SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
At the National Archives yesterday, standing near the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, President Trump announced he is establishing a commission to restore patriotic education in our schools.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.
PFEIFFER: In a speech that lasted about a half-hour, Trump argued that American schoolchildren are being taught that the United States is a wicked and racist nation.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The president took specific aim at the 1619 Project, a New York Times series that looked at American history in the context of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The project, which won the Pulitzer Prize, has also been incorporated into a curriculum taught in many schools across the country. Nikole Hannah-Jones is the creator of that project. She joins us now.
Welcome to the program.
NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me on.
CORNISH: I want to get to the comments that the president made about the 1619 Project. But first, can you talk about this idea of the study of American history needing elevating in schools? The president is calling this the 1776 Commission.
HANNAH-JONES: So first, let’s just begin with some facts. The president cannot dictate curriculum to local school districts. And school districts are controlled at the local level, and curriculum is set at the state and the local level. So we should just be clear on what this is and what can actually be accomplished. So what we’re talking about is a desire to kind of force the 1619 Project and the culture wars into the national campaign for the presidency.
CORNISH: To that end, here’s a little bit more of what the president said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TRUMP: There is no better example than The New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.
CORNISH: The 1619 Project of yours, it hasn’t been discredited. It has become, as you said, part of the culture wars. Can you talk about why you think that is?
HANNAH-JONES: Yes. So first, it is a work of journalism. It is being taught in schools. It is being taught as a supplement to the education that children are already getting. And I would agree that we actually do need to be reforming our social studies curriculum because we actually don’t teach a very accurate and comprehensive history of America.
But the reason that it’s become part of the culture wars is, you know, the 1619 Project makes an argument that slavery is foundational to American life. And it really looks at modern America and traces back the legacy. It’s clear that Donald Trump has decided that he is going to run his reelection campaign on stoking racial division. And because this was a major project in The New York Times that has gotten a lot of attention, he sees this as one of the tools in the arsenal of that fight.
CORNISH: The president mentioned the 1619 Project, but this isn’t the only issue around race that has drawn the attention of the right. Can you talk about how this is coupled with other things?
HANNAH-JONES: Sure. I mean, what we’ve seen in the last few months is the Trump administration and the right targeting Black Lives Matter, a 30-year-old academic theory called Critical Race Theory, of course, the 1619 Project. So this is just an attempt to appeal to racial animus and to stoke his base, which is white Americans.
CORNISH: I see you fighting this battle online quite a bit on Twitter and the critics who come your way there. What has been your response to the idea that somehow the project diminishes the legacy of the Founding Fathers?
HANNAH-JONES: Well, one, I’m not really concerned with the legacy or vindicating the legacy of the Founding Fathers. I think that argument about whether my project furthers that the notion that we are an inherently good country versus an inherently bad country is just not germane to journalism or history. We are a country that was founded on a paradox, on a contradiction, on these majestic ideals of universal rights and liberty and also a country that was founded on the practice of institutional slavery. And we should be able to grapple with both of those things and with that truth. And we should be able to have a complex and nuanced understanding of our country.
CORNISH: Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, thank you for speaking with us.
HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.