We Built This: Nikole Hannah-Jones Has Raised The Bar For Investigative Journalism

"What’s important is to say how and why does it happen, and that then helps us explain America to itself because the experience of black people is the experience of America."

She’s the self-proclaimed “Cardi B of journalism.” The Beyoncé of investigative reporting. Ida B. Wells’ wildest dream. And a MacArthur Genius Grant winner. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a hero who opted for a red ’fro in lieu of a cape. With data and history as her sharpest weapons, the Iowa native uses her platform as an investigative reporter with the New York Times Magazine to cover racial injustice and segregation in the U.S. And she’s nothing to play with.

Along with being named a certified genius, she’s received a National Magazine Award for her groundbreaking story documenting segregation in New York City schools by sharing her own story finding a school for her daughter. She also co-founded the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, a mentorship and training program dedicated to elevating journalists of color, and is currently working on her first book, The Problem We All Live With

For “We Built This,” Hannah-Jones spoke to HuffPost about finding justice through reporting, the importance of diversifying newsrooms and the hard realities of reporting on race while black. 

What have you built?

Mostly I built myself. But I think the thing that I am most proud of building is, one, I think I’ve built a conversation in this country about school segregation that had gone away for a long time, and I think the other thing that I’m really proud of that I’ve built is an organization called the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, which exists because myself and two other black investigative reporters were tired of hearing the excuses as to why black people were not doing the most important reporting in our country. So we founded the organization to train black journalists and journalists of color to do the highest level of reporting, and it’s been amazing. 

What inspired you to pursue journalism?

I always had a very strong sense of justice and right and wrong. For as long as I can remember, I rooted for the underdog. But also I recognized racial disparity, in particular, from a very young age. I think it’s because I started being bused into white schools starting in the second grade. I was bused from the black side of town to the white side of town, and that literally gave me a bus window view of what racial segregation and inequality look like. Because I would see my neighborhood, where all the black people lived, and the lack of shops, and the lack of restaurants and what the housing looked like. And then, as I crossed the river that divided the black side of town from the white side of town, I would see the landscape changing right before my eyes as the neighborhoods got whiter and wealthier, and we got to my school, which was the whitest, wealthiest elementary school in my hometown.

So I would see that transition, and as a kid, of course, you’re picking up the immediate messages about why that is, and I knew that it didn’t make sense. I knew that the images that black people were living in neighborhoods like this simply because they didn’t work harder, or didn’t want it badly enough wasn’t true because I could look at how hard my parents, my aunts and uncles, my grandmother, who was a custodian, worked. And so it just really led me to start to question why were things like they were. I also was a nerd, I should put that out there. I read history avidly, I read the newspaper, I read newsmagazines from a young age. I was subscribing to Time magazine in middle school. I got my first letter to the editor published when I was in elementary school after I read an article in the newspaper and didn’t like the way that it portrayed my community.

I always knew I wanted to do something maybe with writing, but definitely something that seemed to be working toward social justice. And then when I got to high school, I was bused to a majority white high school. They offered a one-semester black studies class, and I complained to my black studies teacher that our high school paper never wrote about kids like me and all my friends who are the black kids bused from the other side of town, and he told me if I didn’t like it, either join the newspaper or shut up and don’t complain to him about it anymore. So, never one to not take up a challenge, I joined my high school paper, I won my first journalism award from the Iowa High School Press Association, and I was kinda hooked from that moment.

And you’ve been racking up awards since.

I’ve had a very unexpected career.

There were large swaths of my career where I was warned against writing about racial inequality, where I was warned against focusing so much on the black experience, where I was told I was going to pigeonhole myself, where I was told I was too biased, that I wasn’t going to be able to rise up through the ranks. So to be at the place where I am now in some ways feels very surreal because I made a decision very early in my career that I may have to compromise rising up through the ranks, but I was never going to compromise doing the type of journalism that I got into this to do. So the fact that I was able to tell these stories, and also get some modicum of success, is kind of astounding and also feels a bit like revenge to all those folks who told me I couldn’t do it.

I remember when I was 10, having a conversation with my mom about white flight, and the effect that had on my small Midwestern city, and starting to understand that segregation was still very much alive and well. And a lot of times it felt like nobody was listening or paying attention to this as an issue. It felt like when you have these conversations, people try to make it an issue of yesteryear, even though it’s very present. Why is it important for you to tell these stories?

I don’t think that we can, one, understand why 50 years after the end of the civil rights movement so many black Americans still struggle without understanding the architecture of racial segregation and the intentionality of it. So I think if we want to look at any... name your black urban community and understand why things are like they are, then you need to understand it’s because it was intended to be this way and this was all intentionally created. We had stopped writing and excavating the intentional architecture of the segregation, and instead, the narrative was: Black people now have the same rights as everyone else. Why can’t black people get themselves together?

It is critical for us to understand the black experience. Whatever indicator of well-being you’re looking at, black people are going to be on the bottom. Nikole Hannah-Jones

I think it is critical for us to understand the black experience. Whatever indicator of well-being you’re looking at, black people are going to be on the bottom. What’s important is to say how and why does it happen, and that then helps us explain America to itself because the experience of black people is the experience of America, and our circumstances were created by this country. And if you want to understand both how we have failed as a democratic republic but also that a lot of our greatest achievements have been because black people have pushed for them, then telling these stories help us understand who we are as a nation.

And I don’t think that we can look where we are politically right now, with who is in the White House, with what is happening along our borders, with the conversations being had about law enforcement and not see how critical understanding race, and racism and inequality is, even though we have chosen to believe that white racism was just a matter of the fringe. I think it is very clear that it’s not, but we also need reporters who are able to really help us understand where this came from and why it is and how it works.

You call a thing a thing, you don’t sugarcoat, you use words like racially charged, you call it out point-blank, period. And so to see you do that and to get a MacArthur Genius Grant and to earn a Peabody, and do all of these things while being unapologetically yourself, unapologetically outspoken, did you ever think that you would accomplish all of this just by being your authentic self and telling your truth?

Absolutely not. I always say this, probably so much my friends get tired of me saying it, but I’m literally a girl from Waterloo. I never dreamed I would live in New York, never aspired to work at The New York Times, even when I was working at ProPublica, I never applied to The New York Times, I never considered that I would get a job there. I didn’t think that anyone would ever know my name, and that was fine because I got into journalism to do a certain type of work. I got into journalism because I felt we have to push back against the mainstream narrative about our communities with the truth, and the truth isn’t always pretty. I’m not an advocate. People often get confused and think that I am. When black folks aren’t doing right, we need to write those stories, too, but there’s plenty of folks who are writing those stories. I see my role really as chronicling the systemic inequality that black people experience.

I didn’t expect that my life would go to where it is, or that anyone would ever interview me about my work or that people would even read my work widely. I assumed I would be working at a regional newspaper somewhere and just writing about whatever the community was that I lived in. I still don’t know why exactly people cared enough about my work. I got opportunities from some folks who really believed in the work that I wanted to do and who supported that work, and I think the biggest thing that I’ve tried to do is really dig deeply into ... I just think in America we don’t understand history, we don’t care to learn a lot of history, and so we can pretend that this is not done on purpose, and I’m really trying to show the present-day results of our historical decisions.

The thing that I tell young journalists all the time, and I should be clear, I don’t model myself off of the objective version of mainstream journalism that we’re all taught in journalism school. I do think very early in your career, no one should know what you think about anything. And I think for most journalists, journalists of color, you have to be very, very careful. Because the assumption of your bias is there in a way that it’s not there with white journalists. But I also understand that as a black journalist, our tradition is different because we were journalists who were writing in a country who was opposed to our very existence. So we could never just simply quote-unquote report straight news.

Ida B. Wells had to be fighting for black lives. She couldn’t just write stories about lynching. And I definitely see myself more in that tradition of journalism, in the journalistic tradition of the black press, than I do see myself in the journalistic tradition of the mainstream press. By some fluke, I’ve been able to work in the mainstream press, even though that’s how I practice my journalism. But I think that’s also because I’m very, very careful. My journalism is deeply researched, I use a lot of data, it’s investigative. Whether or not people believe, ultimately, with my conclusions, I have to ensure that my work itself cannot be disputed.

And as black folks, we all grew up understanding we had to be twice as good, and I never forget that. It doesn’t matter what room I’m in, where I’m at, I always have this sense that some folks are rooting for me to fail, and I’m going to always try to never give them reason to be successful in that.

Why is your work through the Ida B. Wells Society important?

One of the guiding principles of my life is to try to be the person I needed when I was trying to make it. I think it’s very, very important to understand none of us, particularly people of color, have made it to where we are on our own. That there were always people who opened doors for us, who pushed us, who were having conversations that we didn’t even know they were having. And I also think about what I needed and didn’t have, and how I would be in newsrooms ... I’d never met a black investigative reporter. I never met a black reporter who was working on projects teams. They existed, but not in the newsrooms where I was. So I didn’t have a roadmap of how to get there. I didn’t have people who were looking out for me the way that I saw older white editors looking out for colleagues who had similar ambition.

So part of founding the Ida B. Wells Society was really to put my guiding principle into work, which was to try to provide for other journalists of color, whether they’re young or career journalists who had these great ambitions and didn’t really see a path to get the training and opportunity that they needed. And it’s been one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done in my life. Our trainings sell out repeatedly. Young journalists, even veteran journalists, tell me all the time they’ve never received this type of training, and they certainly have never been trained by a black journalist before. And we all know that it’s one thing in the abstract to know you can do whatever they can do, but it’s very hard to imagine yourself doing it if you’ve never seen anyone who looks like you doing the thing that you want to do. So having us, and having a black-run, black-founded organization doing this, I think it’s been very powerful for people. And it’s certainly been very powerful for me.

Who are the change agents, the ancestors, the black history makers who inspire you to continue the work that you do?

Clearly, Ida B. Wells. I have been obsessed with Ida B. Wells for a very long time. My Twitter handle was @IdaBaeWells. I’m now unofficially part of her family because I’ve gotten to know her great-granddaughter, Michelle Duster in Chicago, very well, as we’ve been trying to fundraise for this monument to her. When you want to think of the template for the most boss-ass black woman who defied all odds, and all gender and racial stereotypes, and was one of the original investigative reporters, one of the originators of data reporting, it’s Ida B. Wells.

Ethel Payne ... I read W.E.B. Dubois obsessively. He was one of the early sociologists working in the field of black American life. James Baldwin, yeah, the list would be extremely long. But I think the person who is guiding me the most is Ida B. Wells. She did things that women struggle to do now. And she was doing them right out of slavery ... . I just think there’s no greater source of inspiration. At least for me.

She’s definitely a guiding light for myself and so many other journalists.

It also kinda speaks to how few of us have gotten into these positions. Because when I started to think about myself as wanting to do more investigative reporting, and I was looking for a template for what I did, it’s not saying there were no black women investigative reporters, but there were so few. There still are very, very few ― embarrassingly, shamefully few ― that I have to go back to a woman who was born into slavery to really find a recognized national name who was doing this type of reporting, and I think that really speaks to the work that’s still ahead of us.

I think about how there are so few of us who end up either getting our feet in the door, period, at some of these publications. Not only just that, but how few of us have adequate opportunities. And I’m also thinking about the big piece that you wrote about choosing a school for your daughter and how few of us actually have those opportunities to go to those schools with more resources. And even though you have kind of been able to secure certain privileges, you intentionally act with this responsibility of community in mind. Why do you choose to make these conscious decisions in this way?

Part of it is, I think, when you study history ... history calms me because it explains it all. And when you understand that black people were never meant to be part of the American dream, black people were never intended to enjoy full citizenship in this country, and actually, as soon as slavery was over we were a problem because we were not supposed to exist in this country outside of our enslavement, then you understand that all of these institutions were set up to create exactly what they have created and that the way that we live and our experiences are the way that things were set up for people who were never intended to be citizens of the country of their birth.

When you understand that, then you understand that you getting a modicum of success for yourself, you reaching a certain level in your career, or being able to purchase into a certain type of neighborhood, that you would never be separate from the rest of your people. And you can try very hard to separate yourself from the rest of your people or you could choose not to separate yourself from what is really your heart. So for me, it’s never even felt like a choice. I’ve never not wanted to live in a black neighborhood. I never expected to send my child to a white school. I’ve never wanted to be separate from the rest of my people. 

What I hope for the longer-term future of journalism is that we rip the keys out of the hands of the gatekeepers and that our newsrooms finally start to actually look like the communities that we cover. Hannah-Jones

So I could pretend to be separated, and better, and say, “Well, I made it. Why can’t you?” But I see how hard my family members have worked, and how they have not been able to achieve the things that I have. Because I go home to them, and I spend time with my family, and I talk to my family all the time who are still struggling like a lot of black folks are struggling. What we often forget is, Frederick Douglass was free while the rest of our people were enslaved. Harriet Tubman got herself free, but she didn’t say, “I have my freedom. My work is done.” Until all of our community have the opportunities that I’ve been able to get, to live their lives, one, we don’t have a meritocracy, and two, our obligation is not to get out.

I think that’s what we’ve been sold, is success means getting out of your community. I think success means staying in your community, and working in your community and helping the rest of your community to get the things that you have. Because if we all abandon our own people, one, how do you look yourself in the mirror, but two, have you really succeeded if you have to separate yourself from your own people in order to consider yourself successful?

A lot of us believe that success is synonymous with whiteness.

Yes. Well, why would we not believe that in this country? Because it often is.

What do you hope for the future of journalism?

I think what I hope for the future of journalism is that we will stop repeating the same mistakes. Particularly if I think very short term, that the way we cover this upcoming presidential election, we will have learned the very hard lessons of how we covered the last election. Do I think we will? No. But I hope that we will. What I hope for the longer-term future of journalism is that we rip the keys out of the hands of the gatekeepers and that our newsrooms finally start to actually look like the communities that we cover, and that it’s not simply lip service, that it’s not simply a sprinkle of us here and there, but that we stop waiting for newsrooms to hire us, and we start forming our own institutions and that we transform a news industry if the news industry is not willing to transform it.

Our country is not 80 percent white anymore; our newsrooms are. And I think we’re both in New York City, a majority black and Latino city, our newsrooms don’t look anything like the city. I think if we keep looking for the same gatekeepers to fix it, we would be talking about this, if we live that long, in another hundred years. So we’re going to have to do it ourselves. 

 

Photo shoot produced by Christy Havranek. Audio production by Nick Offenberg and Sara Patterson. Hair & makeup by Miyako J Beauty.

CONVERSATIONS