The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nikole Hannah-Jones hasn’t started teaching at Howard yet. But already, she’s imparting lessons.

Nikole Hannah-Jones at her home on July 6.
Nikole Hannah-Jones at her home on July 6. (John Minchillo/AP)

The announcement that Nikole Hannah-Jones would join the faculty at Howard University pushed some post-college-age adults to express regret that they weren’t younger.

They spoke of wishing they could sit in her classroom and learn from her.

“I hope I can visit for a lecture sometime,” wrote one person on the school’s Twitter page. “ . . . Shoot this might be a reason to go back and get another masters or doctorate at Howard.”

“I think I might apply just to attend this new program!” wrote another person. “I am turning 50 this year, but I think another round of college is warranted!”

“Host a live Zoom so the rest of us can get in,” wrote yet another.

There is no doubt that students at Howard will benefit from having access to Hannah-Jones and her deep well of knowledge and experience. The New York Times journalist won a Pulitzer Prize for her contribution to a project that cemented the date 1619 in the country’s consciousness. But the truth is that people — young and not-so-young, students and no-longer-students — are already learning from her.

They are learning that it’s not enough to just be allowed to sit at the table.

They are learning that the burden of fixing broken systems shouldn’t fall to those who have been hurt most by that brokenness.

They are learning that it’s okay to know — and declare — their worth.

Now that we see what stealing a college slot really looks like, can we stop making students of color feel like frauds?

It took me a long while in my own life to understand that last lesson, and I still struggle with it at times.

I have been a journalist for nearly 20 years and have learned to advocate for myself and others. But early in my career, when I went from one newspaper job to another, I was told that my salary would remain the same. I knew that felt wrong and that other people would have pushed for an increase or a signing bonus. I also knew that I was expected to feel grateful for the opportunity. So, I accepted the job, packed up my life and moved to a new city, feeling grateful for the opportunity and chastising myself for not asking for even a tiny, ego-preserving salary bump.

I realize now that part of my failure to negotiate was ignorance. Most of the adults in my family had worked hard but not in jobs that placed them in positions to prepare me for office culture and politics. My grandmother was a maid. My mom worked as a code enforcement officer. And my dad did electronic repair work, which at one point involved fixing televisions.

The other part of my failure was that I trusted others to decide my worth. I felt confident in my reporting and writing skills, but deeply insecure when it came to fitting into an industry where not many people shared my background. The lack of diversity in journalism has been well documented, but looking at it in terms of numbers only shows who doesn’t exist. It doesn’t reveal what it means to stand in those low percentages.

It is lonely. It involves hiding parts of yourself, and then feeling angry that you did. It involves accepting that at times you will feel more connected to the parking garage staff than the people who wield the power to determine your future.

Once for a story, I sat in on a D.C. job training class. All the participants were Black and many had known financial struggle. The instructor spent most of time teaching the class how to fit into an office atmosphere. He taught them how to code-switch and how to dress. At one point, he presented slides of shoes, shirts and skirts and asked members of the class to pick which ones were appropriate. Several people got the answers wrong.

As I watched that exercise, it occurred to me what was really being taught: How to make their mostly White colleagues feel comfortable with them. The message was that if they were lucky enough to get a foot in the door, they should make sure it was covered in a relatable flat or loafer.

I thought of that class after reading that Hannah-Jones had turned down a faculty position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which had granted her tenure only after protests from students and faculty members. She chose instead to become the Knight chair in race and journalism at Howard University, where she would have tenure and, by her own account, had been treated “with dignity and respect.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones to join Howard faculty after UNC tenure controversy

It was an inspiring move. It showed a Black woman saying that she didn’t have to settle for getting a foot in the door. She didn’t have to feel thankful for reluctant acceptance.

That it resonated so powerfully with people of color across the country shows just how much that example was needed.

That it felt so rare shows how much work remains when it comes to turning other institutions and workplaces into spaces where differences are valued and code-switching isn’t necessary. Doing so, after all, benefits everyone. Consider the mental energy people could put into their work if they didn’t have to worry about their shoes or proving they belong.

“Since the second grade when I began being bused into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced,” Hannah-Jones wrote in a powerful statement. “I have never asked for special treatment. I did not seek it here. All I asked was to be judged by my credentials and treated fairly and equally.”

She went on to say: “For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.”

When people of color point out racial inequities and injustices, they are often criticized as portraying themselves as victims. Make no mistake, what happened with Hannah-Jones is the opposite of victimhood. It was a show of power.

More than that, it was empowering.

“Thanks for showing us to go where we are appreciated and not where we are merely tolerated,” wrote one person on social media. “You handled all of this with such dignity and grace.”

“I cried reading this statement,” wrote another. “I’m not in the journalism field nor in academe. Yet you spoke to what I have been saying throughout my career in marketing.”

“I know this was a difficult time for you but I have taken so many lessons from your experience that I am sharing with my children,” wrote yet another. “Life doesn’t have to be a struggle and we don’t need to power through uncomfortable situations. I choose joy.”

Time will tell what Howard students learn from Hannah-Jones. But already, through her actions, she’s imparting important lessons — to them and the rest of us.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Neli Latson is — finally — free. It only took 11 years, two governors and a national conversation about race and disability.

She’s endured stares and insults. Her dream: To create a community space where others won’t have to.

An 11-year-old boy’s killing isn’t proof Black lives don’t matter to Black people. It’s proof of our collective failure.