Category Archives: History

Black Writers Dominate the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes

Tyehimba Jess, Hilton Als, Colson Whityehead and LYnn Nottage. Black writers winners of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize

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:

Fiction
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.”

Poetry
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.”

Drama
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.”

 

Anita Hemmings, the First Black Student to Attend Vassar College

The-gilded-yearsKarin Tanabe’s gripping new historical novel, The Gilded Years (Washington Square Press, June 7, 2016) is based on the true story of Anita Hemmings, the first black student to attend Vassar College. With “spot on” dialogue and “narration reminiscent of novels of the 1890s” (Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August), Tanabe has crafted a tonally masterful yet supremely relevant narrative on race, women’s rights, and the challenges of finding one’s place in the world.

Since childhood, Anita Hemmings has longed to attend Vassar, the country’s most exclusive school for women. Now, a bright, beautiful senior in the class of 1897, she is hiding a secret that would have banned her from admission: she is the only African-American student ever to attend the college. With her olive complexion and dark hair, she has successfully passed as white for three years, but now finds herself rooming with Louise “Lottie” Taylor, the scion of one of New York’s most prominent families.

news-Anita-Hemmings-small

Anita Hemmings (Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library)

Pulled into Lottie’s elite world, Anita learns what it’s like to be treated as a wealthy, educated white woman—the person everyone believes her to be—and even finds herself in a relationship with a moneyed Harvard man. With this closeness comes trouble, however, as Anita faces what it truly means to pass: the guilt of betraying her family, of lying to her friends, of cutting herself off from her community in exchange for an education. As Anita’s relationships with Lottie and her affluent classmates grow closer, she must make the near impossible decision of whether to choose the love of a man who can open doors she could not reach on her own, or to be true to her heritage and return home to her family after graduation, leaving the ease of white society behind in favor of a different sort of freedom.

Set against the vibrant backdrop of the Gilded Age, an era when old money traditions collided with modern ideas, Tanabe has written an unputdownable and emotionally compelling story of hope, sacrifice, and betrayal. The Gilded Years is a riveting account of how one woman dared to risk everything for the chance at a better life (Hemmings Photo Credit: Archives & Special Collections, Vassar College Library).


“An utterly captivating narrative that kept me turning pages late into the night.”–Kathleen Grissom, New York Times bestselling author ofThe Kitchen House

“Karin Tanabe limns the tensions of a young woman’s desire to participate fully in a world in which she doesn’t dare reveal her full self…Most impressive are the characters’ emotional complexity; Tanabe understands that human relations are never so simple as black and white.”
–Christina Schwarz, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“This engaging novel, set in a time of conflict between old money and new ideas, captures both the bravery and the heartbreak of Anita’s decision…Readers won’t soon forget Anita Hemmings or the choices she made.”
–BookPage

“In Anita’s captivating story, heightened by richly drawn characters, Tanabe insightfully grapples with complex and compelling issues.”
–Booklist

news-karin-tanabeKarin Tanabe is the author of the novels The List and The Price of Inheritance. The Gilded Years is her third novel. A former Politicoreporter and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post, her work has also appeared in publications including The Washington Post,The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald,Newsday, The Philadelphia Inquirer and in the anthology Crush: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing and the Lasting Power of Their First Celebrity Crush. She lives in Washington, D.C. with her husband and daughter.

Visit her web site: http://www.karintanabe.com


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Troy Johnson
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