Passion and persistence drive Nikole Hannah-Jones, a newly minted MacArthur genius

As a black journalist who writes about race and school segregation, Nikole Hannah-Jones has faced pushback from editors who wanted her to focus on other topics. At one point, she was discouraged enough that she tried to leave the field.

Now a reporter for New York Times Magazine, Hannah-Jones’ work has won a National Magazine Award, Peabody Award and George Polk Award. She also founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting in 2016 to train reporters of color in investigative journalism.

On Wednesday, the MacArthur Foundation named Hannah-Jones in its 2017 class of fellows. The foundation awards $625,000 grants to recipients who showcase outstanding creative achievements in order to pursue future work. 

Hannah-Jones’s writing includes a piece about her daughter’s school’s zoning fight, the resegregation of an Alabama school district, and a radio story about a school district in Missouri grappling with desegregation.

Poynter spoke with Hannah-Jones in a phone interview to find out what this honor means for her and her work.

Related: Other journalists who have been named MacArthur Fellows

Most obvious question first: What do you plan to do with the grant?
I have the most boring answer to this question. I actually have no idea. I honestly have not given it a lot of thought. They haven’t given me the money yet, and I try not to spend money I haven’t received. 

The selections process for the Fellows program is so secretive, you didn’t even know you were being considered until they called to tell you you’d been selected. What does this distinction mean for you?
It’s an amazing honor and completely unexpected. I think that what I am most grateful and hopeful for is that it will continue to raise attention to the issue of school segregation. And hopefully the more we can force Americans to confront this scourge (the more) we can force communities to deal with it.
 
Many people list you along with previous MacArthur fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates among preeminent contemporary black writers. How do you react to that? 
I don’t know what that means. Ta-Nehisi is my dear, dear friend and I think he is one of the greatest writers in our country, period. I’m honored to be considered in a category with him, but I know both he and I do this work because it’s our mission. I think it’s much more important to me that the work is recognized. Particularly for the work that I’m doing, I just want us to stop ignoring what we’re doing to kids.

What’s really critical and what I’m really aware of is how important it is for people to see people like myself and Ta-Nehisi in these positions. It’s not easy to do what we do. I spend a lot of my time mentoring young black journalists, and I formed the Ida B. Wells Society to make room and space for them. It’s a validation of how important it is to have diverse news organizations and to allow reporters coming from diverse backgrounds to write what they’re passionate about. In that way, being considered — I don’t want to use the language preeminent black writers — but we help make space for other black and brown writers.

Right now you’re on book leave. Tell us about the book you’re working on. 
I’m working on a book on school segregation, which probably isn’t surprising. It’s a book that is tracing the struggle for an equal education all the way back to the founding of common schools in this country. It’s basically through deep historical research, going to show that our schools aren’t broken but operating as designed. There’s never been a point in our country that we believed that black children were deserving of equal education to white children, and we’ve never produced it. The narrative centers around Detroit, and the 1974 Supreme Court decision on desegregation in the North. You can look across the landscape of the North and see what that has brought. That’s basically what my book is about.

Who else do you read?
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexis [Okeowo] at the New Yorker TNC, Jelani [Cobb] at the New Yorker, Rachel GhansahAdam Serwer, Vann Newkirk, Gene Demby. I think there’s a lot of amazing writing, Sarah Stillman. I love David Remnick. Maggie Haberman, she’s like my shero.

Have you ever had to make a case for why the kind of reporting you do is important?
I’ve told this story several times by now but before I moved to New York City, I worked for a newspaper that didn’t want me writing stories about racial inequality or writing stories about black folks. I was told that directly. There was a period of time where I was so discouraged because I couldn’t write the stories that were important, that I considered leaving the profession. Thank God I didn’t.

And I think part of the reason is I honestly couldn’t figure out what the hell else I could do. Even though I was very unhappy and felt discouraged, I couldn’t pull the plug. And then I got the call to go to ProPublica. My story’s a common story, I’m sure this happens to others, where people tell black writers, “Don’t write race stories, it’ll pigeonhole you, it shows your bias.” I feel that if you’re a black journalist you shouldn’t have to write race stories if you don’t want to, but there’s no story in this country that race is not a part of.

I’ll take a second to gloat. It clearly feels amazing to get this type of recognition, to do this type of work that I was told I shouldn’t do.

I also think that Ta-Nehisi got [the MacArthur Grant] a couple years ago, Sarah Stillman got it, for writing about inequality and injustice, and what I hope that shows is that this type of writing can be of the highest caliber and can be the most important reporting and writing that we can do. It’s not always recognized as such, but this clearly shows that it is.

What is it like being a reporter covering race and segregation under this administration and political and social climate?
My work fundamentally is unchanged. There’s clearly a lot of concern about this Department of Education, concern about the Supreme Court and whether it’ll further whittle down civil rights protections. The things I write about are generational. I’ve been writing about school segregation for the last five years under the Obama administration, and never lacked for stories to tell. I don’t think that anything has changed. But the stories that I write about are deeply entrenched social issues that don’t really change much from admin to admin, so to me, my work so far is pretty much unchanged.

ASNE recently released diversity numbers, and they showed gender and racial diversity in the news industry has increased marginally. What advice do you have for journalists of color who are frustrated with the industry and want to leave?
It’s hard because my heart tells me to tell them stick it out. We need those voices, we need that reporting and insight. Our country’s becoming more diverse and our newsrooms need to reflect that. But my head tells me, “I can’t say look at me, I made it.”

People in management are choosing to keep them that way. My message is for newsroom management, not journalists of color, to ask them to really do some examination about if their stated goals are really their goals. It’s the same thing I say about school segregation. If newsroom managers wanted diverse newsrooms, they’d have diverse newsrooms.

Anything else?
If I think about anything that motivates me, it’s all those other black kids who could be me if we gave them a chance. It’s an amazing thing that a girl from Waterloo, Iowa, is sitting here talking about the MacArthur genius grant.

Watch her video for the MacArthur Foundation:

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