Investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones hosted a panel at Hofstra University the third day of Black History month. Founder and curator of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones spoke to a crowd of high schoolers, college students, parents, instructors, and professors, covering social issues, laws, and cultural factors that are hardly discussed and credited in both American history and society.
The 1619 Project is a New York Times interactive and multimedia initiative that observes the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, which is a part of history that Americans and the Western World most of the times tend to be light about, or at least not entirely transparent. The series started in August 2019, but it is still an on going activity, which includes not only journalistic pieces, but also public speaking events, a podcast, and a variety of community engagements.
Hannah-Jones started the panel by highlighting two years: 1619 and 1776. In 1776 the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1619 between twenty and thirty West Africans touched the North American land: that was the beginning of slavery. In schools we are taught to think that the USA were born in 1776, but no one gives much attention to the year of 1619. I myself was never told what was the significance of this year.
As a biracial millennial, born and raised in Italy, with a mom of African-Brazilian heritage, the only moment where I would hear and learn about slavery was with my aunts and uncles in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. My aunt Dora, who has been a teacher and headmaster in both a middle and elementary school, was the one who mostly instructed me on this subject, on slavery. Some of my uncles too, because of their occupations in the navy, would give me information on how their country was built and had developed because of the slave trade, especially from Angola. In addition to this, my Brazilian family is half descendent from African slaves (my grandma) and Native Cariocas Indians (my grandma). The fact that surprises me is that I had to learn this in a family setting, through my relatives. I was never given the tools and the information of such piece of history in any of the schools I’ve attended. I was lucky enough to be educated by my family on this issue, in addition to have a Caucasian father opened to such conversations.
In Italy slavery is not a well-known subject. One might argue that since it’s not part of one’s country history, that subject shouldn’t be treated. Fine, I’d say, even if it shouldn’t be this way. However, when I was learning about North American history in elementary, middle, and high school, the year of 1619 never came across in my text books or in my classes. Now, this is very much not fine. Should I blame my history professors? Probably. Why? Because when you teach the history of a country you must shape the narrative in the most transparent way possible, by considering all the problematics, consequences, and facts that occurred in that particular country. I do think that the education system in Italy has several slippery slopes when it comes to history, because the lenses through which historical facts are told come from only one or two perspectives. This approach didn’t help me at all when I came to the United States.
I had many difficulties in adapting in the American society. It wasn’t a linguistic barrier, but mostly a cultural one. Coming from Europe, you’d see America as this white country that tv portrays, where black is almost synonym of gangs and violence, and white as pure and patriotic. Given my appearance, I look like hispanic or even a biracial African-American. Being a fashion model in New York has been a challenge, because castings require you to select a race or they ask you what your heritage is. At first I didn’t know what to say. On a second moment, they started to assume I was just black or latino. I had to do my readings and have conversations with my female friends in order to understand who I was in a society that I was being welcomed, but at the same time looked down or judged by. Nowadays I identify myself as brown, biracial, Italian-Brazilian, or Afro-latina (considering Italy a Latin country just like Spain and Portugal).
I have found struggles in my writing too. As a creative writer, I’ve wondered how to best address my stories to such a diverse audience I usually have in front of me – made of so many different cultural backgrounds. Journalism saved and instructed me because it gave me the discipline and the structures to know more on how to use my words, how to make it prolific, coincise, direct and full of purpose. For this reason, I want to write to represent the underrepresented, and fashion journalism gives me the ability to perform my writing and creative skills at both the same time and executive pace.
I’ve genuinely appreciated Ms. Hannah-Jones time today at Hofstra. I believe this conversations are not only fundamental for American citizens, but they are important to everyone who is receiving an education in the US or is an immigrant. The USA are a country made of immigrants, therefore knowing slavery and its history, as well as other social issues regarding African American history, is imperative.
I’m looking forward to know more about her gem, The 1619 Project, and what other conversations she will deliver. As you all know, my interest has always been into fashion journalism, but seeing and learning from an African American investigative journalist gives me a much broader view of the United States, a complex country that I feel blessed to be in and to learn from. It is great to witness this kind of work and effort in building a heartfelt legacy.
the curly flower