Nikole Hannah-Jones has been called the “Beyoncé of journalism.” If her poignant and personal work as an education reporter is comparable to Beyoncé’s self-titled album, then The 1619 Project, a comprehensive series she created about what the history books omitted about slavery, is her Lemonade. And like Beyoncé, Nikole Hannah-Jones has turned a public snub into a masterclass on how to work with intention.
In April, Hannah-Jones announced she would be the new Knight Chair of University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s Race and Investigative Journalism department. But her future at UNC was mired in controversy when the university's Board of Trustees repeatedly delayed voting to approve her tenure application. On Tuesday, after finally being approved for tenure by UNC, Hannah-Jones announced on CBS This Morning that she was going to Howard University instead, as the inaugural Knight Chair of Race and Reporting, a department dedicated to training aspiring journalists for the school’s new Center for Journalism and Democracy and for which she'd secured $15 million in funding.
Hannah-Jones’ decision didn't just shine a spotlight on the lack of equity in academia, a field where, according to a 2018 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 6 percent of full-time faculty are Black. Similar to the recent wave of top recruited athletes choosing HBCUs, it was a striking instance of Black talent divesting from the idea that white institutions are synonymous with “elite”—and making the decision to invest in predominantly Black institutions.
After the Board finally approved Hannah-Jones’ tenure package in a 9-4 vote, The New York Times staffer shared with CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King that declining the offer had been “a very difficult decision.” According to Hannah-Jones, she would have been the first Knight Chair of UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media to have been denied job security since the program’s inception in the early 80s. “Every other Chair before me, who also happened to be white, received that position with tenure,” she said.
After the Board of Trustees mysteriously tabled her tenure application on two separate occasions, she said, she was offered the opportunity to teach at UNC for five years, at which time the Board would reconsider her application. Hannah-Jones says she initially accepted the offer because she didn’t want to draw negative attention to UNC, the school where she received her Masters in Mass Communication, or to herself.
The problem with the offer was that it went against everything The 1619 Project, which “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,” stands for. Enslaved people performed free labor for centuries, and it’s time for Black people, including Nikole Hannah-Jones, to reap the benefits of their work. She shouldn’t have to work for five years before being deemed worthy enough of job protection. But then again, as she told King, the pressure to prove herself has been following her since she was a child.
“Since the second grade when I started being bused into white schools, I’ve spent my entire life proving that I belonged in elite white spaces that were not built for Black people… I decided I did not want to do that anymore.”
Hannah-Jones story is a lot more nuanced than simply being dealt an unfortunate hand. After beginning the tenure process in November, Hannah-Jones told King she received “unanimous approval of the faculty” and even the university’s own Promotion and Tenure Committee. It wasn’t until the case was brought before the Board of Trustees, who are political appointees—and in North Carolina’s case, largely Republican—that her application hit a roadblock. In May, reporting by The Assembly revealed that the school’s namesake and benefactor, Arkansas newspaper magnate Walter Hussman, had allegedly voiced concerns to the Board about Hannah-Jones’ work last September.
“I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans,” she wrote in an eight-page statement released on Tuesday. Her peers apparently felt the same way. In May, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barry Jenkins, and Ava Duvernay published a letter on The Root in support of Hannah-Jones, arguing that “The same anti-democratic thinking that blocked Hannah-Jones’ appointment at her alma mater has also fueled efforts in state and local legislatures to ban the teaching of histories of slavery and its legacies through the 1619 Project.” (Their choice of a Black publication, instead of The New York Times, is another on-the-nose example of Black creatives reclaiming their own narratives.)
Last month, Hussman, who donated $25 million to the school in 2019, denied any involvement in the university’s decision.
“I never pressured anybody,” Hussman told NC Policy Watch. “I didn’t pressure Susan King. I didn’t pressure the chancellor. I didn’t pressure David Routh or anybody on the board.” Describing his email correspondence to NC Policy Watch, Hussman said he'd expressed concern over Hannah-Jones' past writing on reparations for Black Americans and "about how Hannah-Jones’ work could clash with his vision for the school and what it teaches.”
This logic is exactly the problem: Any journalism school fit to call itself such should have as its first priority a dedication to the facts, regardless of any donor’s opinions. Hannah-Jones’ work is rooted in the facts of the Black American experience, and young journalists, both Black and white, deserve to learn the trade in an environment that upholds that dedication to the truth, not just when it comes to reporting on race but also when it comes to understanding how race impacts reporting.
As a Howard alum, I couldn’t be more thrilled that the next generation of Bison will be able to count Hannah-Jones and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was also recently appointed as the writer-in-residence for the school’s English department, as their professors. Howard, in a way, is a Black utopia. Its curriculum centers the contributions of Black historians, thinkers, and artists—and not just on the shortest month of the year. Walk around Howard’s campus, and you will see the phrase “Veritas et Utilitas,” which translates to “Truth and Service,” more times than you can count.
But Howard is also filled with journalism students who are hyper aware of the way white society mischaracterizes their Blackness. Now, thanks to Hannah-Jones, the institution will have the resources to shape a new era of Black voices with an unwavering dedication to the facts. UNC’s loss is Howard’s $15 million gain. Choosing an HBCU like Howard is not only a power move, but surely something Beyoncé would applaud too.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.