Point of View Columns

Majesty and Travesty and Nikole Hannah-Jones

Earlier this week, in its infinite (and non-existent) wisdom, the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina denied Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure at that institution. It should be noted that as a member of the faculty she had been appointed to a chair funded by the Knight Foundation and that tenure appointment has been routine for past faculty members in this position.

It should also be noted that the Board of Governors at the University of North Carolina are appointed by the North Carolina legislature, not known to be a bastion of free thinking (or even intelligence on occasion). And it is quite clear that Ms. Hannah-Jones groundbreaking “1619 Project” which began an historic reconsideration of American history and Black people is the unforgivable sin that has resulted in her application for tenure being denied.

There are many ways to look at this travesty. On the merits, Ms. Hannah-Jones is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship to go along with her Pulitzer Prize and a literal boatload of other prestigious awards. It is inconceivable that any college or university with aspirations of academic excellence would treat her in such an incomprehensible and disrespectful manner.

But, of course, there is the back story. The white members of the North Carolina legislature are part of an underground band of cultural guerillas determined to maintain white supremacy and American mythology at all costs. Keep in mind that Ms. Hannah-Jones has been accused or “rewriting history” when it comes to the narrative of Black people in America.

And of course, the answer is damned right.

American history as it has been taught for over four histories has been built on a foundation of lies, myths and white supremacist delusions. American history has been an exercise in whitewashing the crimes, the genocide, the slavery and the literal theft of a continent from people who were living here. American history has somehow justified the enslavement of millions of Black human beings and then gone on to minimize the pain, misery and eternal jeopardy of being Black in America.

Damned right that American history has needed to be rewritten. The sins, crimes and wrongs that are a literal part of the foundation of this nation need to be acknowledged before true justice, equality and equity can be possible in this country. And the fact that teaching and learning the true American story can be seen as a problem demonstrates what exactly is the problem.

The problem is that too many white Americans take comfort in myths, revel in the lies and wallow in the mud of deception as long as it reinforces the crumbling concepts of white supremacy, and by extension, Black inferiority. The problem is that the so-called 1.6.21 insurrectionists were not in Washington to simply overturn an election, they wanted to stop the constant and now inevitable erosion of the myth of American exceptionalism and white supremacy.

That problem is the reason why 47 states are trying to subvert the Constitution (into which slavery was embedded, by the way) in order to limit or deny the right the vote so that a white supremacist alternate reality can last a little bit longer. And, of course, Nikole Hannah-Jones represents the voices that must be silenced so that the fantasy – which is a nightmare for everyone who is not white – can continue for as long as possible.

There is nothing that the University of North Carolina can do to ever diminish the majesty of Nikole Hannah-Jones and her life’s work. The travesty belongs to the University of North Carolina and its racist enablers.

And, in the end, the truth about America will prevail and it is then, and only then, that this country will be a better country.

Point of View Columns

Regarding the University of Missouri – What Change Really Looks Like

In the aftermath of the controversy and student dissent at the University of Missouri, there has been new found attention focused on protests by black students at college campuses around the country. From Missouri to Yale to Ithaca to Brown to Dartmouth to Harvard to Princeton and beyond, there spirit of righteous opposition has renewed with “change” as its goal. The question is – what does change look like in the 21st century?

Less than one hundred years ago, every one of the named schools had only a handful of lonely black pioneers in the role of students. The idea that there might be tens of thousands of qualified black men and women was so foreign to the considered view of most white Americans, that arguing in favor of black admissions was akin to arguing against the law of gravity or any other conventional wisdom of the era.

Over the next half century, the major battle was in the area of admissions. And that was certainly a battle, replete with the United States Army, the National Guard, FBI agents and an elected American governor of a state standing in the doorway of an American university in defiance of a federal order requiring immediate integration of that institution.

The sixties saw the first major influx of black Americans into the so-called mainstream higher education institutions. And as the demography of American campuses changed, so did the politics – the Black Power Movement, the Anti-War Movement and the Feminist Movement started as currents in intellectual inlets and became tidal waves of change from coast to coast.

Insofar as black students were concerned, the institutional change that was sought was straightforward and a game changer – more black students, more black faculty (many times the first), more black administrators (many times the first) and curriculum changes that addressed the needs, concerns and interests of black students – including African American studies and urban studies.

That these changes took place is obvious through even a cursory view of American academia today. What today’s black students must and should know is that these changes took place in the face of steadfast resistance from white administrators, faculty and students. This resistance was marked by institutional intransigence as well as violence that was enacted by law enforcement and white students as actors. What should never be forgotten is that these changes, which created a new normal on American campuses, occurred only through the recognition of the need for institutional change, and was not merely incidental and reactive change.

That is a very important lesson for today, because some of the protest and turmoil that is seen today is incidental and reactive. The shouted epithet, the anonymously placed noose, blackface parodies at fraternity and sorority houses – these are all offensive and reflective of the racist virus that still courses through the American bloodstream. These practices and actions should be protested but the prize has to be institutional change – otherwise these bigoted practices and Klan-inspired actions will continue in perpetuity.

That is why it is encouraging to see black and white students and academicians begin to examine the historical and financial origins of higher education in America. These examinations are supported and eloquently and usefully presented by MIT Professor Craig Steven Wilder in “Ebony and Ivy” which explicitly details how slavery helped American institutions of higher learning grow and prosper.

It is why inquiries at Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Maryland, the University of North Carolina, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, the University of Alabama, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown and countless other institutions must result in their leadership re-examining their origins and coming to a fair and humane conclusion that at the minimum must include acknowledgement and confession to being complicit in the barbarous, bloodsoaked and tearstained aspects of American history.

If today’s students want to know what change looks like today, they need to look to the origins of these colleges and universities and seek a collective commitment to making a difference. Change will not be a simple name change or annual apology. Change will look like a new and different commitment to empowering a different, inclusive and progressive society.

Anything less will be unworthy of the memory of those whose pain and suffering served as the brick and mortar of American academia.