Nikole Hannah-Jones, a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and creator of the award winning “1619 Project,” as well as winner of a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, three National Magazine Awards, a Peabody Award, and two Polk Awards, was denied tenure at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill by the UNC Board of Trustees. She was recommended for tenure by the journalism school’s tenure committee and Dean, as well as the university’s Chancellor. Ignoring and canceling layers of faculty governance and university authority, the Board declined to vote on Professor Hannah-Jones’s tenure, with one Board member saying she did not come from a “traditional academic-type background.” Note: none of the Board members comes from a “traditional academic-type background” or even holds an advanced academic degree—a collection of lawyers, bankers, real estate millionaires, and one young, wealthy “life coach.”
The “1619 Project” is must reading: it challenges us to rethink the story of America, positing a start date of 1619 when the first kidnapped Africans arrived in chains; it invites us to foreground the role of race and slavery in the formation of the American economy; it upends the heroic and triumphant reading of history. And its publication ignited a predictable response: frantic denial, frenzied attacks, and mindless condemnation among right-wing ideologues, defenders of white supremacy, and reactionaries.
Of course, there’s space to disagree and debate, but the attacks are not encouraging thoughtful discussion, a deeper search for evidence, or a clarity of perspective. No. Twenty-three Republican Senators and nineteen state Attorneys General have signed letters denouncing the “1619 Project.” They want to cancel Nikole Hannah-Jones and bury free thought.
The target of the attacks is, of course, Nikole Hannah-Jones herself and the writing she’s done for years, including her ground-breaking research and reporting on the impact of race and racism on education. Everyone of conscience, regardless of political orientation, should rally in her defense, raising the banner of free speech and academic freedom.
But there’s something much more dangerous and insidious going on here. Imagine the high school teacher in Iowa City watching this spectacle, or the young journalist starting out in Tulsa, or the community college instructor in Florida—that’s the larger and truer audience for the assault. “If they can make this mess for Nikole Hannah-Jones given her list of accolades and accomplishments,” they must be thinking. “What chance do I have?”
That’s the larger motive of the twenty-three Republican Senators, the nineteen state Attorneys General, the noisy pundits and the panicky talking heads: shut everyone up.
We resist. We rise up.