Iowa native, journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones was honored as the 2021 Iowa Author Award recipient at an event in downtown Des Moines on Monday, Nov. 22.
The benefit dinner, “In Conversation with Nikole Hannah-Jones,” raised funds for the Des Moines Public Library (DMPL) Foundation. The 21st annual event celebrated the work of Iowa writers and the continued work of expanding library access for all.
According to the president of the DMPL Foundation, Trevor Meers, the foundation provides funding for more than 87 percent of programming at each of the six library branches in the Des Moines area.
“For a working-class Black girl from a small Iowa town whose family never traveled anywhere that the car did not take us, the library card, specifically the Waterloo Public Library card, was my passport to the world,” Hannah-Jones said in her acceptance speech.
The Waterloo, Iowa native said that her work began in a classroom just two hours from Des Moines and was especially honored to receive the award because books and libraries saved her life.
“Libraries, like public schools, are among the most democratic of institutions,” Hannah-Jones said. “Libraries exist for a common good in a belief that knowledge should be freely shared, not something that can be accessed only by the wealthy and the privileged and under the belief that an educated citizenry is an investment in our community, and it’s an investment in our nation.”
Hannah-Jones was awarded for her newly released work, “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.” The book is an expansion of the New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project.
The award-winning, long-form work released in 2019 “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” said The 1619 Project introduction.
The expansion includes 18 essays and 36 poems commemorating the now 402-year-long legacy of African-American history in the United States and the many ways legacies of racial injustice persist well into the 21st century.
Additionally, Hannah-Jones’ “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story” was released on Nov. 16 alongside her new children’s picture book, “The 1619 Project: Born on the Water.”
The dinner held at the Embassy Suites in downtown Des Moines featured a pre-event silent auction, a live auction, a moderated conversation with the awardee and book signing by Hannah-Jones both before and after the program.
Iowa Author Award Honorary Chair and former foundation board member Jacqueline Easley McGhee compared Maya Angelou’s metaphor of a “caged bird” to efforts of censoring and banning literature like Angelou’s autobiography and the work of Hannah-Jones.
“I, too, support age-appropriate learning, but isn’t the purpose of the arts to open minds and not keep them closed?” McGhee said.
“The 1619 Project” being implemented in educational curricula has been the source of controversy in state legislatures and school boards nationwide.
“First, the Iowa legislature took up a bill to ban ‘The 1619 Project’ by name, I have to say it is an astounding thing to be the native daughter of this state to win the Pulitzer Prize and then your state tries to ban your work,” Hannah-Jones said.
To further discuss Hannah-Jones’ new books and to continue discussion on the project’s national impact, Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder with the Des Moines Register served as the moderator for the main event.
Crowder and Hannah-Jones collected questions from the audience and spoke to the concept of the children’s book, Hannah-Jones’ Waterloo educational origins and ways individuals could continue to contribute to the work of the project.
Hannah-Jones said the children’s book is an origin story for Black Americans. With many Black Americans not being able to trace back their family lineages to a specific country, Hannah-Jones said the book is dedicated to her daughter to reiterate that “our story is not a tragic story.”
“Our children deserve an education that exposes them to new ideas, and those new ideas should make you uncomfortable,” Hannah-Jones said. “That is how we learn and stretch and grow. That is how we gain empathy for our fellow human beings. That’s how we affirm our own humanity.”
At the awards dinner, 50 students were in attendance, nine of them being Drake University students.
First-year Mylo Bissell attended the dinner and said that Hannah-Jones stands as a symbol of what it means to fearlessly and defiantly pursue truth.
“I have not had a lot of fearless pursuit of truth modeled for me,” Bissell said. “It is because of her that I see the vitality in showing up for my communities the way that I do and see the honest worth of speaking more than when you’re just spoken to.”
Hannah-Jones said that it would be immoral to not bring her community with her.
In January 2022, Hannah-Jones is set to open “1619 Freedom School,” a free, five-days-a-week after-school literacy program in her hometown, Waterloo.
The program will have a custom Black history curriculum that will be open-source and help bridge the opportunity gap for students in Waterloo public schools.
Hannah-Jones said of the works “The 1619 Project,” “Born on the Water,” “A New Origin Story” and “1619 Freedom School” that they “force us to confront who we are so we can be who we want to be.”