Courtesy of Columbia University

May 11, 2020

YANDAVA | 2020’s Pulitzer Prizes Give Black Writers Their Due

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This year, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the announcement of the Pulitzer Prize winners was held off until May 4, when Dana Canedy, administrator of the prizes, announced the winners and finalists in a video presentation. While the style of the announcement and its circumstances are unprecedented, no less surprising is the number of black recipients. Though Canedy, as the first female, first person of color and youngest administrator, has worked to broaden the organization’s diversity in the past (for example, awarding the 2018 prize for music to Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.), she has managed to top her previous achievements this year, highlighting the importance of showcasing works by groups not well-recognized in the past into the mainstream.

After winning the Pulitzer for Fiction in 2017 for The Underground Railroad, author Colson Whitehead won again this year in the same category for his novel The Nickel Boys. Whitehead has made history, being only the fourth person to win a Pulitzer for Fiction twice; his books draw richly on historical events, reinterpreting them and bringing them to life in beautiful and devastating ways. The Nickel Boys revolves around the abuse faced by students at a juvenile reform school in Florida in the 1960s, based on the real-life Dozier School, whose secrets were unearthed only in the past decade. By turning an eye to America’s painful racial past, Whitehead also powerfully investigates how that history has been erased and how difficult it still is to fathom.

In a similar vein, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, which won for poetry, also explores the intersections between race, violence and history. However, Brown also brings flowers, Greek mythology, queerness and intimacy into the fold, making these poems both tender and urgent, lyrical and challenging. Both thematically and formally, Brown engages with poetic traditions and makes them his own; in “Duplex,” for example, he combines the forms of the ghazal, sonnet and blues, resulting in an emotional impact that is at once tremendous and graceful.

In the drama category, Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop took home the prize. Called “a metafictional musical” by the Pulitzer committee, the work is a highly original, bizarre but brilliant story about “a black, queer man writing a musical about a black, queer man who’s writing a musical about a black queer man, etc.” If the solipsism of the show causes some vertigo, it is set off by the work’s exuberant humor, cleverness and honesty. Although the musical is a little rough around the edges, it pursues its vision with fearlessness, a trait much-needed in art today.

This fearlessness is also a trait of Anthony Davis, whose opera The Central Park Five, like Whitehead’s novel, engages with history, and, like Brown’s collection of poems, reinvents tradition. Though we don’t usually think of opera as dealing with events related to politics and social justice, Davis shows us how opera can be an effective means of addressing contemporary issues, allowing the political to touch audiences personally.

While the merits of awards like the Pulitzer are often questioned and contested, they continue to have an important place in our culture by determining and legitimizing which works belong to our canon. Often, work by non-white creators is treated its own genre or as a niche category. However, as demonstrated by this year’s winners, these awards have the power to help us reevaluate how we think about race in relation to literature, and can broaden the inclusiveness of ceremonies often seen as inaccessible or pretentious. But, as Canedy notes, “If folks still consider [the diversity of this year’s winners] to be extraordinary, it simply means that we have more work to do.”

 

Ramya Yandava is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ryandava@cornellsun.com. Ramya’s Rambles runs alternate Thursdays this semester.