Acceptance Speech By Nikole Hannah-Jones

Read the full transcript of Nikole Hannah-Jones's acceptance speech at the 2018 John Chancellor Award Ceremony. Hannah-Jones is an investigative reporter for The New York Times Magazine. 

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES:

I have my Ida B. Wells notepad right here.

I feel a little more emotional than I thought I was going to feel so I'm going to try to gather myself. Thank you so much for that honor.

I would like to thank Columbia University for this tremendous honor, the Ira Lipman family, the selection committee.

And I'd like to also thank all the invisible hands who made this possible today.

The people who set up the tables, who cleaned this room, who prepared our food. My grandmother was a domestic worker and a janitor and I remember walking to the courthouse with my dad and seeing my grandmother cleaning the windows. And all the people who would walk by her. As if she were invisible and didn't matter.

So if we could please show our appreciation for those who made this possible [applause].

You know I'm just a girl from Waterloo, Iowa. And I think all the time that I'm not supposed to be in rooms like this. And so as I was thinking about what this honor meant and what words should I say today, I thought about three things.

I thought first about all of my family and loved ones. How I would not be in this room without them. I think about my mother who is right there, who was the first person who really instilled in me a deep sense of justice and a deep sense that it did not matter what someone had. That that's not what gave them value. And that every person was worthy of being treated with dignity.

It was my mom who would take us out on Martin Luther King Day for the marches. It was my mom to this day who would take random people into her house. If they don't have somewhere to stay, she will literally open her door to strangers. I don't know a lot of people like that. And I know that my concern for the most marginalized people comes really from home. I think about my husband, Faraji, who, over and over over and over again, gave up sometimes his own ambition to allow me to pursue mine; who moved across the country several times because I had a dream to be able to be a journalist and to tell these stories and has always been my rock and has never once tried to diminish what I was trying to become and the work that I was trying to do. I think about my daughter who is there on the phone right now which is why she's being quiet.

 

I'm gone a lot. 

And I just pray that one day she will understand why. That I'm out here spending my time with other people's children trying to tell their stories. Meaning a lot of times I'm not able to spend the time with my own.

I pray when she is grown, and a woman, and a strong woman, and a career woman, that she will see this not as something that took something from her life but as something that helped her see what she could be.

I look at all of my editors and mentors in the room. James Shiffer, who—oh you're up here. Sorry. I was looking over there—was my first editor. He taught me so much about writing and reporting, but also just gave me the freedom to tell the stories. Even back then as a cub reporter who didn't know much of anything, except that what I was seeing in the schools wasn't right. And he let me tell those stories. And the journalists in this room know that you don't always have editors like that and that that really matters.

I think about my editors at The New York Times which has been the most amazing place for me. And just all of the mentors I've had because none of us gets to these places on our own. You have to have people who believe in you and who support you and who provide you with the opportunities and the resources.

And the last thing that I think about, which is probably the thing that weighs most heavily on me and that is my most, challenging internal conflict. Is that I'm here. And I received these awards because children are suffering and I tell their stories.

 

It's not lost on me that this award is named after one of the first television journalists to cover the desegregation battles in 1957. And so it is surreal and deeply troubling to me that all these years later I'm being honored for writing about the very same thing. That 50 years later, our children are still in segregated and unequal schools.

That this is a failure not just of our society but, also, it has largely been a failure of journalism.

Because journalism helped expose what was happening and lead the charge and pushed this nation. When you're broadcasting tanks having to be rolled out just to give black children access to schools, when you're broadcasting firehoses being used on civil rights workers across the globe, it became a national embarrassment. And that national embarrassment, not a sense of morality, but the embarrassment and the shame, was what forced our nation to finally do something. But then journalists also left the charge of saying we've worked on this long enough.

It's time to move on. And we stopped covering these stories and we stopped believing these stories were important. And for decades while our children languished in segregated and equal schools we decided that these weren't stories we needed to tell anymore. And because we didn't tell those stories, then the rest of our country forgot about those kids too. So I thought about this award, I thought about all the children I've met over my 15 year career. Of America's Children.

But America's children who often don't get treated as if they are as American as anyone else's children. And I think about a nation with so much abundance. Yet the kids that I write about have to walk through bombed out, dangerous neighborhoods. They have to enter school buildings where there is no heat. They have to sit in classrooms where there are no textbooks. Sometimes where they don't get a math teacher for an entire year. And these children are years and years behind their white peers. Not because they don't care about an education. But because every day they enter schools that show them how little we care about their education. So I think about all those kids who I have met. Who will never have an opportunity to stand in a room like this. And to sit with distinguished people like yourselves.

Not because they don't have the abilities that I have or the drive that I have but because they'll never have the opportunities that I did. So Mr. Lipman, Dean Coll—oh you're over here—the selection board, in honoring my work, much more important than honoring me, you're honoring these stories. And further you're helping the news leaders in this room understand that they should continue to invest in this type of journalism. Invest in the types of stories that reveal the lives of those on the margins and the choices we make that leave them there. And that they should continue to invest in those stories even when it is no longer popular to do so. That's the most important honor that I'm receiving today because it's sending a message that these stories and that this type of journalism matters.

And for that I am deeply grateful for this award and for all of you in this room today who helped make it possible. Thank you so much.