It’s important justice work!
The 1619 Project was first released in August 2019 via the New York Times Magazine as a “special 100-page issue to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia.” Spearheaded by journalist and investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the goal of the project was to “reframe American history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.” In the almost 4 years since its original release, Hannah-Jones has teamed up to launch various educational resources to complement the project, as well as an audio series, earning a Pulitzer Prize for her work. Now a new 1619 Project docuseries is streaming on Hulu, which seeks to take the project a step further by providing visuals for this groundbreaking work. Showrunner Shoshana Guy sat down with Because Of Them We Can to discuss the mission of the project, and why it’s important to understand that Black history is American history.
Guy is a Peabody-award winning producer who got her start at NBC News working with legendary journalists like Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams. She parted ways after a decade with the media giant, branching out and making a name for herself as an accomplished producer, covering hard-hitting topics of race, poverty, and criminal justice. She most recently served as showrunner for Netflix’s hit series, “High on the Hog,” which explored the history of African food in the U.S. There she met One Story Up’s Roger Ross Williams, a legendary filmmaker who made history as the first African-American director to win an Oscar for a short film. “High on the Hog'' received critical acclaim and it wasn’t long before Williams was pulling Guy in for another huge undertaking, this time as showrunner for the 1619 Project docuseries on Hulu.
“I had worked with Roger Ross Williams and One Story Up, on “High on the Hog,” and… I had obviously been very familiar with the work...I remember listening to the podcast while I was cycling, and really having to stop in the middle of my ride because I was so moved.” said Guy. “I just felt so seen and was so in awe of Nikole's work, and had no idea that I would end up contributing. So Roger, obviously, and Jeff, who's one of the executives there at the company, got in touch with me. I sat down with Nikole. It was a great match, we had a lot of synergy and the rest was history, Guy told BOTWC.
When the written project initially released, it received a lot of backlash from Republican politicians and conservatives who feel like the work is an indictment of America that can do more harm than good. It has led to the passing of legislation preventing 1619 from being taught in schools, with former President Donald Trump openly blasting the treatise as full of “deceptions, falsehoods, and lies.” Still, The NY Times has vehemently defended Hannah-Jones’ work and its integrity, the journalist attributing the attacks to a particular type of cognitive dissonance. In the new series, Hannah-Jones, Guy, and executive producers Roger Ross Williams, Geoff Martz, Oprah Winfrey, and The NY Times’ Caitlin Roper and Kathleen Lingo, seek to connect the dots and establish a throughline that connects modern-day American life to the history of chattel slavery.
“The reason The 1619 Project needed to exist in the first place is because we have not, as a nation, wanted to grapple with this issue. For those who believe in American exceptionalism, they saw The 1619 Project as a direct challenge to that. Telling histories this way - centering slavery, centering marginalized people - has always been contested. I think that is because it is very hard to buy into the notion of American exceptionalism and then deal with the history of Black people in this country,” Hannah-Jones previously told The New York Times.
Guy echoed those sentiments, saying it was very important for her to make sure that the series spoke to the contributions of Black people in America and address the history in full without beating around the bush. By acknowledging the horrors of slavery while simultaneously examining its impact on every facet of American life, Guy hopes to prevent the erasure of Black history.
“I know that America has a history of erasure when it comes to Black history, to our contributions, and to the savage nature of slavery and what it is that was actually done…Despite it all, Black people have risen, have persevered, have innovated, have won, have created wealth. Despite all of our odds, we have continued to do that. There is really no American culture without Black culture,” Guy noted.
Putting together the series from hundreds of pages of journalistic work and essays was no easy task and one Guy said she didn’t take lightly. In the episode “Race,” which she directed, Guy opened by focusing on the impact of race on maternal health and how it ravaged a young Brooklyn family. Grappling with the loss of their child, the story of not feeling heard, believed or properly cared for as a Black woman in America was all too common and really touched a nerve. Guy believes the beauty of the series was being able to add a face to those most impacted by these issues, which helped to drive home the mission of the whole project -- the ubiquitous and lasting nature of racism deeply embedded in our history.
“The challenge of [the production process] is that the density of the essay doesn't always pour into the container of a television hour, and so we had to be very diligent…The whole thesis of the project, of course, is that we're still living with this…We see this young woman, we can all relate to her, she's this woman in Brooklyn who's got hair like us, in braids, and doing her thing, and she's experienced this loss. But she's not alone, and this loss actually has history. It has legacy,” said Guy.
That legacy is something both Guy and Hannah-Jones are fighting to tell. The true legacy of America which didn’t begin in 1776 at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but rather 157 years prior when the first ship of African descendants landed in Virginia, creating a foundation of ideals and principles that this country would continue to build upon for centuries to come. Guy understands that for some people, the truth just won’t land. However, putting the work out there in the world is also a form of resistance and it is important to her to make sure that Black people are included in the narrative.
“I've said this in a lot of interviews, but there's a reason why we, as journalists, say on the record and off the record. Because it's on the record, and it's very important that this work stands. It is deeply fact checked. It is just the facts. It's history. It's what happened. And it's important that it stands so that it can be in the canon, and that people can come and view it, and learn from it, and kids can see it. But we're in a very rough time. There's no secret there. So it's important that the truth be told,” Guy explained.
In the current racial reckoning, there is a particular narrative being spun that seeks to separate Black issues from issues impacting all Americans. Which is why understanding and learning history is so important, to be able to identify those commonalities that exist between all humans. For so long, America has participated in revisionist history and responsible journalistic endeavors, like the 1619 Project, are seeking to right some of those wrongs. For Guy, America can never truly live up to its founding ideals without acknowledging the veracity of the past. It is her hope that viewers watching this new series will understand that slavery and its reverberating effects is not just something impacting Black people, it’s a wound that impacts us all.
“There’s a certain faction of this country that, no matter what you say…they’re not going to hear it. And I can’t really do anything about that. But I hope that people who are willing to listen, who are willing to turn on the television and see what it's all about, can understand that this isn't just a Black issue. Nikole says this all the time, this is an American issue,” said Guy.
“Black people aren't the only people who are struggling out here…unable to make ends meet, working two and three jobs still. $15 an hour is supposed to be this great thing, but we all know that if you have a couple kids, $15 an hour ain't going to cut it. And that cuts across racial lines. So I hope that people that are open to listening, open to hearing another perspective, and open to hearing American history, that they can see that it's not an attack. This isn't an attack on white people. This is just our history. And we need to learn it, and understand it, and reconcile with it so that we can move forward as a nation,” she added.
The six-part series explores themes of democracy, fear and justice, as well as entertainment and popular culture. For so long, these institutions and ideals have been formed and discussed with African-Americans existing only in the margins. What Guy, Hannah-Jones and the 1619 series team has done is disrupt the narrative in an effort to form a more perfect world and a more accurate history of how that world came to be. While some in power may have a particular disdain for the project, series, and all of the other 1619 endeavors coming down the pipeline, Guy hopes it will have a different effect on those willing to engage with the work, particularly within the African-American community, sparking a desire to get involved and continue the legacy of being active and engaged in shaping a country that technically, we built for free.
“We, as Black people, can take great pride in our contributions, and knowing what it is that we contributed, that we're not a race. We are the very fabric of this country, from soup to nuts. Every single aspect of this country. There is nothing that is left untouched by our contributions. So knowing how much value we have, and how much we have contributed, hopefully can instill a certain amount of pride, and a certain amount of grit and drive to really touch on different aspects…from politics…to [voting and financial literacy],” Guy contended.
The 1619 Project series is the first of many offerings to come from the partnership between Lionsgate, The New York Times, Winfrey’s Harpo Films and Hannah-Jones. When it’s all said and done, 1619 will consist of a portfolio of films, television series, documentaries, and unscripted programming that further drives the point home. The series itself was two years in the making and Guy said she’s “immensely proud” of the team and all they’ve been able to accomplish. As she reflected on what the true impact might be, it’s hard to tell but she knows that she plans to continue doing more of this work. And when others might give in or up, it is Guy’s intention to keep the fight going.
“Everyone has to make a personal choice, and I get it, if you just can't take it. But I intend to stay and fight. And keep telling stories that lift us up, and recognize us, and keep empowering Black people to be in the creative spaces…I'm immensely proud of this team that put together this work. I'm immensely grateful for all of their hard work…I'm just in a deep state of gratitude for this team, and a deep state of gratitude for Nikole, who is really just such a trailblazer and such a unique person. And really, what you see is what you get. She lives by those standards. And I was really grateful to be able to have the opportunity to work with her,” she stated.
Watch The 1619 Project docuseries, available exclusively on Hulu.
Cover photo: Showrunner Shoshana Guy is talking Hulu’s ‘1619 Project’ & why Black history is American history/Photo Courtesy of Hulu