A Massachusetts boarding school’s decision to block the New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones from speaking on campus over the “noise” her presence would create has left some alumni up in arms—but not surprised.
“Middlesex is definitely a place that has a lot of milquetoast racism,” said Alexandra Jones, who graduated in 2019. “They often censor these kinds of conversations.
“[The notion] that the situation would create too much noise is utterly ridiculous to me, because I don’t understand how having someone come and talk about history—about real history—is creating too much noise.”
According to Hannah-Jones, creator of the Times’ 1619 Project, she had been invited to speak at Middlesex School during a planned diversity symposium in February. But the head of the $70,000-per-year Ivy League feeder and board of trustees objected.
They also shot down a speaking event with the school’s BIPOC alumni, according to a snippet of an email exchange that Hannah-Jones posted on Twitter.
“Middlesex is clearly responding to [the] successful right-wing propaganda campaign against both me and work that deals more truthfully with this nation’s racism,” Hannah-Jones told The Daily Beast. She noted that her disinvitation likely would have sparked cries of “cancel culture” had she been a right-wing figure.
Hannah-Jones was the subject of a controversy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this summer, after a wealthy donor objected to her receiving a tenured professorship; she ultimately joined the Howard University faculty instead. (Dozens of UNC professors later wrote a letter asserting that the treatment had been “racist.”)
A similar dynamic is playing out at Middlesex, a traditionally white institution founded in 1901 in Concord, Massachusetts, where the majority of students live on campus.
Another recent alum told The Daily Beast that “black voices on campus were pretty much suppressed. Any time that we were given a platform to speak, we had to make it more palatable for the rest of the school.”
Current students are planning to protest the administration’s decision on campus, while alums are planning a letter-writing campaign.
Tom Breyer, who graduated in 1981, said he was “appalled.”
“I certainly haven’t heard the school’s side of the story, although it’s hard to imagine what it would be that would really make it seem better,” he said.
In a statement, Middlesex’ head of school, David Beare, acknowledged that the school had blocked Hannah-Jones’ appearance.
“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,” he said.
Beare added that the school has the “utmost respect” for Hannah-Jones and apologized “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.”
Remarkably, last week Middlesex’ board of trustees had posted a public letter affirming its commitment to diversity and discourse.
“As an educational institution, we believe an open exchange of viewpoints is vital to student development and intellectual excellence,” they wrote. “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 letter was signed by Beare, board president Stephen Lari, and Brickson Diamond, chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Neither Lari nor Diamond had responded to requests for comment by publication time.
The 1619 Project, which tackles the legacy of slavery in America, earned Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize. But the series has become a major target for conservative activists and “anti-wokeness” fighters.
Some Republican legislators have pushed to keep the project out of school curricula, while riled-up parents in Texas are equally panicked about Hannah-Jones’ work. The unrest is part of a broader campaign against “critical race theory” and blowback to anti-racism movements that intensified following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year.
Hannah-Jones says she is unrattled by the situation at Middlesex, whose alumni include comedian Steve Carell and New York Times op-ed columnist Bret Stephens.
“I don’t feel ‘canceled.’ I still have a platform, I will continue to produce work, speak where I am wanted,” she tweeted on Monday. “But the lack of courage in these times is so very sad.”