Every week on Fox News, we hear stories about “cancel culture.” Hosts like Tucker Carlson rant about supposed attacks on conservative values. Very recently, Fox News expressed outrage that the estate of Dr. Seuss elected to stop publishing four books that contain racist imagery and alarm over Hasbro’s decision to rebrand Mr. Potatohead simply as “Potatohead.” In both cases, for-profit companies decided it was in their interests to be more inclusive and to reduce archaic depictions of gender and race. Now, however, we have a real case of “cancel culture,” and it should not come as a shock that the person being cancelled is not a conservative.
Instead, Nikole Hannah-Jones has now become the target of conservative attacks. Hannah-Jones, who created the 1619 Project, an impressive historical project published by the New York Times that meticulously documents the profound influence that slavery has on America’s history. Hannah-Jones’s work on the project earned her a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2017, and in 2020, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for her work on this project. Thus, it seemed like an obvious choice when UNC-Chapel Hill’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media pursued Hannah-Jones for its Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Hannah-Jones brought instant allure to the already illustrious journalism program, and students at the school would benefit enormously from her expertise.
However, despite the fact that Hannah-Jones’ tenure application was approved at the department and university level–and even strongly supported by UNC Chapel Hill’s Chancellor–the UNC Chapel Hill Board of Trustees chose not to take action on her tenure case, essentially removing her tenure protections. Instead, the Hussman School was forced to provide her with a five-year fixed term contract as a Professor of Practice, at which point she would be eligible to apply for tenure again with no guarantees that tenure would be granted despite her impressive record of publications and acclaim. And the right-wing outrage machine, including Fox News, called the decision to deny tenure a “political victory,” which tells us everything we need to know about their perceptions of academia.
Many of the arguments in the 1619 Project are uncomfortable for people who want a sanitized notion of U.S. history. In fact, the 1619 Project, named for the date when Africans were first brought to American soil, reframes American history by placing “the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” Thus, instead of narratives that celebrate the Founding Fathers uncritically, we are forced to confront the idea that slavery’s legacy still shapes American life. Hannah-Jones’s arguments reflect a largely pessimistic view of American history, one that explicitly questions the idea that America’s basic need to understand our history as following a narrative of progress. Hannah-Jones’s arguments about American history are not without controversy. Many respected historians have questioned whether Hannah-Jones correctly interprets some of her primary sources. But her work is well-respected among historians and is an important part of our ongoing conversation about American identity. Unfortunately, Hannah-Jones’s ideas have also provoked a public backlash, and one of the motivations for refusing to grant her tenure was the fact that the UNC Board of Trustees and the Board of Governors were receiving letters complaining about her hire.
The 1619 Project, has of course, become a political football in our state legislature. The NC House recently passed House Bill 324 that was widely seen as an attempt to ban Critical Race Theory from being taught in public schools. However, the real impact is that North Carolina’s high school students will still not be taught the true impact of slavery and Jim Crow on our state. The 1619 Project can be an important supplement to that, and yet conservatives in our state government are pushing back on that. Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson even created a commission that calls for parents to report instances of “indoctrination” that has widely been seen as an attempt to target educators who teach the real impact of slavery and Jim Crow on blacks. Robinson even cited the 1619 Project as what he called “pseudo-science.” If HB 324 were passed, it would limit the ability of teachers to do their job and help students face some of the hard truths about our nation’s history.
The institution of tenure at colleges and universities was created precisely for cases like Hannah-Jones’s. During the 1950s, universities faced pressure to fire professors who were believed to be sympathetic to the Communist Party or who espoused other unpopular ideas. Now, half a century later, we are still fighting to protect controversial work. Silencing dissenting views, like the 1619 Project, will have a “chilling effect” on scholars, especially women and scholars of color who might raise questions about the impact of systemic racism or gender discrimination on our society. Instead of focusing on frivolous examples of “cancel culture,” we should instead be standing up for academic freedom and for the often difficult work of confronting and coming to terms with our nation’s “original sin.”
RALEIGH-APEX BRANCH NAACP
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