Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times journalist who conceived The 1619 Project, said Tuesday that she was recently disinvited from speaking at Middlesex School, a private boarding school in Concord, during Black History Month.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Hannah-Jones said someone from Middlesex had reached out through a friend in April asking if she would be willing to speak at the school in February 2022. Hannah-Jones said her assistant on Monday forwarded her an e-mail from a person at Middlesex saying she had been asked not to come.
“According to my head of school and board, the ‘noise’ associated with having Nikole as the speaker would take away from the overall experience,” the e-mail read, according to a snippet Hannah-Jones posted to Twitter on Monday. “I then suggested that Nikole be a featured speaker for our BIPOC alumni and was told ‘this is not the right thing for our community.’”
Paraphrasing the e-mail in a call with a Globe reporter, Hannah-Jones said the person who wrote the e-mail, whom she did not identify, stated they had put off sending it because they were trying to “help the school and the board make a different decision.” But “the head of the school and the board for the school” were not comfortable having Hannah-Jones as a speaker for Black History Month, the person wrote.
“I think it’s pretty clear that we are in a moment where schools are facing intense pressure not to invite speakers that are considered to be focusing too much on race and racism and the Black experience in American history,” Hannah-Jones told the Globe Tuesday. “We know that there have been several very high-profile stories published in the press or by former journalists that are, you know, castigating these elite white prep schools for daring to have anti-racism training or daring to invite anti-racist speakers, so I think I’m clearly getting caught up in that. And then obviously I, myself, because of a very successful right-wing propaganda campaign, I have become a symbol as well.”
David Beare, head of school at Middlesex, issued a statement to the Globe Tuesday afternoon about the canceled talk.
“We have the utmost respect for Nikole Hannah-Jones, both for her contributions to journalism and to the broader discussions of race in this country,” the statement read. “While we are confident that her insights would have been valued by our students, we were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share. We apologize that we did not reach out in a more formal way to express our appreciation for her professional achievements and contributions to the field and discuss the situation with her.”
Hannah-Jones said she was “both surprised and not surprised” that her talk was canceled. She was surprised, she said, because she and Middlesex were far along in the coordination of her visit, with the conversation surrounding her talk beginning in April and her flights booked since August.
However, Hannah-Jones also noted the timing of the cancellation, coming as schools around the country that teach about racism are being targeted by claims of “indoctrination.”
“But again, I think that’s why I can’t discount that in the last month, month and a half, we’ve seen several of these stories that have tried to paint these elite prep schools’ efforts to talk about race and racism as indoctrination or something that was harmful to white children,” Hannah-Jones said. “We’ve seen [many] of these stories, so the timing is how I draw that connection.”
Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, which re-examines the legacy of slavery in the United States, has become a focus of ire from right-wing figures, who have engaged in disinformation campaigns as they protest how race and racism are discussed in schools. Hannah-Jones won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2020 for the project’s introductory essay and has won a MacArthur “genius grant” for her reporting on racial segregation in America. Critics have focused particular anger at The 1619 Project’s reconsideration of key events in US history as being driven by a desire to uphold white supremacy.
Earlier this year, Hannah-Jones accepted a position as the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism at the University of North Carolina, but the question of whether she would be offered tenure stalled for months amid complaints from a top donor to the school. Her tenure application was halted and later resubmitted to the board of trustees in May before the board in July reversed course and offered it. Hannah-Jones then said she would join the faculty of Howard University, a historically Black college in Washington, D.C.
“I’m not surprised in that I literally was not given a tenure vote because of who I am and the work that I do,” she said of Middlesex disinviting her. “So that other institutions in this kind of moment of hysteria around ‘critical race theory,’ around how we’re teaching and talking about this point in our history, that I would be disinvited to places is not surprising, though it is deeply disappointing.”
The cancellation sparks concerns about “where our society is right now,” she added.
“As so many things, I have just become a symbol of a much larger issue,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think we’re in a very fraught moment, and that takes a toll, for sure, because I really think all of these efforts to suppress history that is uncomfortable, speech that is uncomfortable, and this sense among too many mainstream reporters that the biggest threat to free speech is progressives who want talk about anti-racism, and not governments that are legislating against the teaching of histories, is deeply distressing.”
Hannah-Jones said it is particularly worrisome because actions that suppress speech lead to policies that harm vulnerable people.
That her talk was canceled makes it clear that campaigns to turn her into a controversial figure have been successful, she said. But on Twitter Monday she said she doesn’t feel “canceled,” noting she still has a platform and will “speak where I am wanted.”
“I’m actually not a controversial journalist,” Hannah-Jones said. “I’ve certainly been part of a targeted campaign by the right wing, which has again been quite successful, but in the field of journalism, I’m not controversial, my work is not controversial.”
The disinvitation of Hannah-Jones comes just days after the school’s 34 trustees and Beare posted a “letter to the community” strongly endorsing intellectual diversity and support for diversifying the student body and staff. The letter was shared Oct. 15, after a year-long examination by consultants on diversity, equity, and inclusion after the trustees launched an internal review in August 2020.
“As an educational institution, we believe an open exchange of viewpoints is vital to student development and intellectual excellence,” the letter reads. “We believe that respectful debate and disagreement are not only healthy, but the very ground upon which a learning community thrives. We realize that, at times, that discourse may become uncomfortable.”
The letter was signed by Beare, trustees chair and New York-based developer Stephen D. Lari, and vice chair Brickson Diamond, a founder of The Blackhouse Foundation, which helps “Black creative voices and executives gain a better foothold in the [film] industry.”
Lari and Diamond were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.
“Together, we [the 34 trustees] are uniform in our belief that the breadth of personal identities within Middlesex is a key element that makes the school a special, vibrant place of learning and growth,’' the letter states. “The Board recognizes that there is still work to do between our foundational ideals and the actual lived experience of many Black, Hispanic, Asian American Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA+, Jewish, international, and disabled students, faculty, staff, and alumni.”
The board promised to provide resources to create permanent positions focusing on issues of diversity at the Concord school, where tuition currently costs $67,920 for boarding students and $54,340 for day students, according to the letter and the school website.
“We have sought to transform the meaning of a Middlesex education from one of power and privilege to one of openness and opportunity. This is a history of which we are proud — and on which we intend to build,” the trustees said in the letter. “The Board’s work is ongoing.”
In response to the letter, Hannah-Jones said “being disinvited to speak during Black History Month kind of speaks for itself about the seriousness of that statement.”