Nikole Hannah-Jones and the burden of Black excellence in a whitewashed America

OPINION: Millions of fellow Black women know exactly what it feels like to work twice as hard, show up twice as good and still somehow be left behind.

Reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones attends The 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street on May 20, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards )

My Nana used to tell us, “Baby you have to be twice as good.” I never understood what she meant until I got to college, and then out into the workforce after law school. 

Now looking back as a well-educated, accomplished Black woman in my 50’s, I often lament how much I miss her and her wisdom. She was warning me of all I would experience as a Black woman no matter what my degrees, my awards, or my gifts said about my preparation and qualifications. 

Boy, was she right. 

I came of professional age in the Clinton 1990s, and the world was embracing “diversity” while condemning “affirmative action.” Doors were starting to open wider for white women, but not so wide for Black women and women of color. 

Fast forward to present day 2021, award-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones of 1619 Project fame, was to become a tenured faculty member at the University of North Carolina (UNC) this fall. After the offer was extended in April for Jones to serve as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, she was informed that the UNC Trustees were not offering her tenure, which normally comes with such a prestigious position. 

Read More: UNC will no longer offer Nikole Hannah-Jones tenured position over ‘1619’ backlash

A student studies outside the closed Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on August 18, 2020 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

Take one look at the racial make-up of the Board of Trustees (almost all white and all male) and it explains a lot about why Jones, who is a renowned proponent of racial justice, and teaching history from an informed, diverse lens that begins with the slave trade in the Americas which began officially in Virginia in 1619 has been blocked from what is normally offered to professors holding this position. 

The reality is that white male conservatives, and others like Donald J. Trump who support the retelling of history through a lens of whiteness, have sent forth the call to university presidents, federal officials, and corporate leaders that as Trump put it in a September 2020 speech, “Critical race theory, the 1619 Project and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” 

Dean of UNC Hussman School of Journalism, Susan King, said in response to the Trustees’ decision, “It’s disappointing, it’s not what we wanted and I am afraid it will have a chilling effect.” I agree with her and that is exactly the point of the Trustees’ decision. They are not in the business of a free-thinking, explorative academic environment apparently, instead they are in the business of maintaining the historical status-quo and keeping their conservative donors and alumni base happy. 

For clarity, according to the New York Times, “The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.”

African slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619.
Engraving shows the arrival of a Dutch slave ship with a group of African slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As a Black Virginian of more than 30 years now, I feel grateful for the project and its focus on the beginning of Virginia as a British colony that first brought slaves to our shores in 1619. It lays down a historical marker of truth, that the nation was not just formed in 1776 around Jefferson’s famous words in the Declaration of Independence, but that it was formed as an ideal long before that when we engaged in the slave trade of Africans which to this very day 400 years later has tentacles as to how we see race, culture and class.   

The opponents of the 1619 Project are almost all white, male, southern and mid-western Republican senators, members of Congress, academics and policy wonks who want history to be white-washed and cleansed by the Civil War. They put that down as the marker of paying their debt to Black people. They argue that teaching the truth of slavery, the truth of racial hate, disenfranchisement and terror visited upon Black people for centuries, would only further divide our great nation. That it is “abuse” to children (by that they mean white children) and that it embraces a radical orthodoxy meant to destroy white Anglo-Saxon existence. 

I disagree. The truth sets us free. The lies that have been told since 1600s Virginia and beyond are why many white citizens believe that Black people are less than, more prone to violence, to crime, that we don’t work as hard, that we want to be on social programs and unemployment benefits, that we somehow don’t love America as they do (even though of 30% of America’s armed forces are Black men and women) and that we hate the police, even though the police “police” Black people differently, abuse us, even kill us for routine traffic stops.

I could go on and on but you get the point.

For her part, Hannah-Jones has thanked those who have shown her support since the news of the UNC’s decision. “I have been overwhelmed by all the support you all have shown me. It has truly fortified my spirit and my resolve. You all know that I will OK. But this fight is bigger than me, and I will try my best not to let you down,” she tweeted.

Nikole Hannah Jones
Iowa native Nikole Hannah-Jones, who initiated and led The New York Times’ acclaimed collection of writings called The 1619 Project, is pictured at the 2016 Peabody Awards ceremony in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Peabody Awards)

I have marveled at her grace. A grace that we as Black women know all too well. We must give if it is not deserved. We must walk it out when we have been walked backward, sideways and every which way but right.

My heart is with her, as are millions of her fellow Black women who know exactly what it feels like to work twice as hard, show up twice as good and still somehow be left behind.

Sophia Nelson

Sophia A. Nelson is a contributing editor.

Have you subscribed to theGrio’s “Dear Culture” podcast? Download our newest episodes now!

TheGrio is now on Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku. Download today!