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The 2020 Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded and there are some incredibly deserving winners in the lineup from the race beat’s (or just humanity’s) point of view. But let’s focus on one for now: Nikole Hannah-Jones wins the Pulitzer for Commentary for her introductory essay for the 1619 Project, what raceAhead once described as “a necessary corrective to the fundamental lie of the American origin story.” Clearly, others felt the same.
“For a sweeping, deeply reported and personal essay for the ground-breaking 1619 Project, which seeks to place the enslavement of Africans at the center of America’s story, prompting public conversation about the nation’s founding and evolution,” said a Pulitzer announcement of the project that recognized the 400th anniversary of the origins of human chattel slavery.
In discussing her acceptance of the award to New York Times staff via video (as tweeted by New York Times Magazine deputy editor Jessica Lustig), Hannah-Jones spoke about “making a difference.”
The 1619 Project stirred up plenty of controversy for its reframing of history, including an open letter from five historians raising questions about the project’s premise, and the process the team used for historical fact-checking and vetting.
The New York Times responded swiftly and thoroughly:
“As the five letter writers well know, there are often debates, even among subject-area experts, about how to see the past,” the editor-in-chief wrote. “We can hardly claim to have studied the Revolutionary period as long as some of the signatories, nor do we presume to tell them anything they don’t already know, but I think it would be useful for readers to hear why we believe that Hannah-Jones’s claim that ‘one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery’ is grounded in the historical record.”
Ida B. Wells, investigative journalism trailblazer, educator, and civil rights icon, was also posthumously honored with a Pulitzer Special Citation for her “outstanding and courageous reporting on the horrific and vicious violence against African Americans during the era of lynching.”
The prize comes with $50,000 to support Wells’ mission, with recipients to be announced at a later date.
As it’s time to celebrate this achievement and the necessary correctives still to come, it’s worth giving Hannah-Jones the last, re-framed word:
“I’ve been trying to come up with sentences worthy of summing up how it felt to be awarded @PulitzerPrizes the same day as Ida B. Wells for a project I led on the legacy of slavery for the @nytimes,” she tweeted, “a newspaper that in 1894 called Wells a ‘slanderous and nasty-minded mulattress.’”
Ellen McGirt and Tamara El-Waylly co-wrote today’s essay.