New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones doesn’t pretend to be an objective observer of her subject: racial segregation.
“Our job as storytellers – if we want to get people to care about things that seem to be fixed in our country – is we have to figure out a way to make them see the story in a different way and to help them understand they actually don’t know the story at all.”
“I’m not, and none of us are,” she said of journalists during a speech at the annual Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, Romania, last weekend. “What drives me is rage. Because I think what we’re doing to children is wrong, and I’m not going to pretend to be objective about it. I think it’s hypocritical and I think that it’s wrong. I got into journalism because I feel like we have to do better and if we’re not going to do better, I’m not going to let us sit comfortably and pretend that everything is OK.”
The MacArthur Fellow, whose first-person article last year about her decision to send her child to a “marginalized” school drew a huge number of readers and sparked nearly 1,000 comments, talked about how her activism got her into journalism, and how America is in denial about entrenched racism.
“The truth is even though this is fundamental and foundational to living in the United States, this is a history and a truth that most Americans are in denial about,” she said. “It’s a history that is very hard to bear and admit when you believe that your country is an exceptional beacon of freedom and democracy in the world, yet you are founded on the forced bondage of millions of people.”
Read the full transcript of her speech here. But here are some highlights.
The three foundations of her reporting:
- “My stories have to be meticulously reported. If I’m trying to tell you that what you think – which is that segregation is not really a problem anymore because it’s not forced by law – is not right, I have to do the type of reporting that makes an argument. That’s what I think all my work is doing, making an argument. I have to convince you that what you think is right is actually not right. I’m going to give you a quick example. This was a year-long investigation I did on school re-segregation in the South. I thought it was important to show my work, particularly because this was before fake news, but we can’t expect that people will trust what we’re telling them, just because we are an authority, because people don’t necessarily trust reporters anymore. And they shouldn’t, we should have to show our work. I included the source notes for my investigation. Every single fact in the story, I show you where I got it from. It was a long story.
The reporting has to be absolutely meticulous, reporting that cannot be disputed. If there’s a study, if there’s a fact, if there’s data, I’m going to tell you what that is. I read obsessively on anything that I’m reporting on, I get to the point sometimes where experts are calling me about the research, which actually feels kind of cool.
- The stories have to be intensely narrative, which I’m going to talk more about a little bit later. It can’t be a story about abstract concepts, and we all know this. This is a storytelling conference for a reason; this is the original form of communication. If you don’t have humanity, you can spend a year on a blockbuster investigation and expose the worst scandal in the world, if people can’t relate to why that matters on a human level, they’re not going to care. When I’m writing about school segregation, if I’m just throwing out a bunch of statistics, and I’m just showing you that it’s happening, no one actually cares. All of my stories do this very common thing, but that actually takes a lot of time, because narrative means you don’t just have a narrative at the top and then a bunch of facts and an anecdote at the bottom. Narrative means you’re telling a story all the way through, and that means you have to spend a lot of time gathering the information to be able to tell the story all the way through.
- The third hallmark of my work is that it’s deeply historical. I’m making an argument that things are the way they are because this is how we have decided that they should be over a long period of time. And all of the effort that went into creating inequality – if you want to undo it, you have to put an equal amount of effort into undoing it. We like things the easy way: fast food nation, right? We want to believe that, even though it may have taken from 1619 to 1978 to create this, that somehow if we try it for about 45 minutes, we should be able to do it, and if we didn’t fix it, then we should move on.
The running joke in my office is every one of my stories starts in 1619. If you look at my Twitter, that’s what I say: I cover race from 1619. And that’s just my way of saying this is foundational, which I know I keep saying, but I feel that for my work it is so important to say this is not by accident. We have created this and this is why it exists. You can take the laws off the books, you can suddenly say ‘After 400 years it’s not legal to discriminate anymore’, but if you don’t undo all of that, then it’s not going to change just because the laws no longer say it.
From the beginning of this country, when we decide to enslave an entire race of people and give them a status that is particular to that race of people, at this point it is actually illegal to teach those people to read – you could be killed, you could be maimed, you could be jailed for teaching enslaved people to read. Why is that? Because we all understand this is why any time you have a dictator in any country, one of the first things they go after are intellectuals, because if you’re reading, you’re thinking, and if you’re thinking, you’re thinking about your circumstances and you don’t want to accept them.”
“The most important part, of course, is the narrative — is getting people to see people who are different from them, people who are historically marginalized, to be able to see that humanity – and I hate even having to say that, because why should I have to humanize a human being?”
And here are some wonderful excerpts from the rest of her speech:
On America being in denial about entrenched racism:
I write about racial inequality in the United States; there is nothing more entrenched that you can write about in my country than writing about race, racial injustice and racial disparity. But the truth is even though this is fundamental and foundational to living in the United States, this is a history and a truth that most Americans are in denial about. It’s a history that is very hard to bear and admit when you believe that your country is an exceptional beacon of freedom and democracy in the world, yet you are founded on the forced bondage of millions of people. So what we largely do in the United States is kind of skip over that messy part, and by skipping over that messy part, then we can somehow pretend that the inequality we see today is not our heritage. That it is just a matter of certain marginalized groups in the United States choosing not to live in better circumstances than what they do.
On the Civil War and Charlottesville:
It’s been amazing the last few weeks with Charlottesville and debates about Confederate monuments and, of course, the Confederacy in the United States left the Union and fought against the rest of the Union in order to preserve the institution of slavery. Yet in the United States we are still debating, in 2017, whether or not the Civil War was about slavery. The Civil War was about slavery, in case anyone’s curious. And the Civil War ends slavery in 1865, and then we immediately enter into a hundred years of legal apartheid, of legal discrimination against black Americans, that denies them their full citizenship rights; and black Americans do not get full legal status in the United States, the country of not only their birth, but their parents’ birth, their grandparents’ birth, their great-grandparents’ birth. Most black Americans have been in the United States before most any other immigrant group who came there after, but those groups immediately were restored with the rights that black Americans were denied.
On deciding to become a journalist:
One day I went to my one black teacher I had in high school and I was complaining to him about how I didn’t feel our newspaper covered us, and he said, “You either join your high school paper or shut up and don’t complain about it anymore.” I took his advice and joined the high school paper and I started writing about black kids like me, and at that point I was hooked. Because that was when I understood what we all understand, which is why we are here, which is the power of storytelling. And not just the power of storytelling but the power of being able to tell your own stories and not allowing someone else to frame how you are seen to the world, but to do that framing for yourselves.
On the role of storytellers in making people care:
The problem was: no one really cared. Which seems to be a theme about many of the things that we cover, those of us who are storytellers here. We’re interested in those deeply entrenched things that are so important but no one cares about. And part of the reason they don’t care is because they are so entrenched. It’s hard to get people to care about poverty because people feel like it won’t change, that there’s nothing you can do about it. That is just the way society is. And that is how school segregation was seen in the United States in 2013. I think with a lot of the stories that we’re trying to talk about – mass incarceration, poverty, the stories that Sarah talks about, war – we think we know the story. Our job as storytellers – if we want to get people to care about things that seem to be fixed in our country – is we have to figure out a way to make them see the story in a different way and to help them understand they actually don’t know the story at all.
On the humanizing ability of narrative:
The most important part, of course, is the narrative — is getting people to see people who are different from them, people who are historically marginalized, to be able to see that humanity – and I hate even having to say that, because why should I have to humanize a human being? But we all know that we do. If I can’t see myself in you, I somehow care less about what’s happening to you and your children.
On rejecting the role of objective observer:
I’ve never subscribed to the view that the journalist is this objective observer. I’m not, and none of us are. Every decision we make, who we’re going to talk to, who we’re not, how we frame a story, where we place the story in the paper, whether we give that story 30 seconds or five minutes, these are all subjective decisions, they’re all value judgments. What drives me is rage. Because I think what we’re doing to children is wrong, and I’m not going to pretend to be objective about it. I think it’s hypocritical and I think that it’s wrong. I got into journalism because I feel like we have to do better and if we’re not going to do better, I’m not going to let us sit comfortably and pretend that everything is OK.
On a James Baldwin quote that inspires her:
But I must keep doing what it is that I do, and as storytellers writing about these issues, we must keep doing what we do. This James Baldwin quote I think is the thing that keeps me going: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it’s faced.”