathryn’s piece, she walks you through step by step what will likely happen when that tidal wave hits the Pacific Northwest. She talks about the power going out, she talks about schools being in a particular zone, she talks about folks trying to get to their children. And what’s behind this? What’s behind this? Always disguised in the background is some of the best reporting I’ve ever seen in a piece because you need the reporting and the research to be able to write in that kind of detail. You can’t just sit there and just imagine a piece like that.
And it is gripping. I mean, it is as gripping as any novel, any movie, anything. I was talking — we started just talking about your competition being the Xbox, your competition being Disney Plus, and “The Really Big One” wins the competition, you know. I really, really believe that. So it’s “The Really Big One” by Kathryn Schulz in The New Yorker. I’m sorry I don’t have a year or issue on hand, but everybody should read that piece. It is an incredible piece of writing and one of the greatest pieces of writing I’ve ever read.
That’s a hell of an endorsement. 2015 I think is a year on that one.
OK can I add one more real quick then?
Yeah please do, please do.
I always feel like you should give that question in advance because I’m such a like not-on-the-spot thinker, and my mind goes completely blank.
Yeah, and I got to think and Nikole had to go first.
Yeah I’m sorry about that.
But I also want to say probably one of the pieces of nonfiction journalism that changed my life was Sheri Fink, “Five Days at Memorial.” It’s about what happens in the hospitals after Katrina. And one, she’s just an amazing writer at storytelling, but it is the most powerful and important investigative reporting that I’ve seen and it’s just the clinic. So you want to really break down how does one do an investigation in a most impossible situation. It’s a brilliant example of that. And I just thought of Sheri Fink, she’s both a medical doctor and a journalist, so a slight overachiever, but you could also see that knowledge in the sensitivity of her reporting.
Ta-Nehisi kind of foretold this question in one of our first answers here. And I’ll ask it of him first so I don’t put you on the spot again Nikole, but what’s something you’ve learned either from students or from your children that’s changed you as a journalist?
I am constantly reminded how hard this is. It’s really, really, really hard. I am also reminded that only in probably the past I guess five or 10 years that I’ve come to understand is how much talent and intelligence are overrated in this world, intelligence particularly. This is sometimes a difficult thing about teaching because at N. Y. U., obviously all of my kids really, really smart kids. And you get them into a writing class and I tell them, look your intellect can’t help you anymore. Your intellect may be part of what got you here, but you will not be able to think your way into great journalism. Great journalism is done. You have to actually go through the steps and you have to part with your ability to imagine where those steps end. I mean, it’s always like this, it’s always like this.
But again, when I started, probably the piece that really, really altered my life, “The Case for Reparations,” in the same way “Between the World and Me,” it was like I kind of knew what I wanted to argue. But I remember coming across in Beryl Satter’s great book “Family Properties,” the folks who had been ripped off by contract loans. And I was looking and I was thinking, what am I going to do if they’ve all passed away and I don’t get to interview anybody?
And you just have to keep going in all of these moments like that. Where you just kind of want to stop and the impulse to stopping, the temptations to stopping. Be that going out to get a beer with your friends, be that smoking a joint, be that hanging out with your girlfriend, or whatever, they’re always there, they are ever present, and intellect and talent will not save you. They can’t give you the willpower or whatever it takes to keep going.
And I really, I just wasn’t aware of that when I first started. But so much of this journey of writing is really the willingness to actually do it. To just put one foot in front of the other even when it feels like you’re walking in the dark. And that’s a hard thing. In many ways very, very intelligent people I think actually have quite, have difficulty with that. Because they’re used to smarting their way there. And you can’t smart your way into great journalism.
I think what my daughter has taught me about journalism is I would say things to my child and she would ask me why. And we talk about race a lot, one can imagine, in my household. I myself for instance I’m biracial but I identify as Black, and my daughter would ask me things like, well, your skin color is closer to Grandma, and she’s white, so why aren’t you white? And I’d just say because I’m not. And she would be like, well, why? And then I’m having to explain this completely illogical system to my child and why I adhere to it, and why we as a society adhere to it. And that race is not what we say clearly that it’s — it’s not about skin color, it’s constructed. And someone can look like me and have a white mom and not be white. I can be Black but I can’t be white.
And so in my own writing, it made me think about how often do we write about systems and just accept that these systems are the way that they are and we write about them without questioning all of it. What all of it it’s built upon, and without explaining what all of it is built upon. And my daughter taught me the power of questioning them in the writing, that not just writing that this is how things are, but helping the reader understand upon which they were built, the fallacies, the logic, how we sustain them, and not just accepting that there are Black people and there are white — there are white people, but what this all means and what these different structures that we’re trying to write about.
So I explain a lot more, I build so much more context in because I’m always thinking about the way that we teach our children to just accept certain things in our society that are not logical, that are harmful, and I would say that’s probably the biggest gift of how I think and practice journalism that I’ve gotten from my child.
I’ll just say I love that answer. My son is two and a half so we’re deep into whys now.
It becomes more challenging though.
No, he doesn’t understand half of what I say to him I know, but there’s something really profound recognizing that two or three whys in to virtually anything in the world around you, you’re done, you top out, right? And I have a rule that I always give him a serious answer to any question he seriously asks me, and so I try but I find, like real quick you realize how much you don’t know. And as a journalist just being able to ask why like a couple extra times, it’s a real good habit.
Kids have it and then we yell it out of them, right? Because I said so. You got to try to relearn that as a journalist.
It’s also that humility, I’m sorry —
— of acknowledging you don’t know.
Which we also don’t do enough as journalists, right? Because we are the authority. You have to get to some point with your child where you’re like, I actually I don’t know, I can’t give you the answer to that. And if we brought that type of humility more to our journalism, I think our journalism would be stronger. So sorry, I’ll just leave it there.
Nikole this picks up on something we were talking about before the show. You were telling me that there’s a clip of an old podcast you and I did back when I was at Vox going around Fox News now. We’re talking about Cuba and the spaces in Cuba where there is equity in their educational system, and that getting pulled out of context and used to make you look a villain. And it got me thinking as we were talking then that something nobody told me before I became a journalist, and I think was different back then.
The singular most important thing for a journalist is to remain open, right? You got to be able to hear not just truth but also criticism, a story, an objection coming from all over, right? And you got to be able to separate out what’s true and what’s a lie, but also just what’s valuable and what’s not valuable. But now everybody’s on Twitter and things get clipped out of context, it’s really hard to remain open. And there’s no real training in trying to manage the part of yourself that has to be an open nerve in the world and also the part that has to close down to just survive it. And I don’t think it’s only a problem at a high height as you all are, I think it’s just a problem for a lot of people starting out and I see it all the time.
So I’m curious because both of you have experienced more than your share of both fair and unfair criticism, and also just of publicity that you probably never expected, if you have thoughts on managing how to maintain an openness to new information and new ideas and reasonable critique while not getting completely overwhelmed by the flood of its inverse. And Ta-Nehisi I’ll start with you on that.
Well, I mean, what I did is pretty obvious, I shut a lot of it off.
I basically left social media and just closed the door. I couldn’t hear, its too much noise. And I think the tough thing for me was very early — earlier, I shouldn’t say very early — but earlier in my career, certainly with the comments section I had at The Atlantic and when I had a relatively small number of Twitter followers, there was — and when Twitter was a different thing I guess — it was so much valuable input I got. It really was originally — there used to be this hashtag I used to follow, I guess they’re still there, Twitterstorians. And I can ask anything and I would get all of these answers, all of these recommendations.
There was someone that was going around collecting a list of the best single- volume histories ever written. And to this day, I’ve lost that list and I can’t find it, it was a great list, you know what I mean? And so there was so much — in those days there was so much earnestness and so much knowledge to be found. And it really it just changed for me, it just totally, totally changed for me. And at that point, I think, more than having to deal with the criticism, I found that the criticism was changing me.
I found that it was making me a less open person. I found that it was making me a more sensitive person, but not in a good way. In other words, not more sensitive in the sense of more empathetic. I found that it was making me more sensitive in terms of being more thin skinned. I mean, I was up to like a million two followers. It was just too many people talking to me. No one needs to hear that many people talking to them. It just is not, it’s unnatural, and I don’t even know that I needed to have the ability to talk to a million two people without somebody saying, yo hold up, think for a second.
And so what I did was I went back to the people I trusted. I had always had a community around me of people who were not sycophants. Who would offer critique, who would talk and would have a conversation. Ezra, as you know, I text you from time to time about things that I read or I’m thinking about. And so there’s always a group of people that I’ve had, a smaller group. I regret unfortunately that period in my life when there was a more open group who may come from wherever and would have the ability to offer input and to offer thought, that that’s over. That’s a real casualty, it’s a real loss. But I didn’t know how to maintain it without becoming a very, very different person, and somebody that I don’t think I would have liked.
Let me just say that I’m a person who cares deeply about the journalism that I produce. I spend a lot of time on it, I’m extremely thoughtful, I go through massive editing, I get lots of feedback. But that that actual me is not what I would say in recent years — though I would hope in the last six months or so — that is being reflected in my Twitter presence.
And in much the ways that Ta-Nehisi just talked about, the Twitter of today is not the Twitter of when I joined it, when I had 300 followers. And the bigger the platform, the more noise, the more people are there to bait you and not to have dialogue. You can’t be vulnerable, you can’t not know, and just say, I’m trying to figure this out, can we have a discussion? Like everything you —
Yeah, that’s over.
— it’s done. And you have to be hyper vigilant about every word and every interaction. And my personality, I mean, one being in my head I’m still Nikole Hannah-Jones with 300 followers and I’m not even — it took me a while to even realize that, wait, what I tweet, someone can just build a whole article around that without context, without emailing me or calling me for a comment or explanation? Like that’s not the type of reporting that I have ever done. And it took me way too long to realize that.
And so what I’ve realized or I’m coming to understand is that people have an entirely different perception of me based on my Twitter interactions than how I actually am in real life and how I go about my work in real life, to my detriment I think. So I am extremely open to criticism, I’m very self reflective. And even if my initial response is defensiveness, give me a couple hours and I’m going to think it through and think about all sides of it. And the way that I try to stay open is, one, I have a core group of friends who are just as, Ta-Nehisi being one, who we like fight every week because they’re very, very honest with me. And I have to have that.
And then I just read really widely. I don’t think at this point I’m learning a lot from people who have different opinions than me on social media. I just think that that’s very difficult to do now. But I can read someone’s thoughtfully rendered article, their research, and I’m always doing that because that to me is the way that I cannot just remain open but to remain sharp. I mean, one, I don’t even think you can have great arguments if you don’t know what the opposing arguments are. If you don’t understand what you’re writing against.
So I hope that that continues to be reflected in my work and I’m not going to ever completely withdraw from social, I actually still find Twitter to be useful for finding information and reading more widely than even I would, but I have really struggled to find that appropriate balance. I used to pride myself on the fact that I would respond to anyone, I don’t care if they had five followers or a million followers —
Lord have mercy.
Right? And I thought, and I’ll tell you I did that because I was the person with 300 followers, and I’m so aware of the fact that I wasn’t less worthy of entering the conversation based on how popular I was on social media. And for a long time I tried to respond in that way, but then you just can’t do that anymore, it’s like you’re being baited, you’re having arguments with people who aren’t doing this in good faith, and it really does bring out I think the worst in you.
So I try to remain open by having friends who will tell me when either my argument is not strong or my behavior is not right. And then just continuing to read really widely people who are actually doing thoughtful work, whether or not it’s work that aligns with my perspective or not.
I think it’s a great place to come to a close, and so we always do a couple of book recommendations at the end, I want to ask you for three but if you’ve got one or two each of you for the audience I’d love to hear them.
OK. I think everybody in America should read “Black Reconstruction” by W. E. B. Du Bois, and my favorite book of all time is “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson.
One of the things that’s helped me in terms of grappling with American history is to understand how these flaws fit within the history of humanity itself. That much of what we don’t love about this country you can see elsewhere. And that’s — you really have no responsibility to ultimately tuck the reader in and make the reader of your work feel like everything’s going to be OK. And the person that gave that to me, and I might have said this before, is Tony Judt in his magnificent, magnificent history “Postwar.” It’s a thick book but it’s a beautifully written book. It is a sharp history and a sharp confrontation with just some acts of just straight up evil, and actually really helped me a lot reconcile myself to how one should talk about America.
The second book that I think about a lot similarly is Laurent Dubois’ history of the Haitian Revolution, “Avengers of the New World.” What a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful work of history that really, really — and I am thinking about this obviously at this moment with what was going on in Haiti — but just an education in how we sometimes look at a place and say what is wrong with this place, why is everything always so wrong? And not so much I guess in the history of the Haitian Revolution but in the response to it. Which Laurent gets into in the book. You can see why these things are not mystical.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you very much.
Thanks, Ezra [MUSIC PLAYING]
That is the show. Before we go, one recommendation, which I sometimes do here at the end, and one correction. The recommendation, given that we talked about comics throughout that episode, “Sandman: Overture.” I was a fan of the original Sandman comics for years but I didn’t realize that Neil Gaiman had gone back in 2015 and revisited the universe. In a book that has I think the best art I have ever seen in a graphic novel, I was just totally blown away by it. It makes psychedelics look very pedestrian. So “Sandman: Overture”: it’s a fantastic story.
And then the correction is 12 of the first 18 presidents owned enslaved people at some point. I think we said 12 of the first 15 in the episode. So thank you for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please send it to a friend or rate us on whatever podcast app you are using.
The Ezra Klein Show’s Production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Jeff Geld, Rogé Karma and Annie Galvin. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris, original music by Isaac Jones and mixing by Jeff Geld.