Hannah-Jones Discusses Power of Representation

written by MARCENE ROBINSON photos courtesy University at Buffalo Distinguished Speakers Series and Joe Cascio photography 

Her writing has also earned her numerous honors and awards, including a 

MacArthur Fellowship, a Peabody Award, two George Polk Awards and three National Magazine Awards.

UB welcomed Hannah-Jones as the Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration keynote speaker. The event, held in the Center for the Arts, was moderated by Suzanne Rosenblith, dean of the Graduate School of Education, and sponsored in part by the Minority Faculty and Staff Association and the Department of Africana and American Studies.

Throughout the event, Hannah-Jones discussed the power of representation in education. Having noticed race and inequality at a young age, she described the impact of enrolling in an elective Black studies course during high school. Within one class, she was exposed to more history and literature about Black people than during the rest of her K-12 experience. It was also through the course that she learned about the date 1619, the year enslaved Africans first arrived in the British colony of Virginia.

“As a 16-year-old Black child, I was both enraged that all of these years, when I thought the reason no one ever taught us any history of Black people, [it was] because Black people didn’t have a history that could be taught … Because, surely, if we had done something of importance, our educators, our textbooks would have told us that, right,” said Hannah-Jones.

“So, you internalize that message. The absence [of information] is as strong or stronger of a message than the presence of information,” she said. “In that class, I became really angry at that, and I also became very empowered. Cracking the door open just a little bit that there was a whole world of knowledge that could be had, empowered me to seek it on my own.”

Every child desperately wants to see themselves in the story, she added, citing research that found that Black children perform better academically when they learn about Black history.

Hannah-Jones shared that she founded the 1619 Freedom School in her hometown of Waterloo to help increase literacy among underserved Black children through instruction centered on Black history. She described the awe of children when they entered the school’s library to find that all the books featured people who looked like them. Many kids stayed after school, reading for hours, she said.

“It’s hard when you are a member of a majority race in a society where, from the moment you took breath, [you have] seen yourself represented in monuments, in history books, on television, everywhere, to understand the powerful message it sends you when you are not ever reflected,” said Hannah-Jones. “We tell children, ‘Well you don’t like social studies,’ or ‘Pay attention in class,’ or ‘You don’t like to read.’ Well, maybe they don’t like to read because they’re never in what you’re asking them to read.

“Empowerment is why I’m here today,” she added. “And I know I’m not more brilliant, more motivated than most of the kids I grew up with. But I got access to an education that allowed me to see something in myself, and most of our kids don’t get that.”

However, the increased inclusion of critical race theory and racial literacy in education has led to a new racial reckoning led by a minority of Americans intent on halting and reversing the progress of civil rights, said Hannah-Jones, noting this movement has led to several states successfully passing anti-history laws.

“We as a society, we get that education does lead to liberation; it causes you to question your society. That’s why they’re banning books. That’s why they’re banning concepts,” she said, explaining that memory laws that shape the discussion of shared national identity are the first to be enacted during the death of democracy in a nation.

“The same states that are passing anti-history laws, they’re also passing anti-voter laws, they’re passing laws against women’s reproductive rights … All of these things go hand-in-hand,” said Hannah-Jones. “When states start banning literature, when they start banning ideas, they’re never going to stop with that. It’s never a sign of a healthy society.”

The solutions to solving the nation’s issues concerning race and inequality lay with the youth, said Hannah-Jones. The leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement were largely high school and college students, she explained, noting that Martin Luther King Jr. was in his early 20s, and civil rights leaders Diane Nash and John Lewis were college students when they began their activism.

“The answers are not going to come from us,” said Hannah-Jones. “The youth have always led.”