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Waterloo native Nikole Hannah-Jones has waged a public war with those who would protect us from the content of free speech.
This past week, she took the win, with a bold move that shines a light on the way women of African American descent are often viewed, treated and dismissed in their professional lives.
Hannah-Jones was appointed Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, her alma mater. The job requires that the appointee stand for tenure. Hannah-Jones did so and it was granted via a unanimous faculty vote.
However, UNC’s board denied Hannah-Jones’ tenure, over disagreement with the assertions of her journalism. By way of compromise, she was offered a five-year, renewable appointment. Almost as good, with a decent salary, said some.
Consider what you’d accept in Hannah-Jones’ place: You’re highly qualified. You won a Pulitzer Prize. You were selected for the MacArthur Genius Grant. You’re a correspondent for one of the nation’s most respected journalism institutions. UNC approached you. You did the work. You met the qualifications. You endured the grueling tenure process. Your peers approved your tenure and welcomed you wholeheartedly.
But your journalism strikes at an American institution some believe is better left in the past. It attempts to spark conversations that make us uncomfortable. Your detractors have the power to overturn professional and popular support. They’re unfazed that their treatment of you smacks of overt discrimination; it will not affect them.
Their intended message in denying Hannah-Jones tenure is one of power and privilege. In one vote, they would discredit Hannah-Jones and send a warning to those she’d bring up behind her. She and all of us she represents would understand that we serve at the pleasure of their power.
When she didn’t settle for less than her peers were offered — less than she’d been offered — she was labeled a troublemaker, the code word for “angry Black woman.” She was attacked as unprofessional, unworthy and a subpar journalist.
A national debate ensued. Hannah-Jones considered legal action. Alumni, staff and students voiced outraged. UNC’s board eventually voted to reinstate the tenure offer.
Hannah-Jones went on “CBS This Morning” to announce she had declined UNC’s offer. In doing so, she highlighted the workplace politics women of color so often endure.
“Look what it took to get tenure,” she told Gayle King. “This is a position that since the 1980s came with tenure. The Knight chairs are designed for professional journalists who are working in the field to come into academia, and every other chair before me, who happened to be white, received tenure.”
As a final flourish, Hannah-Jones announced she’d accepted an appointment to the faculty at Howard University, a prestigious, historically Black institution.
To be clear, Hannah-Jones was not the only UNC Knight chair appointee with a controversial body of work. However, detractors objected to her brand of controversy.
Hannah-Jones does not subscribe to the view that the legacy of African enslavement is an issue of the past with no bearing on the present. She is the architect of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which frames history in the context of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the Americas.
For the project’s lead essay, she wrote, “Our Democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.”
As an outgrowth of her work, she co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting to increase the number of reporters of color.
Several state politicians, including some in Iowa, have organized efforts to keep the 1619 Project out of schools. Her critics reject her view of history.
She asked that people who aren’t charmed by her work to consider what it’s like for people of African American descent to learn a history that casts us as victims, not contributors, creators and full human beings.
Her name became a sneering epithet for political pundits. Her fight brought personal and professional attacks. She became the face of a movement to teach everyone that people of African American descent are more than the legacy of “slavery.”
Hannah-Jones persevered, spurring a national conversation about what we teach and how we teach it.
Many of us who share similar heritage and identify with Hannah-Jones understand the no-win decision she deftly navigated. Her refusal to play nice after being subjected to a public dressing down elevates her to icon status. Some people of European American descent view her that way, too.
In reaction to her announcement, CNN called Hannah-Jones a “Black genius.” She is that and much more, of course. And she’s not the Rosa Parks of journalism and higher education; she’s the Nikole Hannah-Jones of saying, unequivocally, I understand and value my worth.
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org