Two years ago, Nikole Hannah-Jones published “Segregation Now,” a collaboration between her then-employer Pro Publica and The Atlantic, about the desegregation and resegregation of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hannah-Jones started her career as a local newspaper reporter; she spent four years reporting for Pro Publica and became a New York Times Magazine staff writer in 2015. Discussing her story at Boston University’s “Power of Narrative Conference,” Hannah-Jones talked about looking for characters vivid enough to sustain a deep exploration of race and education. Her first draft was 25,000 words; it ran at 10,000 words.
From the beginning, Hannah-Jones wanted to find a single family as her subject. After spending a few days speaking with local students, she met a young woman named D’Leisha. “She was the kind of person you could wrap a narrative around,” said Hannah-Jones. “Every other kid looked up to her. I was drawn to her.”
Even though D’Leisha was an exemplary student, not to mention her school’s homecoming queen, Hannah-Jones could see she was struggling. “What was holding her back was this system that I was trying to expose,” Hannah-Jones said. In Tuscaloosa, one generation had experienced desegregation, in the form of the integrated Central High School. But by the time Hannah-Jones arrived — thanks in part to a secretive deal between white local leaders and a black judge — Tuscaloosa had one high school that was mostly white, and another that was mostly black.
“Segregation Now” is organized into 3 chapters, named for her subjects James, Melissa, and D’Leisha: grandfather, mother, and daughter. Their family history mirrored the history of segregation in Tuscaloosa. James had started school the year that Brown vs. Board was passed, but he never attended a desegregated school. Melissa attended Central High School when it was integrated. But much like her grandfather, D’Leisha experienced de facto segregation. The story begins at her school’s modest homecoming parade.
Storyboard: The story starts with this homecoming scene. It’s kind of a moment that has a lot of tension, but maybe not a lot of drama. There’s not a lot of plot happening. Why did you choose that scene?
Hannah-Jones: The way that resegregation happened was not dramatic. Desegregation had lots of dramatic moments, but resegregation was very ‘stealth,’ very quiet, not a lot of opposition or explosiveness. So I thought that that was a fitting way to actually open the story with something much more subtle.
I had been hearing over and over how big the homecoming was. And just what the old Central was like, and everyone in the town – white and black – talked about how great the old Central was. So then to come to this homecoming parade – it was just so stark, so different from what I’d heard, that it just felt right.
Also, it just seemed like a good way narratively to show what was, and what is now. Everyone can relate to a homecoming parade, and in this town, the homecoming parade under integration was so huge. Now it was just a sign of everything that had happened to this school, once it was resegregated.
When did you know in your reporting that you were going to use the family tree as a structure device? Was there a moment when you thought you would include different characters, different families, that would all come together in one story?
I knew before I went down that that’s what I wanted to do. I was very conscious that my love of history is not necessarily widely shared. So much of this story was going to be historical, I knew that I needed a narrative vehicle that was going to connect readers very personally to that story, so that they would bear with me. I also wanted people to really get a sense of how fleeting—it was, how brief this period of desegregation was.
I didn’t know if I’d come down and find the right characters. Like even if I found that generation, would the characters be good enough for me to hinge an entire story on? Luckily enough, I found it. The reporting gods were looking down on me. I found D’Leisha, who was the most charismatic character that any person could root for.
It seems like one of the advantages of working through a single family is that when you’re looking at one changing historical force, like segregation, you want to hold everything else constant. Is that right?
Yes. As Americans, we’re extremely individualist. So we understand that these larger structures are at work, but we’re also like, every individual has choice. And I’m trying to show that choices are limited, based within whatever systems we’ve created. So yeah, I think it was important to show this kind of unbroken line within this one family.
Particularly when it comes to race, Americans can be very disconnected from history. We don’t want to understand—or maybe we’re unable to understand—how history is impacting what’s happening right now. We want to divorce history and the present. Yes, segregation back then was bad—but we don’t actually want to believe that our decisions as a nation are the reason why D’Leisha is in a segregated school right now.
I found it really poignant that each generation expresses the same hopes for the next generation. The grandfather sounds a lot like the mother. And it’s heart-wrenching to hear her say, “I don’t know if my daughter’s going to have the opportunities I expected her to have—and that I had.” It’s such a backpedal.
Right. Americans are very optimistic, and typically you do better than the next generation. And to see that that has not been guaranteed, because of decisions that we’ve made—to see a grandfather reflecting on all these years of struggle, to see his own grandchild end up in the same place—I thought was amazing. Which is the larger story.
On a paragraph level—the micro level—how do you balance a personal story and the story of policy, which is impersonal?
It’s hard. It’s part of the reason why writing this, and rewriting, was so agonizing. Because it’s like going from a microscope to a telescope. I think you just write it out as you feel like you need to write it, and then you go back in, and arrange things.
As a writer, you’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve been in history, or I’ve been in policy, for so long on the page — that’s not going to work. I need to either add a scene here, or move a scene up.’ I think you have to have the whole thing written out first, before you can then go back in and kind of study it.
Do you use a highlighter?
Yeah, I print it out. I write on a computer, but I’m still a very hands-on visual person. I print it out, highlight, and sometimes physically cut out paragraphs and rearrange them. Structure is one of the most challenging things.
Really, this was three stories. It was the personal story, it was the story of this place, and then it was this national story. If there’s too much of the family story, it becomes a story just about a family, and not a national story. Too much of the national and you kind of lose interest—you lose the personal appeal that keeps one in a long story. I don’t think there’s a pretty way to structure. It really is just a constant rejiggering once you have the draft, and trying to figure out the right balance.
You seemed to take advantage of moments when the policy and the personal stories touched. For example, in the “James” section, you discuss Brown v. Board of Education —and that’s when you talk about James starting school. And then you return to the policy again, as these national events intersect with his life. Is that kind of the footwork you used?
Yeah. I create multiple timelines in Google Spreadsheets. There’s a timeline for each member of the family. There’s a timeline of just what’s happening in Tuscaloosa, and then there’s a timeline that’s a national timeline. And what that allows me to do, of course, is I can see what’s happening at the same time in history.
What James does is show that we have laws, and things being passed, and on the ground it’s not changing anything. Yes, Brown v. Board happens, but he never goes into an integrated school. Which is very important, because there’s a huge mythology about civil rights in this country, and there’s a belief that once we pass laws, everything is okay—not understanding that we pass laws, and if they’re not enforced, it doesn’t do any good.
What was something that got lost when you went from 25,000 to 10,000 words?
There was a lot more history, believe it or not. A lot more about the Southern resistance. A lot more of what happened in the ‘80s under the Reagan administration. A lot more of the family story, though I got in quite a bit of the anecdotes from the family.
I think the one thing that I’m most disappointed about—and this was by virtue of being a magazine piece, and not strictly investigative piece—is I really was able to show how this deal-making happened. I had on-the-record admissions about what was probably an illegal deal. The black judge is the only person named who made that deal. But there were a lot of other people, and a lot of white folks, who made that deal. All of that I was made to take out.
I strongly objected to it. I thought it was unfair to the judge to only name him, because it puts the entire burden on him, when he was just one player. I still don’t agree with that decision.
It sounds like there are all these stories that are competing in the piece, and you just had to choose one in the end.
That’s always the case, and this spanned 60 years, and was also not just about one place. It was trying to do all these big things. You could have done 10,000 just on Tuscaloosa, and not even put all the national stuff in. There were so many machinations going on down there, just so much ridiculous shit. This was trying to do a lot. So it did what it could.
You said in your conference keynote that “In any narrative, you need a villain.” Tell me more.
There has to be tension. There has to be an adversary. Maybe “villain” wasn’t the right word. It doesn’t have to be a person—it could be yourself, like in a story about a person battling a drug addiction. Or the villain could be a town. I just think, a story where there isn’t tension—something that someone is fighting against—isn’t a very good story.
But there’s also no perfect villain, because I don’t believe that anyone or anything is ever all good or all bad. One of the villains in my piece is the the black judge, but he’s also a person who you understand. He’s making these decisions within a larger system that he can’t control. I think it’s important for any narrative to have your good and bad guys—but none of them are really all good or all bad.
Read “Segregation Now” in its entirety from The Atlantic’s May 2014 issue.