Nikole Hannah-Jones stands on the shoulders of Black intellectuals who struggled for decades | Dr Natalie Hopkinson

HBCUs have always punched above their weight while carrying a disproportionate share of the burdens of racism in the US

In the first week the Black aspiring journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault integrated the all-white University of Georgia in 1961, there was a riot on campus. The white girls living in the dorm above her took turns stomping on the floor to torment the new arrival. Hunter-Gault played Black music to drown out the noise and the hatred. “I was listening to Nina Simone’s albums and just very at peace,” she recalls in the buzzy new documentary Summer of Soul, as the singer coos “a new world awaits you”.

Back then, this was the prize that awaited ambitious Black people who won legal battles for access to public universities. Flash forward 60 years, a similar prize was offered to the decorated journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina (UNC), when she was rejected for tenure after a white donor voiced concerns. Hannah-Jones, who rose to fame after conceiving of the New York Times’ 1619 project, then earned tenure after students and alumni took to the streets and her legal team took to the courts.

But Hannah-Jones flipped the script from the traditional civil rights playbook. She rejected the tenure job and announced last week that she and her fellow journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates were bringing their talents (and an astounding $20m in donations) to Howard University, the historically Black university where I’m an alumna and now teach.

I encourage everyone to read Hannah-Jones’ full statement on why she rejected the UNC job, a battle rap-worthy rebuke to the cowards, racists and their powerful enablers that have relentlessly trolled her since she dared to write honestly about the legacy of American slavery in the New York Times.

Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

The amount of money and the attention showered on Hannah-Jones and Coates makes them stand out among HBCU faculty. However, they stand on the shoulders of Black intellectuals who have been doing this dance for generations.

From their founding mostly around the time of the civil war, the more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities in the United States have been brimming with Black genius working in exile from racist American institutions from law and journalism to business and the arts. It remains a well-kept secret that Black colleges are the place to access some of America’s greatest minds – both on the faculty and in the student body. This pattern was set early, notably with WEB Du Bois, the dean of Black intellectuals, an NAACP co-founder who learned and taught at Fisk, Howard and Atlanta universities and became Harvard’s first Black doctoral graduate in 1895.

HBCUs don’t get their props. Those who deny us miss out on all the exuberant, unfiltered Black joy we know at Black colleges. HBCU intellectuals teach more than 228,000 of the nation’s most promising students. There is a family vibe. We are privileged in everything except financial resources. The rewards are tremendous.

But whether in newsrooms or on campuses, Black intellectuals face unique struggles in this country, as I learned from one of my favorite professors at Howard, Dr Clint Wilson II. In the 1990s when I attended Howard, Wilson was the faculty adviser of the student newspaper the Hilltop, named by Zora Neale Hurston in 1924. This is a distinguished, elegant man, a historian of the Black press who gently guided me, Coates, Natalie Y Moore, Russell Rickford, Reginold Royston and so many others in the same cohort.

Wilson’s father was a pioneering cartoonist in the Black press. He himself had a distinguished career at the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press and other elite organizations before getting his doctorate at the University of Southern California (USC), where he became the first Black member of the journalism faculty to earn tenure.

When it was clear his USC colleagues merely tolerated but did not respect his pioneering research on the Black press, he, too, was wooed to join Howard in 1986. He also shared his hard-won, empirical insights in his 1991 book, Black Journalists in Paradox. But the academy can be just as anti-Black, perhaps worse. In a 1993 review of Wilson’s book in the prestigious academic journal American Journalism, a white scholar reviewing the book declared it “badly flawed because of his anger”.

“The objects of his derision unquestionably deserve criticism,” the white reviewer wrote. “However, it is hoped that an academic, who depends heavily on the research of other scholars to bolster his points, would control his bias more than Wilson does here or at least mask it. Such obvious bias only undermines the validity and believability of his points.”

To this day, this is the kind of tone-policing that thrives in all elite institutions. Faced with slaps in the face, Black people are expected to sing Negro spirituals and cry it out in pillows while we await our rewards in heaven.

When I reached him at his home in Maryland, Wilson was elated at the news of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the return of his former advisee Ta-Nehisi Coates. He had wooed the Knight Foundation for years with a proposal for a similar hub for HBCU journalism in the 1990s, but the timing was not right. He is happy that the time has now come. Battles for inclusion should happen. I personally have spent my adult life toggling back and forth between Black and white institutions because I find opportunities, rewards and friends in both. It is a great privilege for me to walk in the footsteps of scholars such as Dr Wilson and pay it forward. HBCUs have always punched above their weight while carrying a disproportionate share of the burdens of racism in this country. We face crumbling buildings and inadequate funding for scholarships, equipment and research.

When I see the riches systematically denied us on the white side of the curtain, it makes me wanna holler. Part of our job as educators is to train Black students to know their worth when they leave our cocoon.

Inclusion will always matter. In 1969, Hunter-Gault was spending a lot of time in Harlem as a correspondent at the New York Times. In Summer of Soul, we see a young Hunter-Gault, afro halo crowning her head, interspersed with contemporary images of the journalist wearing gleaming silver locks.

When a Times editor tried to change her copy, Hunter-Gault wrote a 12-page memo. She successfully pushed for a policy change at the nation’s paper of record. As a result, Black people were referred to as “Black” instead of Negro. “I was listening to the community,” she recalled.

Hunter-Gault did a service to our race and to humanity in general. Outside of the gaze of national television cameras, Black intellectuals continue to make similar sacrifices every day. Some of us go through the white curtain. Some of us must move through the Black curtain. Some of us toggle back and forth.

What is important is that we all just keep moving.

  • Dr Natalie Hopkinson is author of A Mouth is Always Muzzled, and is an associate professor in the doctoral program in communication, culture and media studies at Howard University

Dr Natalie Hopkinson

The GuardianTramp

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