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Nikole Hannah-Jones’ decision to take a teaching position at Howard University reflects the enduring power, resonance and importance of Black institutions.

Peniel Joseph
Kelvin Ma/Tufts University/Kelvin Ma/Tufts University
Peniel Joseph

Hannah-Jones, after a swirling controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (her alma mater) made national headlines and ended with a decision to award her tenure after all, has decided to take her talents to one of the most prestigious historically Black colleges and universities in America.

Not since LeBron James’ “The Decision” spectacle has so much of the nation held its collective breath to see where a Black genius might land.

In a baller move taken straight from The King’s playbook, Hannah-Jones announced her decision on “CBS This Morning” with Gayle King and released a longer statement via the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. In a nutshell, Hannah-Jones decried the irony of Black people being forced to try to save racist institutions from themselves at the expense of their own self-worth, pride and dignity. She also noted that too often the nation defined prestige as an entrée into predominantly White spaces. “And I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were.”

Hannah-Jones’ powerful words reflect the grandeur and travails of this moment in American history, one where Black institutions – religious, civic, political, educational and cultural – are evolving against the backdrop of a racial reckoning for which they helped lay the foundation.

Howard University endured since its founding in 1867, forming the crowning jewel of the archipelago of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that dotted the former Confederacy and border states such as Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Howard University, with a medical school and law school established by the 20th century, would become in many ways Black America’s intellectual mecca, the proving ground for literary, scientific, legal and cultural innovation and excellence that produced Black Power icon Stokely Carmichael, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and Vice President Kamala Harris – among many others.

Hannah-Jones’ decision to accept a position that would enable her to found a Center for Journalism and Democracy at an institution that has always recognized the value of Black life is instructive. It’s also part of a wider and growing national awareness of the importance of Black history to shaping, for good and ill, larger narratives of American democracy and understanding of a shared national identity.

This embrace of Black history and understanding of its centrality of the present is in display elsewhere in “Summer of Soul,” a bravura film (out in theaters and streaming on Hulu now) about the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees to Mt. Morris Park and featured a panoramic mix of Black, Nuyorican and African musicians. This Questlove jawn captures the past and contemporary vitality of this history, reminding us that the enduring power of Black institutions always lies in Black people – the way they pray, walk, dance, sing, cook, organize and strategize in defense of themselves and toward an aspiring citizenship large enough to include all people.

I couldn’t help but think of the film’s treatment of history when contemplating the significance of Hannah-Jones’s decision this week. In bringing forth long-unseen recordings of a groundbreaking cultural event held at (and defined by) a pivotal moment in American history, Questlove’s treatment of the stunning musical footage and the poignant interviews with those in attendance leaves its viewers with a deep understanding that Black history is always alive in the present – a truth that Hannah-Jones has explored uniquely in her own work. And she isn’t alone in that. At Howard, Hannah-Jones will be joined by Ta-Nehisi Coates, the bestselling author and Howard alumnus who will also be taking up a faculty post. It should come as no surprise that both Hannah-Jones and Coates made their professional reputations through journalistic explorations of racial slavery and its afterlife. In its insistence on finding the organic connections between Black history and Black lives being lived today, their work repeatedly touched raw national nerve-endings related to race and democracy.

“The Case for Reparations,” Coates’$2 2014 essay in The Atlantic, became one of the most widely read and influential pieces in the magazine’s history. His expert distillation of the historic roots of contemporary economic inequality found in the theft of Black land, Jim Crow segregation and other forms of institutionalized racism made the political and moral case for slavery reparations and became a national sensation. Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project” – the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times multimedia project that examined slavery’s pivotal role in the creation of American capitalism and democracy – transformed the national conversation not just about slavery but about history itself, and the meaning of being American.

It also sparked a fierce backlash. Efforts to ban the teaching of the “1619 Project” evolved into a national movement to cancel the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” – a school of thought among legal scholars that identified the centrality of race in the shape and application of the law. Conservatives have rebranded it as a rhetorical catchall for any effort to teach Black history anywhere – and made Hannah-Jones the figurehead for their campaign. While public school curricula on race and the scholarship grounded in critical race theorists share common assertions and foundations – that institutional racism exists and cannot be fully addressed by any one individual, for example – they are not the same thing, nor is Hannah-Jones’s work implying that they are or should be. This is a backlash that defies any intellectual logic – it makes sense only when you consider the weight of our fraught racial history.

It is therefore fitting that both Hannah-Jones and Coates have chosen Howard, and it has chosen them. The enduring power of Black institutions resides in their ability to recognize and amplify Black excellence, offering shelter in a time of political backlash and structural violence that has historically enveloped Black communities.

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These talented journalists, carrying forward the pioneering work of Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells, are particularly well suited to continue a longstanding tradition of challenging limited conceptions of American citizenship, identity and democracy that at once profits from Black genius and denies its existence. Perhaps the newly endowed Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy at Howard University will inspire the University of North Carolina – and all other institutions of higher education under fire from conservatives for teaching Black History – to recommit themselves to the study and critical debate of uncomfortable truths. These truths – both the sacred and profane aspects of American history that threaten to divide the nation in our own time –offer the key to a new national consensus defined by who we include in our national narrative, rather than who is left out.

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