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Nikole Hannah-Jones And Ta-Nehisi Coates To Join Howard University Faculty

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones will soon begin her tenured position at Howard University in Washington, D.C., instead of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC announced her tenured position and then took it back after criticism from conservative members of the university's board of trustees. After public outcry over UNC's decision, the university finally offered her the lifetime appointment. But she said, no. Hannah-Jones will instead be the inaugural Knight Chair in race and reporting and will establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy at Howard. Her announcement came at the same time as the award-winning journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's also joining the faculty. He says Howard played a pivotal role in his life.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It is not a panacea. But what you don't have is you don't have people questioning, as a friend of mine said to me recently, your basic intelligence. Nobody looks at you and says, oh, because you're Black, you are X, Y and Z. And having that off the table allows for a certain amount of, you know, humanity to just shine through for you to see yourself in a very, very, very different way. And it gave me a level of confidence that I really could compete with anybody.

FADEL: We spoke about Hannah-Jones' decision and his new role as the Sterling Brown Chair in the Department of English.

COATES: It feels excellent. I think a lot of us who went to HBCUs who either end up as professors or writers, academia - whatever - we always dream about going home. So to actually have the ability and the privilege to do so, which everybody does not have, is, you know, significant.

FADEL: And you say going home. You think of it that way?

COATES: I do, very much so. Yes.

FADEL: Now, you and Nikole Hannah-Jones both made the decision to take your talents to Howard. You are both celebrated, prolific writers, both MacArthur Genius Grant award winners. Was this a joint decision?

COATES: I don't want to take too much ownership. Look; nobody tells Nikole Hannah-Jones what to do.

FADEL: Right.

COATES: So Nikole was going to do what Nikole was going to do. You know what I mean? We certainly had conversations. And I think we were not unaware of what it would mean for both of us to do this at the same time.

FADEL: Can you talk about those conversations and the message of you both doing this at the same time?

COATES: Yeah. So I have been in conversation with Howard off and on for about five years now. In terms of myself and Nikole, this goes back to a long conversation that we've had...

FADEL: Yeah.

COATES: ...About our relationship to mainstream or, quote-unquote, "white" institutions. Certainly, those of us in the generation before us and to some extent even in our generation felt like we needed a stamp of approval, felt like there were certain resources being offered at a lot of these institutions. And in our case, it was mostly magazines and papers. That really meant that we had to be a certain place. And both myself and Nikole, through great fortune and great sacrifice of our community and our ancestors, have arrived at a point where that need is not as prominent as it once was.

FADEL: Right.

COATES: You know, as I said at the beginning, the ability to truly, truly go home, to be able to return to your block and feel like your block is just as good as anybody else's block - it has the same facilities, it has the same, you know, sort of cohesiveness, it has the same and to some extent greater sense of community - is just incredible.

FADEL: Now, for the last several years, and especially last year when there was this moment when the country was paying attention to systemic racism in this country, there's been a renewed push to attend, teach, research at and give money to historically Black colleges and universities. Do you believe your new positions at Howard will build on that momentum?

COATES: I hope so. And I hope - you know, Howard takes up a lot of oxygen. But I really, really hope people remember that we are not the only HBCU. Not only are we not, we cannot be the only HBCU. It's just not possible nor desirable. And I hope people are thinking about a Bethune-Cookman. I hope people are thinking about a FAMU. I hope people are thinking about a Morgan, a Dillard, an Xavier, an A&T. I hope we are keeping the institution of HBCUs at large in mind and not just focusing on one thing. We are often called the Black Harvard. But that is a designation that I completely reject. Howard is Howard. And Howard is part of a community and a very, very specific tradition that needs no analogue. And so I hope people hear that whole tradition.

FADEL: Now, obviously, around this announcement was the situation with Nikole accepting offers for a tenure at University of North Carolina. It was rescinded and then offered again. She spoke to NPR's Here & Now earlier this week and said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: I really wanted to take my talents and the resources I could bring and bring them to an institution that was actually built for Black uplift and Black excellence, that wasn't built in opposition to the work that I want to do and me as a human being.

FADEL: Now, you touched on this a little bit. But I'd love to get your reaction to this and your thoughts.

COATES: Yeah. I completely understand it. The HBCUs come out of an effort - an aborted and a not-significant-enough and a not, you know, certainly, funded-enough effort - to ameliorate the effects of enslavement after the Civil War. That's our origin. Howard was founded in 1867. And that's just a wonderful thing to be a part of. You know, as the descendants of enslaved people, it feels like exactly where you should be. I am at pains, though, Leila to emphasize something.

FADEL: Yeah.

COATES: Just like I said that there's a community of HBCUs, there's a community of higher education. And I don't want anyone to feel like this somehow absolves UNC of its responsibility. You know, to the citizens of North Carolina, I don't want it to feel like it absolves its faculty there. UNC is a big institution and includes the faculty that gave tenure to Nikole. It includes the students there that supported Nikole. I want to be very, very clear that I support them, that we support them and that that battle has to continue, too.

FADEL: How important was the message, though, to win the battle but also make the decision not to go there?

COATES: It was tremendous because I think the usual thinking would have been to go somewhere, you know, that had a higher pedigree, you know? I'm going to go to Yale. I'm going to go to Princeton or whatever. But I think what Nikole is saying is that we have wealth and untapped wealth in our own communities.

FADEL: Yeah.

COATES: We are not returning to Howard University to bring it to a certain level. We're returning because we're getting something out of it.

FADEL: Yeah.

COATES: You know, certainly, we hope to add. But there is something there for us that maybe everybody doesn't always see. In my case, it's very specific. You know, I mean, this is the faculty and community that made me the writer that I am today. That's what I come out of. I'm just happy to be returning to it. I do agree, I think it's a significant, significant message.

FADEL: Ta-Nehisi Coates, thank you so much for joining us.

COATES: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "PERSPECTIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.