Books Examining America's Racial History Headline 2009 Pulitzer Prizes for Art

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two works that probed America's complex and disfiguring racial history over three centuries were awarded Pulitzer Prizes in the letters, drama and music categories yesterday.

Annette Gordon-Reed's "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," a multi-generational history of the family of Thomas Jefferson's slave Sally Hemings, won the 2009 prize for history. And Wall Street Journal editor Douglas A. Blackmon was awarded the general nonfiction prize for "Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans From the Civil War to World War II," which documented the systematic disenfranchisement, arrest and forced labor of African Americans in the South after emancipation.

Other winners were Newsweek editor Jon Meacham for his biography of Andrew Jackson; New York dramatist Lynn Nottage for her play "Ruined"; poet W.S. Merwin, for his collection "The Shadow of Sirius"; writer Elizabeth Strout for her short-story collection, "Olive Kitteridge"; and Steve Reich for the musical composition "Double Sextet."

Blackmon, 44, spent eight years combing courthouse records throughout the South to produce what the Pulitzer board called "a precise and eloquent work" about the legal and political mechanisms that led to the virtual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of black men for decades after the Civil War. The book, said the board, "rescues a multitude of atrocities from virtual obscurity."

Blackmon said yesterday that his book grew out of a story he reported and wrote for the Journal in 2000 about forced servitude at an Alabama coal mine in the early part of the 20th century. Blackmon documented the practice of arresting, convicting and transporting black men into forced labor, which was common throughout the industrial and agrarian South and continued until the civil rights era of the 1960s.

"What's most important about [the Pulitzer] is that it validates my hope and plea for an aggressive reinterpretation of what happened to African Americans in the first half of the 20th century," Blackmon said in an interview yesterday. "What's clear is that the crimes against African American men were much greater than we have cared to acknowledge, and that you can't understand the state of race relations and the harm it has done to African Americans to this day without taking into account the harsh and terrible truth."

Gordon-Reed's editor woke her with the news in Sydney, where she was participating in a symposium on Jefferson's legacy and preparing to give a lecture titled "Barack Obama and Michelle Obama: Rewriting the Narrative of American History."

"The Hemingses of Monticello" also won the National Book Award last fall, but Gordon-Reed, who teaches at New York Law School and Rutgers University-Newark, still called her Pulitzer win "a shock." Winning either award "is not something you expect to do," she said. To win both "is out of this world."

Gordon-Reed's earlier book "Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy," looked closely at the relationship of the president and his slave. Her goal with the new book, she said, was to "take on something bigger."

"I wanted people to think of James, Robert, Mary and Elizabeth Hemings going about their individual lives," she said. She wanted readers to see not just "generic enslaved men and women" but "the totality of this family and their engagement with slavery."

Newsweek's Meacham, 39, won the biography Pulitzer for "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House," which the prize committee called "an unflinching portrait of a not-always admirable democrat" who founded the Democratic Party and shaped the modern presidency. (Newsweek is owned by The Washington Post Co.)

Meacham, the author of acclaimed works about the Founding Fathers and the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, said his bestselling Jackson volume benefited from Barack Obama's election (the book was released a few days after Election Day). "As different as Obama and Andrew Jackson were, both made people feel they were in charge once more, both ran on a consistent message of change and both had supporters who would go to the cross for them," he said yesterday.

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