Inside the Times: “A painstaking writing process that unfolded over some dozen drafts. In the sweep of 400 years, where does one begin?”

From a Times Insider column by Emily Palmer headlined “Telling ‘the Sweep of 400 Years'”:

When Nikole Hannah-Jones set out to write about black Americans as agents of the country’s democracy, she submitted a draft of 16,000 words — more than twice what her editors had expected.

“How in a single essay,” she recalled thinking, “do you tell the sweep of 400 years?”

Early in 2019, Ms. Hannah-Jones, a staff writer covering racial inequality for The New York Times Magazine, pitched a special issue that would mark the 400th anniversary of the day in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought by ship to the English colony of Virginia. . . .

In May, Ms. Hannah-Jones was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Her opening essay was cited for “prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution.”. . .

Behind that Pulitzer Prize-winning essay was a painstaking writing process that unfolded over some dozen drafts. In the sweep of 400 years, where does one begin?

One afternoon about a month before publication, Ms. Hannah-Jones found herself in bed, burdened under the responsibility of the project and unable to write a single word.

Her editor from the magazine, Ilena Silverman, called.

“If she could feel calm enough to just begin,” Ms. Silverman recalled thinking.

Over the phone, Ms. Hannah-Jones mentioned Robert Hemings, an enslaved relative of Thomas Jefferson’s wife who attended to Jefferson as he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

Start there — for now, Ms. Silverman suggested.

A later draft began earlier in history, on the Middle Passage — an endless stretch of ocean that separated African peoples from the free lives they had known. “They say our people were born on the water,” she wrote.

Deeper into revisions, the essay would find its final start in the reporter’s own experience.

While working on The 1619 Project, Ms. Hannah-Jones had a flashback of her father, Milton Hannah, a veteran from Mississippi who had died more than a decade earlier, standing with a pristine American flag in the front yard of her childhood home in Waterloo, Iowa.

She scrawled the memory on a legal pad: “When I was young, that flag outside our home never made sense to me.” Her father hoped that after serving in the Army he would be accepted as a full citizen but found his opportunities limited.

Years later, she said, she saw her father’s patriotism as “claiming this country.” Black Americans were not just present at the founding of the United States but were the heartbeat of its principles.

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