Nikole Hannah Jones
7/8/2021, 6 p.m.
There’s nothing better than the warm embrace of family.
That’s one of the lessons New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones signaled this week when she announced that she’s finished with the uncalled for fight by conservative blockheads at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill over the terms of her employment there, and she’s taking her talents and $20 million in donations to Howard University’s journalism school.
Good for Ms. Hannah-Jones. And good for Howard University for opening the door to her and her brilliance. The students at Howard will benefit from her knowledge and experience as she opens and leads the university’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy as the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting.
Many people are familiar with Ms. Hannah-Jones and her seminal work on The 1619 Project that was published in the New York Times magazine during the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans brought to English North America in Virginia. The work focused on the nation’s history and the contributions of African-Americans and the resulting and long consequences of slavery. Ms. Hannah-Jones, 45, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for her opening essay in the project.
But her contributions to journalism go beyond that. Her previous insightful work has been recognized with journalism’s other prestigious awards — the Polk and Peabody awards — and she has received the coveted MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.
Additionally, she established the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting in 2016 at UNC in an effort both to give back to her alma mater — she earned a master’s degree in journalism at UNC — and to give young journalists the skills and tools for in-depth reporting.
But despite her impeccable credentials, the UNC Board of Visitors blocked her appointment with tenure to the Knight Chair at Chapel Hill in a hubristic — and racist — move orchestrated by an Arkansas newspaper publisher and mega donor who, based on several published reports, essentially is jealous of her “celebrity” and takes umbrage with her views on slavery and American history.
To be clear, every Knight Chair at UNC since the 1980s has been given a full professorship with tenure.
The issue touched off a firestorm at the school by students, faculty, alumni, donors and others who questioned the university’s actions and motives. Students have protested and petitions have circulated calling for Ms. Hannah-Jones to be hired with tenure. The UNC board’s actions are suspect, particularly set against a backdrop of racial reckoning on the campus and across the nation.
While the board finally came to its senses and offered Ms. Hannah-Jones tenure last week, Ms. Hannah-Jones announced Tuesday that she was turning it down and heading to Howard — her new home.
“At some point when you have proven yourself and fought your way into institutions that were not built for you, when you’ve proven you can compete and excel at the highest level, you have to decide that you are done forcing yourself in,” Ms. Hannah-Jones wrote in a detailed explanation of why she rejected UNC’s delinquent offer and will devote her time and talent to Howard University and its students.
“... I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honored and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”
The entire episode has shined a light on the unequal and unfair treatment meted out to Black people in academia — and other professions — that hinder progress for individuals, institutions and our nation as a whole. The continued mistreatment and marginalization of people of color hurts the collective when we deny and fail to acknowledge and reward someone’s talent. Then we wonder why there are so few Black professors at predominately white institutions, why even fewer are tenured and why such small percentages of Black students sit in the classrooms.
The same goes for the scant number of Black CEOs of major companies and heads of various businesses and organizations, as well as the lack of diversity in newsrooms of white-owned media across the country.
There is no doubt that scores of journalism schools across the nation would have been honored to have a professional of Ms. Hannah-Jones’ caliber to join their faculty. But we understand Ms. Hannah-Jones’ viewpoint; it gets tiresome when Black people must continue to prove themselves and their qualifications to white people who plainly and simply don’t want them around.
We applaud Howard University President Wayne A.I. Frederick and Dr. Gracie Lawson-Borders, dean of the university’s Cathy Hughes School of Communications, for making a space for a journalistic gem. We also applaud the Knight Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation and an anonymous donor for investing in the future success of Howard’s program with Ms. Hannah-Jones and award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates providing leadership and lessons for the students.
The episode also highlights the importance of HBCUs and the imperative that we provide them our full support of time, talent and treasure as they outfit the next generation with the knowledge, skills and abilities to continue the fight for progress.
“In the storied tradition of the Black press, the Center for Journalism and Democracy will help produce journalists capable of accurately and urgently covering the perilous challenges of our democracy with a clarity, skepticism, rigor and historical dexterity that is too often missing from today’s journalism,” Ms. Hannah-Jones said in her statement.
Surely, success will come because of and not in spite of a universe of circumstances.
Welcome home, Ms. Hannah-Jones.