Schools

Journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was invited to speak to Concord’s Middlesex School. Then she wasn’t.

"It’s pretty clear that we are in a moment where schools are facing intense pressure not to invite speakers that are considered to be focusing too much on race and racism and the Black experience in American history."

Nikole Hannah-Jones in the newsroom of The New York Times in New York, Oct. 10, 2017. James Estrin/The New York Times

Esteemed New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was invited to speak to students at Concord’s prestigious Middlesex School for Black History Month.

Hannah-Jones, a 2020 Pulitzer Prize winner and the driving force behind the 1619 Project, the Times‘ examination of slavery’s legacy in the United States, doesn’t usually take up speaking engagements at schools like Middlesex, she said on Twitter recently.

But a friend — who is a Middlesex alumnus — said the school wanted to have her speak to students in February 2022, Hannah-Jones said. She accepted.

And then she was uninvited, she said.

In a viral Twitter thread on Monday, Hannah-Jones revealed her invitation was rescinded, months after she was approached by that unnamed friend.

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The reason?

“According to my head of school and board, the ‘noise’ associated with having Nikole as the speaker would take away from the overall experience,” part of an e-mail from a person at Middlesex that Hannah-Jones shared on social media reads. “I then suggested that Nikole be a featured speaker for our BIPOC alumni and was told ‘this is not the right thing for our community.’”

Hannah-Jones made clear she doesn’t feel “canceled” because of the situation. She has other projects to do and places she can speak.

But she told the Globe, “It’s pretty clear that we are in a moment where schools are facing intense pressure not to invite speakers that are considered to be focusing too much on race and racism and the Black experience in American history.”

“This is clearly the result of the hysteria and successful propaganda campaign that has pretended elite white schools trying to deal with the legacy of racism are stoking the new Salem Witch trials and must be exposed. The campaign has been successful here,” Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter. “They were likely afraid that by having me — a NYT journalist & college professor — there, they’d invite backlash & another of the ‘”woke” people are ruining America’ stories.”

David Beare, head of school at Middlesex, explained the cancellation in a statement to the Globe on Tuesday afternoon.

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“We have the utmost respect for Nikole Hannah-Jones, both for her contributions to journalism and to the broader discussions of race in this country,” the statement reads. “While we are confident that her insights would have been valued by our students, we were concerned that individuals from outside our community might inadvertently distract from the insights and perspective that she intended to share. We apologize that we did not reach out in a more formal way to express our appreciation for her professional achievements and contributions to the field and discuss the situation with her.”

Beare’s office did not return a request for additional comment on Wednesday nor did Stephen Lari, president of the school’s Board of Trustees.

As noted by Dan Kennedy, a Northeastern University journalism professor, Hannah-Jones’ Times colleague, conservative columnist Bret Stephens, is a 1991 Middlesex graduate who now serves on the board.

Stephens, also the parent of a student in the Class of 2022, told Boston.com on Wednesday morning he was not involved in both the decisions to invite and uninvite Hannah-Jones from the school.

Stephens joined the school’s board about two-and-a-half years ago and has not had input or say in which speakers are invited to appear at Middlesex, he said.

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“I had no knowledge that an invitation had been extended to Nikole. I had nothing to do with the decision not to bring her to the school,” Stephens said. “The first I heard about it was when someone sent me her tweet… I don’t believe in canceling speakers.”

The news that Hannah-Jones will no longer be speaking at Middlesex comes on the heels of a letter to the school community, posted by Beare and the 34 trustees. The letter, published only days ago on Oct. 15, states their support for fostering diversity among the student body and school staff as well as intellectual diversity, according to the Globe.

The letter followed a consultant-involved process launched last year to review diversity, equity, and inclusion at the school, where tuition costs $67,920 for boarding students and $54,340 for day students.

“As an educational institution, we believe an open exchange of viewpoints is vital to student development and intellectual excellence,” the letter reads. “We believe that respectful debate and disagreement are not only healthy, but the very ground upon which a learning community thrives. We realize that, at times, that discourse may become uncomfortable.”

The board also made a commitment to form positions that will focus on diversity issues at the school, the Globe reported.

“We have sought to transform the meaning of a Middlesex education from one of power and privilege to one of openness and opportunity. This is a history of which we are proud — and on which we intend to build,” the trustees wrote. “The Board’s work is ongoing.”

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Hannah-Jones, responding to the letter while speaking with the Globe, said: “Being disinvited to speak during Black History Month kind of speaks for itself about the seriousness of that statement.”

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