Pulitzer Prize-winning alumna Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses her work, representation in journalism and experiences at Notre Dame
When she was in fifth grade, Nikole Hannah-Jones came across a column that she thought was racist while reading her local newspaper. She wanted to speak out against the piece, so she wrote to the editor.
That was the very first time Hannah-Jones’ work was published.
This May, the Notre Dame alumna won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for The 1619 Project. Published in August 2019 by The New York Times Magazine, where Hannah-Jones is a journalist, the essay project launched a national conversation about the origins and legacy of slavery.
The publication of the ongoing project sparked a book deal, television show, podcast and now the highest honor in journalism.
Hannah-Jones said she had essentially been working toward The 1619 Project her entire career.
“I have long believed that the way that we’re taught about slavery is wrong and the way that we’re taught that slavery ended a long time ago but that there’s no modern connection to how we live today was false,” she said. “So much of my work, whether it be in housing segregation, school segregation, policing, has been trying to directly connect where we are in America today with slavery.”
Hannah-Jones is a 1998 graduate of Notre Dame, but in an interview with The Observer, she said she does not have fond memories of her time at the University — she struggled socially and was encouraged to drop out of school by a dean her freshman year. Notre Dame was also the first place she was called the n-word.
She graduated on time and worked for several newspapers around the country until she landed at the New York Times in 2015.
She told The Observer she visited The New York Times for the first time in her mid-30s. She toured the Pulitzer Hall and noticed only a couple faces of Black women on the walls of the organization that had won more Pulitzers than any other.
Now, as of May 4, Hannah-Jones will be commemorated on those walls.
“To think that now my picture will be up there for perpetuity and that other Black girls who come to the Times will get to see that on the wall is really profound and moving to me,” she said.
Hannah-Jones was born in Waterloo, Iowa, to a biracial working-class family. She had what she describes as a “normal” childhood and attended primarily white schools. Her family members were avid readers, and they subscribed to two daily newspapers.
“I grew up reading the paper with my dad and from a really young age had a fascination with both history and news,” she said.
For college, Hannah-Jones chose Notre Dame because it fit her criteria.
“I wanted a prestigious school. I felt, as a Black student, the only way that I found a way to mitigate people’s prejudice against me would be to go to a prestigious school that proved I was smart,” she said. “It needed to be close enough for me to drive, and it needed to be in a big enough city where it wasn’t all white. So Notre Dame seemed to fit all of those, and I didn’t even know that they were good at football until that year. It was the only school I ended up applying to.”
She began classes in the fall of 1994 but did not find Notre Dame to be a welcoming environment. She majored in history and African-American studies, and met good friends, but still felt out of place socially.
She struggled her freshman year to attend classes, and as a result, fell behind.
“Not only was I a Black student from a blue-collar town; I was also working class,” Hannah-Jones said. “I did not enjoy my time at Notre Dame. I met some great friends there. But it was definitely a challenge. I almost flunked out my freshman year because it was such a hard experience. I stopped going to some of my classes.”
Because of this, a dean called Hannah-Jones in for a meeting. The administrator told Hannah-Jones she was going to flunk out of the University and needed to withdraw.
Hannah-Jones left that meeting with a newfound confidence that encouraged her to stay at Notre Dame.
“I wasn’t failing because those kids were smarter than me,” she said. “I was failing because I didn’t want to be there. And I used that as motivation. I was like, ‘She doesn’t think I can make it. OK, I’m going to now. … Now I’m going to get my s–t together. And I don’t know how to make it, but I’m going to graduate on time,’ which I did.”
Though Hannah-Jones hasn’t returned to campus since her graduation, she remembers the Black educators and administrators who helped her complete her degree. It was there she banded together with other students of color to protest the Columbus murals inside the Main Building and stand up for Latino students who felt marginalized on campus.
She said it was beautiful. But it only happened because every non-white student at the University felt ostracized.
“This is in an elite private institution, and even though I know Notre Dame likes to think of itself as progressive in many ways, it wasn’t,” she said.
She said she was always graded fairly in classes, but the same respect wasn’t always extended to her from peers in campus social life.
She said Notre Dame was the very first time she was called the n-word — it was by a group of white football players.
She and a friend were having car trouble, and ended up getting out of their car to push. A group of white students got impatient, passed them and then yelled the slur. That same night she was ignored by Notre Dame security as her friends struggled to push the car and was later asked — while she was on campus — if she attended the University.
Hannah-Jones was upset and angry that she had spent time defending the University to friends. She wrote a letter to the editor about the experience that was published in The Observer on Sept. 20, 1996.
“Being Black at Notre Dame is an everyday struggle, but I had convinced myself that it would be worth it,” she wrote in the letter. “But Saturday I was forced to see that no matter what I accomplish, or how many degrees I achieve, to many whites I am always going to be just a [n-word]. I know that It should not bother me, but it does.”
Hannah-Jones told The Observer the publication of the letter sparked “unity meetings” around campus. It also sparked some response letters from other students, all of them critical of Hannah-Jones’ complaints.
“They had all these unity meetings to try to address it, and the University never addressed it,” she said. “The people who called me that were white football players. And, as you know, at Notre Dame, football is God, so it really just got brushed under the rug. As far I know there was never any penalty for it.”
Though attending Notre Dame was a difficult, it’s where Hannah-Jones discovered the work of someone she has admired ever since — journalist and activist Ida B. Wells.
Hannah-Jones would browse the University bookstore shelves to see what other courses her department was offering for the semester, and it was there where she first picked up Wells’ autobiography. That’s when her “20-something-year obsession” began, which is now featured in her work and her Twitter display name.
“Ida Bae Wells as my Twitter handle is just paying homage to one of the original investigative reporters and certainly probably one of the first Black woman investigative reporters in the country,” she said. “It’s just a way to connect myself to the legacy of Ida B. Wells but also Black Twitter which loves to kind of do fun takes on historic names.”
As one of the founders of the Ida B. Wells Society, Hannah-Jones works toward providing Black and other racial minority journalists the opportunities to expand upon their skills and advance in the workplace so they can “be twice as good,” the society’s motto.
“It really is based on myself and the co-founders’ experiences of being smart enough, of being good enough, of being ambitious enough to be investigative reporters but not getting that support in our newsrooms, not having people see us that way because the typical investigative reporter is not Black, is certainly not a Black woman,” Hannah-Jones said. “It sends a message, and every Black person who sees it automatically gets it. It’s a motto that you don’t have to explain and really is about the mission of the work we’re trying to do.”
This shared experience fuels much of Hannah-Jones’ work and, subsequently, her college campus visits. Hannah-Jones was slated to return to Notre Dame to discuss her work with the 1619 Project, but the in-person event has since been postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19 precautions. However, she is giving a virtual talk on Aug. 28 as part of a Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights lecture series. She spoke with The Observer about what she hoped would have come from the event.
“Whenever I give talks on any campus, there’s always a large number of Black and brown students who come. It’s important; they want to see someone like me and engage,” she said. “We always inevitably during the Q&A or after have a lot of questions about, ‘How do you survive on a campus like this?’”
The experience of being a person of color at Notre Dame is not unique, Hannah-Jones said.
Students of color have so often struggled to find comfort on predominantly white campuses, and Hannah-Jones said she wants things to change.
“I certainly felt, and so many of my friends felt, like Notre Dame was a place … that belongs to the white students and that the rest of us were kind of just passing through,” Hannah-Jones said. “That we were there to get our degree and pass through where this was like their space. And it would be nice if that were not the case.”
Editor’s note: A version of this story said Hannah-Jones event at Notre Dame was canceled, instead of postponed. The Observer regrets this error.