Tuesday, August 9, 2022

1619 Project author Nikole Hannah-Jones to speak at UNCW Tuesday

Nikole Hannah-Jones will talk with writer John Jeremiah Sullivan in Kenan Auditorium Tuesday evening as part of UNCW Writers’ Week. (Port City Daily/Courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

WILMINGTON — Following UNC-Chapel Hill’s high-profile pursuit of Nikole Hannah-Jones to join its faculty — which became drowned in political controversy this summer and ended with her accepting another offer out of state — the author of the 1619 Project will be in Wilmington as part of UNCW Writers’ Week. 

Hannah-Jones will join writer John Jeremiah Sullivan in conversation Tuesday evening. The talk will be held in Kenan Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. and will be live streamed via Zoom.

The timing falls alongside the November commemoration of the 1898 Wilmington Massacre and coup d’état. This month a series of events are planned across the county, including a ceremony to display soil samples “from locations where Black residents were slaughtered by a white mob,” and a graveside memorial service to honor one of the victims, whose gravesite was the first discovered by the Third Person Project, a local documentary research group. 

Sullivan, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine and other publications, is a co-founder of the Third Person Project, which has unearthed remnants of The Daily Record, an African American-owned newspaper destroyed in the coup. 

“She is a writer who brings Black history to bear on present day issues of social justice,” Sullivan said of Hannah-Jones. “This town is in the process of doing the same thing, and the two histories are not unconnected by a long shot — Wilmington’s and that of the nation at large.”

Hannah-Jones, whose leading essay for the 1619 Project won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, became a national figure after the piece was released in a special issue of The New York Times Magazine. The 1619 Project “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date,” according to the Pulitzer Center. According to a performance agreement provided by UNCW, she will be paid $16,670, minus 4% tax, for the appearance. 

The 1619 Project drew criticism from some historian, media and online circles, particularly for a claim that “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.” That line in the story was later edited to say, “some of the colonists …”

“What she has done that has pissed everybody off so much is take historical understanding and plug it into contemporary America, and suggest a new way of reading the past that will necessitate a new way of reading the present and the future,” Sullivan said. 

Earlier this year, UNC-Chapel Hill recruited alumna Hannah-Jones for a position as the journalism school’s Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Other Knight Chair positions at Chapel Hill, which place media professionals into professorships, have come with tenure, which requires approval of the university’s board of trustees.

Conservative pushback, including outcry tied to actors in the statewide higher education system, followed news of the pursuit. Chapel Hill’s board of trustees offered her a five-year contract, rather than the immediate tenure status granted to previous UNC Knight Chairs, despite support of Hannah-Jones from within the journalism school.

“It was a work-around,” one board member told NC Policy Watch in May. Walter Hussman — the newspaper publisher whose $25 million donation to UNC had his name inscribed onto the journalism school — reached out to university leaders to reportedly sway opinion of Hannah-Jones. 

Then, at the end of June, after the dispute and potential for legal action made international headlines, puting UNC and Hannah-Jones at the center of a chaotic media narrative, the board of trustees pivoted. They voted 9-4 to grant Hannah-Jones tenure following a nearly three-hour closed session meeting. 

Less than a week later, Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient, declined the offer from UNC — where she attended graduate school — and announced she would instead join the faculty of Howard University in a newly created Knight Chair position. 

“There has been some kick back,” Sullivan said. “There are some people inside the system that are not happy she’s coming.” 

There’s been no hesitancy on UNCW’s part, though, he added, and the efforts of author and associate professor Rebecca Lee were instrumental in organizing the forthcoming conversation. Hannah-Jones could not be reached for comment for this story.

“I want to ask her about the experience of being exposed to the kind of backlash she was exposed to, and how you keep functioning as a writer in the face of that, in the face of all that anger and hate,” Sullivan said. 

Admission is free and open to the public, but tickets must be registered in advance. Jia Tolentino, a staff writer at The New Yorker, will talk at Monday at Fisher Amphitheater between 5-6 p.m. And Thursday, Sandra Cisneros (“The House on Mango Street”) will participate in a panel discussion at 7:30 p.m., located in Kenan Auditorium. 

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