By George Kevin Jordan, AFRO Staff Writer
Three of arguably the most important and prolific writers of our time sat down on March 5 at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium for the “Power of the Pen” panel discussion to chat about writing, research, work and loving our Blackness. But the evening quickly morphed into a master class on pushing yourself towards excellence no matter what your field.
SPOILER ALERT – The answer to most every question in life is read more.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Jelani Cobb took the stage at Howard Cramton Auditorium in front of an intimate but enthusiastic crowd. The event was hosted by Anthony Brown, a Howard alum and communications specialist for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of the Inspector General.
The trio, who are friends in real life, have a list of credits and honors most people never achieve. Hannah-Jones is an investigative journalist covering Civil Rights and Racial injustice for the New York Times. She is the recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, The National Magazine Award and the National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence Award.
Coates is a writer of residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. He wrote the bestselling books, “The Beautiful Struggle,” “We Were Eight Years in Power” and “Between the World and Me,” which won the National Book Award. Coates is also the author of Marvel comics such as “The Black Panther” and “Captain America,” and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship.
Dr. Cobb is an Ira A. Lipman Professor of Journalism at Columbia University. Cobb has been staff writer for The New Yorker since 2015. He is a recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright and Ford Foundations. He is also the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress” as well as “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic.” He is also a Howard alum.
Brown asked Coates why it was important for him to be on at the panel discussion and the author was quick to point out the school’s contribution to his life.
“It’s quite impossible for me to imagine any success or my life at all personal or professional without Howard,” Coates, who attended the university, said. “I met my wife here. I met Jelani here. My first articles were published in the Community News and Hilltop.”
He went on to say, “I will owe Howard until the day I die.”
Brown asked Cobb to unpack what he does as a writer.
“I think I am a Black man trying to be responsible to his community and times,” Cobb said.
“I’m a historian and a journalist. But my mission has always been to use the tools that I gained at this institution in a way that was befitting the people who invested in me.”
Hannah-Jones was able to unpack her process and debunk the myth of objectivity in journalism, all in one answer.
“I don’t believe in objectivity. I’ve made that very clear,” Hannah-Jones said.
She went on to say: “I don’t pretend to be objective and I think objectivity has been the shield that mainstream White media and journalists hide behind when they make decisions that clearly many of us think are biased, when they decide who they’re going to cover, what goes on the front page. These are all subjective decisions on what they think are important.”
“I don’t choose to hide behind that at all. But for me what is important is to be accurate and fair. Can you dispute the reporting? Is there anything in the reporting that is not true and was I fair to the parties involved?”
Hannah-Jones said her journalism is more aligned with the tradition of Black journalists and Black media.
“How did someone like Ida B. Wells be objective when reporting in a country where Black people didn’t have citizenship rights?” she asked. “In a country that is in opposition to their existence. In a country that is in opposition to their humanity. You can’t pretend you have no stakes in the game.”
But developing good work is the most important part of the job. “You have to be excellent, you can’t just be good,” Hannah-Jones said.
Dr. Cobbs echoed the sentiment that the next generation of writers have to focus on the output not the outlet.
“People come to me and say, ‘I want you to get me into The New Yorker.’ as opposed to saying, ‘I want you to help me to get my work to be good enough that it belongs in The New Yorker,” Cobbs said. “It’s the aspiration and the ambition without the idea of the caliber of the work going first.”
Coates broke down the essential responsibility of being a Black journalist.
“It’s really not enough for you to just go out and be a relatively successful journalist,” Coates said. “It’s not enough for you to go get a job at the New York Times, or get a job at The New Yorker or The Atlantic, where I was. You have to use the work that you create once you get there as a sword. You’re at war.”
“You’re not just a journalist. You are a journalist in cause of something.”
Coates continued saying: “Your job is to be excellent but excellent in the course of something. When you think about what this long struggle is about, it’s actually about the future of humanity. Your job is to use your power you have as a journalist, as a writer to not be amongst that group of people who are trying to push the world over the cliff.”
But Coates said understanding your responsibility does not have to be burden on you. It can empower you.
“If you do it right, once you leave and become a journalist it can be an accelerant,” Coates said to the crowd. “If you’re writing like, ‘no I’m trying to change the world,’ it’s a different type of fire.”
The crowd cheered and encouraged the panel throughout the night. Many people who attended the event were there for different reasons.
Mikala Williams, 28, who lives in D.C., said she follows Hannah-Jones and Cobb online.
“I just admire their work,” Williams said. “I’m a freelance writer and I wanted to hear what they have to say about being a new writer and always having the audacity to really employ an authentic voice as a Black writer in predominantly White publications and how we can connect that bridge.”
When asked about the importance seeing Black representation in the field of journalism, especially at the caliber of the panelists, Williams said, “It’s huge. It’s almost imperative for young writers or just aspiring writers, especially Black young women and men who are trying to find their footing, where they are in a world where they are reminded that their voice doesn’t matter, to continue to fight that, to fight against that. It’s just encouraging.”
Nichelle Hernandez, 19, a sophomore studying journalism at Howard said, “I want to further the conversation and see what else they have to say about current issues in journalism and issues across the board.”
As for pursuing journalism in this climate of layoffs and uncertainty, Hernandez said, “even though journalism may not be the direct avenue I might take, I feel it’s still something I should study, and at least as a foundation. Even if I go into production, TV, i feel knowing news, current event writing, that’s a good background.”
To learn more about the event go to #powerofthepen.