Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose tenure fight shined a national spotlight on race, politics and academics at UNC-Chapel Hill this summer, has been named to Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of 2021.
The magazine described her as “a journalist who catalyzes the debate over how a nation teaches its history.”
Hannah-Jones was a catalyst in the tenure controversy at UNC-CH, where she originally was set to teach journalism this fall as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. But after a stalled tenure vote, the threat of a discrimination lawsuit and a public battle over her hire and her work on The 1619 Project, she turned down UNC-CH’s offer and instead joined Howard University, a historically Black institution in Washington, DC.
Hannah-Jones won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for her work on The 1619 Project, which reframes the legacy of slavery and Black Americans in the United States. The piece is also at the center of the local, state and national debate over Critical Race Theory and how the country’s history is taught in schools.
After her decision to spurn North Carolina, Hannah-Jones said Black Americans deserve to be in any institution, including UNC-CH, but she didn’t want to fight this battle in this arena.
‘Where we can do the most good’
“It is critical to not seek validation in predominantly white spaces and that we also have to build our own institutions and support our own institutions and think about where we can do the most good for the work that we’re trying to do,” Hannah-Jones said in an earlier interview with The News & Observer.
Hannah-Jones is listed as a “Titan” on Time’s list and her nomination is written by producer and Oscar-winning writer and director Barry Jenkins.
She’s accompanied by other notable Black women on the list, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles and television producer and writer Shonda Rhimes.
Jenkins said that while The 1619 Project is “the sum effect of Nikole’s greatest work … it is certainly not the sum of her.”
“She is the most emphatic laugh, the consummate ally, the staunchest critic,” Jenkins wrote.
He mentioned Hannah-Jones’s Twitter persona, Ida Bae Wells, a nod to the trailblazing Black journalist Ida B. Wells.
”In 1892, Ms. Wells spoke across millennia of Ms. Hannah-Jones when she said, ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”’
‘The unshakable spirit of Blackness’
Jenkins said the light Hannah-Jones wields is “titanic, a blinding beam that illuminates and scorches.”
“In her light, the wounds of America’s original and subsequent sins are laid bare,” Jenkins wrote. “With her light, the serrated flesh of this country’s past is both subject and predicate, a light wielded to both identify wounds and cauterize flesh.”
Jenkins likened Hannah-Jones to novelist James Baldwin and singer-songwriter Nina Simone.
He wrote that Baldwin and Simone “made plain a truth Nikole has lived — in shining her powerful and painful light in the preservation of Blackness, this wonderful woman is proof and testament to the unshakable spirit of Blackness.”
Hannah-Jones received a master’s degree from UNC-CH’s journalism school.
The full list of Time Magazine’s list of The 100 Most Influential People of 2021 can be viewed online.