Nikole Hannah-Jones talks plans for Howard, plight of Black professors and what’s next for ‘1619 project’

The Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter talks to theGrio about what next for her after taking a new job at Howard University

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Nikole Hannah-Jones has been writing news about the plight of the Black American as an investigative reporter for the New York Times for some time.

She never expected that she would wind up being a news story herself, when she was denied tenure on the faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). With a public outpouring of support and a national scandal ignited by the rejection, UNC’s Board of Governors re-voted and granted Hannah-Jones tenure in early July, only for her to deny the institution where she received her master’s degree.

Instead, as previously reported by theGrio, the architect of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project is headed to Howard University to be the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Journalism.

Hannah-Jones spoke with theGrio about her new position and what’s next for the 1619 Project.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the 75th Annual Peabody Awards Ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Much has been made of UNC’s initial rejection of Hannah-Jones’ application for tenure. When making the initial announcement about rejecting UNC’s eventual tenure offer, Hannah-Jones, 45, told CBS This Morning‘s Gayle King that it may have had to do with conservative-leaning members of the Board of Trustees disapproving of the 1619 Project, which is a multi-platform examination into slavery of African-Americans and it’s far-reaching effects on Black Americans through to today’s society.

When speaking with theGrio‘s Dr. Christina Greer, Hannah-Jones echoed her feelings that she, and other Black professionals and academics, should not feel the need to teach at PWI institutions regardless of notoriety and wealth.

“I struggled many times in my career being at a place where I felt completely disrespected, where my work was being stifled, where I was being penalized because I wanted to write about Black people,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think that’s why in this circumstance, I tried to be very aware of the power that I have in this moment and how could I best use the power that I’ve managed to accrue in this moment to send a message that these institutions need to stop treating us like we should be grateful to be there.”

Hannah-Jones recognizes that this incident presents an opportunity to express the importance of being in a welcoming atmosphere, and “environment where they’re not having to struggle every day just to be recognized for their basic humanity, for their intellect, where they’re not always being questioned–even if that means they might have to work with slightly lesser resources.”

Well, resources are one thing that Hannah-Jones won’t have to worry too hard about at Howard. Her appointment as Knight Chair coincides with $20 million philanthropic fund endowed to the historically Black college and university (HBCU) as reported by CBS News. In addition, author/journalist and fellow MacArthur Fellowship recipient Ta-Nehisi Coates will also be joining Howard’s faculty in its College of Arts and Sciences.

Nikole Hannah-Jones
Nikole Hannah-Jones attends the “Neutral Ground” premiere during the 2021 Tribeca Festival at Pier 76 on June 19, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival)

“When I decided to come in, I reached out to philanthropies and understood that Howard may not be able to provide the same resources in the journalism school as Carolina, but I can try to help bring some of those resources into the school. So I think we have to become more creative in that way.”

In addition, Hannah-Jones is working with Howard President Dr. Wayne Frederick to make the school a “hub” for sharing capital between other HBCUs and faculty members.

Hannah-Jones understood that as an investigative reporter for the New York Times with numerous accolades and projects, she was in a unique position of power that’s not usually afforded to Black professors and college faculty members who find themselves in similar predicaments she had with UNC.

Therefore, she’s eager to turn this controversy into a rallying cry for said Black teachers in order to turn attention to their ongoing struggles.

“I haven’t dedicated my life to the academia, so I had other options if I didn’t get tenure at UNC,” Hannah-Jones said. “But for so many Black faculty, this is their life, right? This is what you all set out to do. You have invested years and years, if not decades into this. So when an institution treats you unfairly, that’s devastating in a way that it wasn’t even devastating for me, except to often faculty don’t have the same platform. They can’t elicit the same type of public support.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones
(Credit: Getty Images)

It is Hannah-Jones’ hope that PWIs get exposed for their prejudiced practices after this incident, in order to liberate other Black academics who are marginalized and get denied tenure. “They like to put us in there in their brochures to show how diverse they are, but then they don’t treat us fairly through the process.”

Hannah-Jones is excited for her new venture with Howard, observing that talent that’s already been coming from the college. “Howard is already producing and putting into the world excellent journalists out of that institution,” Hannah-Jones said. “I just want to add what it is that I can add to that.”

And what is it that Hannah-Jones will be adding?

“What I hope that I will bring is really a very particular focus on, to me, the most critical reporting on a democracy, which is accountability reporting and investigative reporting and producing Black journalists in the tradition of the Black press who are not enamored with power, but in fact very skeptical of it.”

As she takes on this ambitious new position, Hannah-Jones stated that she intends “for the foreseeable future” to serve as Knight Chair at Howard’s journalism program, as well as continue her work as an investigative reporter for the New York Times. As for the 1619 Project that made her a household name, she says there’s more to come from the projects that has “completely taken over my life.”

“We have two books coming out this fall, the adult book and I co-wrote a children’s book with Renee Watson, it comes out November,” Hannah-Jones said. “We begin filming the 1619 documentary next month or so, and then we have five other 1619 books that we’ll be releasing in the next couple of years. So, I’m going to be spending most of my time really expanding the 1619 Project.”

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