Not infrequently, I’m asked where I find inspiration.
These days I find it in the bold example set by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine writer, MacArthur genius grant winner and to my surprise and delight, now the inaugural Knight Chair in Race and Reporting at Howard University.
If you haven’t been following the lengths to which a white Arkansan publisher and major University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill donor went to keep Hannah-Jones, key author of The 1619 Project, from receiving the customary tenure that accompanies the Knight Chair at UNC, catch up here. This Associated Press headline captures it well: “Tenure struggle ends with Hannah-Jones charting new course.”
A new course.
Hannah-Jones did Tuesday what I’d hoped she would: She respectfully told UNC, her alma mater, which ultimately granted her tenure, to take it and stick it where the sun don’t shine. But not only that, she embodied the maxim: Success is the best revenge.
She will be a professor, but at Howard University, the nation’s premier HBCU. She brings with her $15 million from the Knight, Ford and MacArthur foundations to launch the Center for Journalism and Democracy.
“Many people, all with the best of intentions, have said that if I walk away from UNC, I will have let those who opposed me win,” Hannah-Jones said in a statement. “But I do not want to win someone else’s game. It is not my job to heal this university.”
“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.”
Amen. It’s an honor and privilege to build your own, and I am one of several women of color journalists doing it. The list includes CNN alumna Mitra Kalita of URL Media; Lauren Williams, formerly of Vox Media, and Akoto Ofori-Atta, formerly of The Trace, now co-founders of Capital B; my friend and advisor Jiquanda Johnson of Flint Beat in Michigan; and sounding boards Sarah Alvarez and Candice Fortman of Outlier Media in Detroit.
By building our own, my esteemed colleagues and Hannah-Jones follow in the proud tradition of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a crusading investigative journalist whose truths about lynching riled white Memphians so much that in 1892, a white mob destroyed her newspaper offices, driving her from town.
The legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,. our publication’s namesake, undergirds our commitment to economic justice in our editorial coverage and business practices. But Wells-Barnett is our spiritual mother, fueling our commitment to use journalism as a tool for justice.
“The people must know before they can act,” Wells-Barnett said, “and there is no educator to compare with the press.”
I’ve served as a trainer for the Ida B. Wells Society, which Hannah-Jones co-founded in 2016 along with the AP’s Ron Nixon, the Tampa Bay Times’ Corey Johnson and ProPublica’s Topher Sanders. It was at a meeting that year in Memphis when they laid out the mission: To train the next generation of investigative journalists of color.
MLK50: Justice in Journalism stands ready to support Hannah-Jones’ work. Know that we’re looking for ways to collaborate with her and her students in her latest endeavor.
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.