In the first week, aspiring black journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault entered 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 noise and hatred. “I was listening to Nina Simone’s albums and just very peaceful,” she recalls in the new buzzy documentary Summer of the soul, as the singer coos “a new world awaits you”.

At the time, that was the prize awaiting ambitious blacks who won legal battles to gain access to public universities. Flash Forward 60, a similar award was presented to decorated reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina (UNC), when she was rejected for incumbency after a white donor expressed his concerns. Hannah-Jones, who rose to fame after designing The New York Times’ 1619 Project, was later established after students and alumni took to the streets and her legal team took legal action to court.

But Hannah-Jones reversed the script of the traditional civil rights handbook. She rejected the permanent post and ad last week that she and her fellow journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates brought their talents (and an incredible $ 20 million in donations) to Howard University, the historically black university where I am an alumnus and where I teach. now.

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

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Photograph: John Minchillo / AP

The amount of money and attention paid to Hannah-Jones and Coates sets them apart among HBCU professors. However, they rest on the shoulders of black intellectuals who have practiced this dance for generations.

Since their founding, mainly during the Civil War era, the more than 100 historically black colleges and universities in the United States have been teeming with black genius working in exile in racist American institutions, from law and journalism to business and the arts. . It remains a well-kept secret that black colleges are the gateway to some of America’s greatest minds – both in the faculty and in the student body. This model was established very early on, most notably with WEB Du Bois, the dean of black intellectuals, co-founder of the NAACP who learned and taught at Fisk, Howard, and Atlanta universities and became Harvard’s first black doctoral student in 1895. .

HBCUs do not have their accessories. Those who deny us miss all the exuberant, unfiltered Black joy we know in black colleges. HBCU intellectuals teach more than 228,000 of the country’s most promising students. There is a family atmosphere. We are privileged in everything except financial resources. The rewards are huge.

But whether in newsrooms or on campuses, black intellectuals face unique struggles in this country, as I learned from one of my favorite professors in Howard, Dr. Clint Wilson II. In the 1990s, when I was studying at Howard, Wilson was an academic advisor for the student newspaper The Hilltop, appointed by Zora Neale Hurston in 1924. He is a distinguished and elegant man, a black press historian who gently guided me, Coates, Nathalie and Moore, Russell rickford, Reginold royston and so many others in the same cohort.

Wilson’s father was a pioneer designer in the black press. He himself had distinguished careers at the Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, and other elite organizations before earning his doctorate at the University of Southern California (USC), where he became the first black member of the journalism faculty to be established.

When it was clear that his colleagues at USC simply tolerated but did not respect his black press research, he too was courted to join Howard in 1986. He also shared his hard-earned empirical ideas in his 1991 book, Black journalists in the paradox. But the academy can be just as anti-black, maybe worse. In a 1993 review of Wilson’s book in the prestigious academic journal American Journalism, a white scholar examining the book declared him “very imperfect because of his anger”.

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

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 supposed to sing Negro Spirituals and shout them into pillows while we wait for our rewards in Heaven.

When I joined him at his home in Maryland, Wilson was delighted with the news of Nikole Hannah-Jones and the return of his former advisor Ta-Nehisi Coates. He had wooed the Knight Foundation for years with a proposal for a similar center for HBCU journalism in the 1990s, but the time was not right. He is happy that the time has now come. Battles for inclusion should take place. Personally, I have spent my adult life switching between black and white institutions because I find opportunities, rewards and friends in both. It is a great privilege for me to follow in the footsteps of academics such as Dr Wilson and to give it forward. The HBCUs have always exceeded their weight while carrying a disproportionate share of the burden of racism in this country. We are faced with crumbling buildings and insufficient funding for scholarships, equipment and research.

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

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

When a Times editor tried to edit his copy, Hunter-Gault wrote a 12-page memo. She successfully lobbied for a policy change in the national newspaper. As a result, blacks were called “blacks” instead of blacks. “I listened to the community,” she recalls.

Hunter-Gault has been of service to our race and to humanity in general. Outside the gaze of national television cameras, black intellectuals continue to make similar sacrifices every day. Some of us are passing the white curtain. Some of us have to walk through the black curtain. Some of us rock back and forth.

What is important is that we all keep moving forward.

  • Dr Natalie Hopkinson is the 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.

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