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“I imagine people come to events like these and they hope or expect to hear an inspirational speech, and I wish I had one to offer you,” said Hannah-Jones, who gave the keynote address at Wednesday’s gala, presented by Lifetime, celebrating THR‘s WIE Power 100 list that took place in-person at the Fairmont Century Plaza in Los Angeles. “I’m sorry if this is your first time ever hearing of me or seeing me talk, but people don’t tend to walk away from my talks feeling uplifted.”
The journalist and 1619 Project author, however, did sound a call to action against the growing wave of state laws and proposed policies that would ban ideas associated with the notion that the United States has a legacy of systemic racism. Several states, under the guise of stopping “critical race theory” — an academic concept featured in some graduate-level college courses — have banned The 1619 Project by name from public schools, along with other works that examine the country’s foundations in ways contrary to the usual history textbook version.
“I couldn’t have taken this opportunity to address some of the most important storytellers in America, the people who play such an important role in shaping our collective understanding of our past and of our society, without sounding the alarm about the dangerous moment that we are all in,” said Hannah-Jones, a New York Times reporter and the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at Howard University.
Speaking of the backlash to The 1619 Project, she said, “I certainly never imagined one day I would produce a text so dangerous that it is now being banned by name in states such as Georgia, Texas and Florida. In truth, it is my greatest honor — the Pulitzer Prize means nothing, this is my greatest — because people only ban things they fear will unsettle their power. We cannot sit idly by and concede our power as storytellers and our power as citizens and the power that we collectively hold.”
Hannah-Jones also recounted how one of her high school teachers gave her a book that discussed the arrival of the first Africans in Virginia in 1619, aboard a ship called the White Lion. “It was in that class that I began to think of my possibilities as a Black girl, and that I developed an unquenchable thirst to keep learning this history.”
She closed by asking the Hollywood audience to use their power to help people “imagine a different world, and then to act towards building that world.”
“These are unprecedented times,” she said. “We must respond in unprecedented ways. Because the arc of the universe does not in fact bend towards justice of its own volition. We must bend it. I have chosen my weapon. Now you all must choose yours, if you haven’t already, and join this fight.”
THR‘s Women in Entertainment event is sponsored by Cadillac, FIJI Water, Amazon Ads, SAG-AFTRA, eOne and Gersh, in partnership with Chapman University, Loyola Marymount University and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Los Angeles. The event was held in compliance with local health and safety guidelines.
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