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Creator of ‘1619 Project’ will address Virginia’s role in American racism at McLean talk on Sunday

Nikole Hannah-Jones will speak at the McLean Community Center’s Alden Theatre on Sunday (photo by James Estrin/The New York Times)

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the investigative journalist behind “The 1619 Project,” is coming to McLean.

Anyone hoping to snag a last-minute ticket to her talk at the McLean Community Center on Sunday (Feb. 19), however, is out of luck. Seats filled up quickly once registration opened last month, and the waitlist has exceeded 400 people, according to the Fairfax County Public Library (FCPL), which organized the free event.

Fortunately, Hannah-Jones has agreed to let the county make a recording of the event that will be shared “for a limited time” with attendees and everyone on the waitlist, FCPL Director Jessica Hudson says.

“We are honored and excited to host Ms. Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award winning author, and creator of the landmark 1619 Project, during our Black History Month celebration,” Hudson said in a statement. “Authors are chosen for a variety of reasons including educational value, because they inspire a high level of interest among our diverse community members, and for their ability to offer unique insight into important cultural and social issues.”

Since launching in The New York Times Magazine on Aug. 14, 2019, The 1619 Project has ignited vigorous debate among academics and the general public alike over its argument that racism and slavery are foundational — not incidental — to American history.

The initiative won awards for Hannah-Jones, including a 2020 Pulitzer Prize, and has expanded with a teaching guide, podcast, the nonfiction book “The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story,” the kids’ book “Born on the Water,” and most recently, a documentary series on Hulu.

The project’s longevity surprised even its author — as has the intense backlash, which has manifested in everything from historians disputing specific claims to politicians banning it from classrooms.

Far from being wary, Hannah-Jones wants to visit states like Virginia, where pushback to her work and the once-niche academic concept of critical race theory has evolved into broader fights over how history is taught in schools and access to books. She spoke in Arlington last year for “Banned Books Week.”

“It’s really important for me to go into places that are having these battles,” she told FFXnow. “Really, I see part of it as standing up for teachers and librarians and students’ right to learn, but of course, in a place like Virginia or a place like Fairfax County, or a place like Arlington, or really anywhere, we are daily seeing how the legacy of slavery is shaping lives, and people don’t often recognize that.”

Virginia plays a central role in The 1619 Project. In addition to harboring the first ship to carry enslaved Africans to the land that would become the U.S., Virginia enacted many of the first laws to institutionalize slavery and passed a Racial Integrity Act defining racial categories to prohibit miscegenation.

“Virginia in many ways is ground zero for everything else we see in America,” Hannah-Jones said.

The laws have been relegated to the past, but their consequences haven’t. For example, Fairfax County’s current housing challenges are partly the product of decades of discrimination.

The outcry over changes to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology’s admissions policies echoes the area’s massive resistance to integration as a battle over “who should get access to the, quote-unquote, best public schools in the community,” according to Hannah-Jones.

While Sunday’s talk at The Alden (1234 Ingleside Avenue) won’t include book signings, Hannah-Jones says she’s looking forward to the Q&A portion as an opportunity to hear from the community — and judging by the lengthy waitlist, McLean residents are equally eager to hear from her.

“A lot of times, the people who oppose the teaching of these histories, who support these divisive concept laws and book bans get a lot of attention, but I don’t think they represent most Americans,” she said. “The fact that there are so many people who want to engage with these ideas and have thoughtful conversations about them is very heartening.”