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Nikole Hannah-Jones Refused, and We Can Too.

Nikole Hannah-Jones teaches us what it means to be free.

A month ago, when I saw Nikole Hannah-Jones had been selected for a tenured position at the University of North Carolina (UNC) as the Knight Chair of Race and Investigative Journalism, I was so proud.

I am a Black woman. I am a Black Mama. I am a cis-gender Black woman-identified, embodied coach, an emergent Somatic Abolitionist facilitator, culture worker and consultant. My practice is focused on the healing and transformation of people, relationships, and institutions by centering the wholeness of Black bodies and all bodies targeted for marginalization.

I love Black women. I study Black women. I am always proud of Black women. So, when I began reading the articles about her being denied tenure, I was confused. I was like, “wait? The Nikole Hannah-Jones who I have followed as a brilliant journalist and SHERO I have fan-girled for years?” The Nikole Hannah-Jones who writes poems for Black girls the world wants to destroy? The Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist with impeccable historic accuracy and winner of both a Macarthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” and a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism, has to go through an extensive vetting process to receive tenure at UNC???

I was befuddled that it seems so many unaccomplished, mediocre white men are granted tenure at the mere publishing of their first book, and yet this Black woman is going through a process??? This hit me hard as a Black woman who has actually been asked to apply and interview for a job and body of work I have created. With that reflection I remembered… “oh, yes, this is how white supremacy works when embodied by an institution? Duh…”

It is so easy to forget how this shit works. It works so well, this culture of extraction, that forces Black bodies to over-perform, over-function and jump through more hoops and over more hurdles to get half as much as white bodies. The temporary memory loss survival skill is a byproduct of being deeply attuned to how the culture of white body supremacy works. When we are deeply embedded in a culture, the pain blends into the background and becomes static or white noise.

We often have to forget in order to live. So, let us hold this skill with grace.

Our ancestors learned this “forgetting” for trauma survival, and it was passed down in the expression of our DNA to keep us alive. So, when I come into my body and REMEMBER the truth by connecting with my ancestors, I can recall the resource and knowledge that my body has always known. My body knows what Nikole Hannah-Jones was experiencing.

When Nikole Hannah-Jones released a statement that she would decline the position finally offered to her at UNC, and that she was going to be the Knight Chair at Howard University, my Black woman self, an alum of Hampton University — a fellow and friendly rival school to Howard University, for the white people in the audience, I jumped for joy!

Nikole Hannah-Jones knew the culture of misogynoir, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy at UNC would try to destroy her Black woman body and any creativity and freedom she dared to display.

I was so proud that she would choose Howard, a historically and culturally Black institution, to be the incubator for future freedom writing journalists to learn with her in community. There would be more and more Ida B. Wells-Barnett-like elders coming into the field. More truth would be told. More freedom would be sung.

The 1619 Project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and produced by The New York Times was true American History. This true history makes white people face the truth of terror. There is a movement against truth, facts, justice, and history that is galvanizing white resources from all directions.

Resmaa Menakem, author of My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, therapist, Somatic Abolitionist, says “Critical Race Theory is history that doesn’t center white people.” Those are the stories that Nikole Hannah-Jones tells. The truth that doesn’t center white people. What does that do? It makes white people uncomfortable. It makes them mad that they have to be uncomfortable. They actually decry public shaming as if the shame is not something they created and passed down for generations?

What makes white people even the most uncomfortable? Black people standing in their dignity and reclaiming the birthright of their full humanness and wholeness. When white people are uncomfortable, Black people get hurt or killed.

Nikole Hannah-Jones said “Nah, I’m Good.” to the board of trustees at UNC.

The board and administration had been influenced, not just by one solo-acting white supremacist villain who is “politically conservative” (e.g., short hand for white supremacist in a suit or khakis), but by a culture of white supremacy. A culture beholden to the maintenance of the lies that keep white bodies comfortable. A culture built on ahistorical fairy tales. Nikole Hannah-Jones’ presence, let alone guaranteed employment that is tenure, would be a direct affront to the stories of this culture. So, she was to be destroyed. The culture said so.

When Black bodies stand in their power, the culture of white body supremacy is threatened. White bodies believe their dominance, control, and position in the hierarchy (they deny even exists) is threatened. So they retaliate as individuals or a collective. The structures and institutions detect a “virus” in the system and antibodies are sent to attack.

Even though many people lobbied for her to be hired with tenure and it became a public debate and spectacle, the victory of winning tenure could not and would not shift The Culture. The immunity of white body supremacy is deeply intact. Nikole Hannah-Jones knows this because Nikole Hannah-Jones knows shit.

She and her community, and her ancestors know shit. Nikole Hannah-Jones knows how the structures of death, genocide and enslavement have re-incarnated themselves into school segregation, inequitable public school funding, housing injustice that leads to gentrification, and the system of punishment and incarceration and policing born from enslavement, land theft, settler colonialism and genocide that specifically harms the future of Black bodies.

Nikole Hannah-Jones knows the patterns of Jim Crow terror and lynching that show up in corporations and institutions today. These patterns require Black bodies to be small, to defer, to suffer through extraction and unnecessary labor in order to survive brutality with a smile. Nikole Hannah-Jones knows that!

In her gorgeous statement of unbought and bossed up baddassery, Nikole Hannah-Jones outlined the patterns of the culture of colonization and extraction that is white supremacy.

1. Excessive, Inequitable and Unpaid Labor

“As part of the months-long tenure process, I had to write a teaching statement, a creative statement and a service statement. I had to teach a class while being observed by faculty. Dean King solicited letters to assess my portfolio of work and professional accomplishments from several academic experts in the field of journalism whom I did not personally know. I presented to the journalism faculty. Following these steps, my tenure was put to vote by all the full professors of the journalism school, who were overwhelmingly in support.“

Again, Nikole Hannah-Jones is the winner of the Macarthur Fellowship “Genius Grant,” The Pulitzer Prize, writes for The New York Times, and created the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting. She has done SOOOO much more. She is wildly accomplished in so many ways that credentials seem silly. Yet, they are important because it proves that the world benefits from the brilliance of a Black woman named Nikole Hannah-Jones. The fact that she has to commit to unnecessary and UNPAID labor to prove herself worthy of shit she already does is the quintessential story of institutionalized white supremacy.

2. Made to experience the pain of retaliation in public.

Nikole Hannah-Jones was hurting and healing in public for the culture and to protect the institution. There is and was nothing wrong with her. She was in her power and fighting for her dignity. In her statement she said,

“I did not want to face the humiliation of letting everyone know that I would be the first Knight Chair at the university to be denied tenure. I did not want to wage a fight with my alma mater or bring to the school and to my future colleagues the political firestorm that has dogged me since The 1619 Project published. So, crushed, I signed the five-year contract in February, and I did not say a word about it publicly.

It pained me as a Black woman who has been over-qualified, over-credentialed, over-educated, and experienced to say I know the feeling of believing my worthiness has been measured by accolades I receive. I know the soul cost and health costs of the years of unpaid labor (not merit) output multiplied by the generations of unpaid labor my ancestors put out to survive in a culture of extraction and inhumanity. This is not my story alone.

And then she said this,

I cannot imagine working at and advancing a school named for a man who lobbied against me, who used his wealth to influence the hires and ideology of the journalism school, who ignored my 20 years of journalism experience, all of my credentials, all of my work, because he believed that a project that centered Black Americans equaled the denigration of white Americans. Nor can I work at an institution whose leadership permitted this conduct and has done nothing to disavow it.

“How could I believe I’d be able to exert academic freedom with the school’s largest donor so willing to disparage me publicly and attempt to pull the strings behind the scenes? Why would I want to teach at a university whose top leadership chose to remain silent, to refuse transparency, to fail to publicly advocate that I be treated like every other Knight Chair before me? Or for a university overseen by a board that would so callously put politics over what is best for the university that we all love? These times demand courage, and those who have held the most power in this situation have exhibited the least of it.

I jumped for joy!!! FREEDOM!!!

The Nikole Hannah-Jones declared sovereignty over her body, her brilliance, and her offerings to the world. She had the audacity to be whole when she said she would not strive, struggle and prove her way to a slow death. She chose life! She chose her dignity! She chose freedom! Ancestor Ida B. Wells-Barnett knew some shit when she sent us Nikole Hannah-Jones.

And here is the lesson.

The lesson that I pray all Black bodies and any body targeted for domination and marginalization holds within their being with ease and grace.

Nikole Hannah-Jones was Unbought and Unbossed when she said, I refuse.

Many people, all with the best of intentions, have said that if I walk away from UNC, I will have let those who opposed me win. But I do not want to win someone else’s game. It is not my job to heal this university, to force the reforms necessary to ensure the Board of Trustees reflects the actual population of the school and the state, or to ensure that the university leadership lives up to the promises it made to reckon with its legacy of racism and injustice.

“For too long, powerful people have expected the people they have mistreated and marginalized to sacrifice themselves to make things whole. The burden of working for racial justice is laid on the very people bearing the brunt of the injustice, and not the powerful people who maintain it. I say to you: I refuse.

This is the lesson. We are not stuck between binary alternatives of slightly free and the false promises of a piece of freedom.

We have choices. This is freedom in real life.

Thank you, Sister Shero Nikole Hannah-Jones!

It is with your modeling that I will continue to say, “I refuse.”

  1. I refuse to engage in DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) work.

I practice somatic abolitionism in service of liberation from structural and embodied white supremacy.

“DEI” work is a good start. DEI in white institutions is incomplete, even if they are lead by Black, Indigenous, or People of Culture (Resmaa Menakem in somatic abolitionism names that the language of People of Color is meant to uphold the racial hierarchy of white body supremacy.) I choose to use this embodied anti-racist language when describing Bodies of Culture, white bodies as a practice of somatic abolitionism and to clarify that this hierarchy is embodied, intergenerational, structural and cultural. DEI is not an adequate response to the structural and cultural terror of white body supremacy.

DEI is soft attempt at talking around the surface of identity difference and never addressing the culture of extraction and the creation of whiteness that upholds harm, terror, and control of Black bodies. So, I don’t do that.

2. I refuse to do unpaid labor especially as it pertains to fixing the structures and waste products of white supremacy.

DEI is a cognitive endeavor often resulting in the protection of the comfort of white bodies and continues to uproot the safety of Black, Indigenous, and Bodies of Culture. The project of DEI is designed to frustrate the system just enough for it to respond with retaliation and silence and has no intention for liberation. It leaves Black bodies and all bodies targeted for marginalization exhausted and depleted.

3. I refuse to respond to multiple pre-proposal meetings, calls, and Requests for Proposals (RFPs)

There is no process the current institutions built on structural domination and racial hierarchy that values the white body overall — can design that will lead to transformation of that system. Most institutions also lack the courage, fortitude, and curiosity to engage in the deeply embodied trauma work that will lead to the creation of a new culture. I noted earlier, the system knows how to reject, retaliate, and revolt against any body, idea, or narrative that challenges its very creation and maintenance. So, an RFP is another way to control the process, and extract unpaid labor often from the bodies most targeted for marginalization. See here for more information about the futility of RFP’s for any work called equity, DEI, racial justice, etc.

4. I refuse to suffer the pain and trauma of maintaining the comfort of white bodies and institutions.

I am moving towards a culture of life and creation. Therefore, I will refuse any request, demand, or nudge to engage in extractive relationships with institutions or individuals that try to break my body and spirit and ask me to say thank you.

Don’t be confused. There will be tests. In my refusal, I will be called difficult, angry, unprofessional, and people will warn me that my business will fail.

Remember the false promises of colonization and settler colonialism. I’ve been confused over and over and maybe will be again if I am not grounded in my truth and connected to my body. I might believe that there is a way to tinker around the edges of racial dominance and anti-Blackness. I might even call it political conservatism, but I have two degrees in political science and government, and a lifetime in my Black body, so, I know that isn’t true.

If we are going to work together to explore the possibility of transformation of the structures, culture, and institutionalized extraction, trauma, and domination, then we must be in a relationship of mutual understanding and commitment to embodied healing and liberation.

I am committed to the healing, liberation and creation of Black bodies and all bodies that are targeted for marginalization starting with my own. If you want to join me, I welcome you.

If you are in a Black body, I invite you to join me in beloved community in living in a world where Blackness, our bodies, and the truth are exalted.

And to Sister Teacher Shero, Nikole Hannah-Jones, I say, “thank you!”

I will keep saying her name and giving her the well-deserved flowers she earned when she was born and say, “we are right here with you!”

Erin Trent Johnson is the Founder and Principal Coach of Community Equity Partners. Erin coaches for love, healing, liberation, and leadership.