The year of saying no


For journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, choosing to be treated with respect led to something greater.

By Malaika Jabali | Photography by itaysha Jordan

Saying “no” can be an act of self-preservation. For Pulitzer Prize–winner Nikole Hannah-Jones, it may also be an act of service.

The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill had pursued Hannah-Jones for a tenured position, but when she accepted, the school unexpectedly withdrew the tenure portion of the offer. After a month of faculty protests and resignations, UNC-Chapel Hill eventually caved and approved the tenure. But Hannah-Jones was playing chess, not checkers. In a surprise move, she declined the position and announced she would join the faculty of Howard University instead. “It was important for me to say no to UNC, for my dignity, my self-respect,” she explains. “And then, outside of me, I needed to do it for Black people and marginalized people, for their dignity and respect, too.”

It was important for me to say no to UNC, for my dignity, my self-respect.”


The process of granting university tenure does not ordinarily capture national headlines. But Hannah-Jones’s work is anything but ordinary. The 1619 Project she conceived as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine is a collection of essays and art that recenters Black American enslavement and labor in the country’s founding history. The groundbreaking work has since been published as a book, The 1619 Project: An Origin Story, with new contributions on the Haitian Revolution and settler colonialism.

Predictably, Hannah-Jones’s work has taken on an outsized meaning for prominent right-wingers. Former President Donald Trump challenged her 1619 Project with a “1776 Commission.” UNC donor Walter Hussman, Jr., after whom UNC’s journalism school was named following his $25 million pledge, reportedly questioned Hannah-Jones’s credentials, possibly influencing the revocation of her tenure offer. “When reporting came out that a very wealthy white male donor was disparaging me as a journalist,” Hannah-Jones later says, referring to Hussman, “I knew that I could not ever work for a school named after him.”

Across the country, a chorus of voices were raised in solidarity with Hannah-Jones. “A lot of people were watching, people who you wouldn’t think would have any investment at all in whether some New York Times reporter gets tenure at a university,” notes Hannah-Jones. “One TSA agent told me, ‘I hope North Carolina does right by you.’”

In the end, her antagonists cleared the journalist’s path to mentoring and developing more reporters of color. Hannah-Jones is creating Howard University’s Center for Journalism and Democracy, which will also provide resources to HBCU students beyond Howard. Mirroring Hussman’s UNC donation, she has raised $25 million to fund the center. Here’s to a $25 million check, mate.


Deputy Editor, Cori Murray

Creative Director, Nia Lawrence

Senior Editor, Brande Victorian

Senior Photo Editor & Producer, Michele Brea

Style & Beauty Editor, Blake Newby

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Clothing Credits for Hannah-Jones (In Order Of Appearance):

Gucci 2015 Re-Edition Floral Print Dress, Price Upon Request,

Marc Jacobs Black Ribbed Turtleneck, $895,

Issey Miyake Pleats Please Dark Navy Wafers Skirt, $535, Issey Miyake Stores

Aliétte Custom Gold Gown, Price Upon Request,

For full Where to Buy shoppping info, pick up the November/December 2021 issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now.

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