Back in January of this year, I took the time to try to figure out how many Black writers have won Pulitzer Prizes in the six “Letters and Drama” categories; Biography/Autobiography, Fiction, General Non-Fiction, History, Poetry, and Drama. The results were spectacularly dismal.
The award was first bestowed in 1917. The first award was not given to a Black person until 1950! Gwendolyn Brooks was the first to win for her book of poetry Annie Allen. Almost another three decades would go by before another Black writer, James Alan McPherson would win for his novel, Elbow Room in 1978.
As far as I can tell, no Black writer has ever won for General Non-fiction. Only one writer Ta-Nehisi Coates was ever nominated in the category, for the spectacularly successful, Between the World and Me.
Up until 2016, only 19 Black writers have won Pulitzer Prizes during the first century the award was given. However this year, three Black writers have won half of the awards in given in the Letters and Drama categories. Given the history of the award, it is like lightning striking not twice but three times.
In fact, novelist and critic Hilton Als won the Award for Criticism. I did not research the history of the other 18 categories for which Pulitzer Prizes are awarded. The other categories deal mostly with journalism and reporting; I suspect that would be an interesting and revealing exercise to review those categories too.
I’d be the first to argue that the Black community does not need the validation of Pulitzer Prize Board to substantiate our work. Indeed, given the history of the award, it is not expected either. However, there have been substantive changes in the awards in recent years. This is the first time three Black writers have won in these categories in a single year. Of the total 22 awards given to Black writers, almost half were given in the last 10 years. This is a positive trend.
So while we do not need the award to know our writing deserves merit, it is, of course, welcomed when our literary merit is acknowledged and celebrated by the broader community. In additional to the $10,000 monetary award, these writers will enjoy even greater success with better book advances and more lucrative speaking gigs. This is America and awards like the Pulitzer help authors achieve financial success—a benefit denied so many talented Black writers.
AALBC.com congratulates all the winners of Pulitzer Prizes in the Letters and Drama categories:
Colson Whitehead for his novel Underground Railroad
“For a distinctive work that melds performance art with the deeper art of poetry to explore collective memory and challenge contemporary notions of race and identity.”
Tyehimba Jess for his book Olio
“For a smart melding of realism and allegory that combines the violence of slavery and the drama of escape in a myth that speaks to contemporary America.”
Lynn Nottage for her play Sweat
“For a nuanced yet powerful drama that reminds audiences of the stacked deck still facing workers searching for the American dream.”