Books That Explore Race In U.S. Lead Arts Pulitzers

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.

Strout, the fiction winner, said she was still trying to "absorb the fact that I won this." Her first two books, the novels "Amy and Isabelle" and "Abide With Me," were bestsellers that were also widely praised by critics. But for "Olive Kitteridge," she said, the nature of her title character -- a strong-minded retired schoolteacher in coastal Maine -- dictated the form of linked stories.

"Olive is a very powerful force on the page," Strout explained, and to have her at the center of a traditional novel would be too intense.

"Ruined," now running in a widely praised production at Manhattan Theatre Club, is the latest play by Nottage, 44, to put an incisively human face on an issue of pressing social concern. Set in the "recent past" in a mining town bar in the Congo, the drama revolves around a vivacious cafe owner and bordello operator who takes in younger women, including some who have been "ruined" -- that is, raped by marauding soldiers and rebels and thereafter consigned to the status of outcast.

The Pulitzer board in this case overlooked the requirement that a winning play be concerned with an American topic, opting to recognize Nottage's skillful integration of rich characters into a sophisticated plot with universal implications.

Merwin's prize was his second Pulitzer. The poet, now 81, won in 1971 for "The Carrier of Ladders."

The Pulitzer Prize for music tacitly acknowledged the lifetime achievement of Reich, who is among the greatest living composers but who was long viewed as a renegade by the conservative music establishment. Reich's winning composition, "Double Sextet," is the latest in a long sequence of pieces juxtaposing live musicians playing against a recording.

Reich, 72, had been a finalist for the prize more than a dozen times. He observed that many great composers have never won a Pulitzer: Morton Feldman, Philip Glass and John Coltrane, among them. As for himself, "better late than never," he said from his home in Pound Ridge, N.Y. He considers "Double Sextet" "a very good piece. It may not be 'Music for 18 Musicians' or 'Tehillim' " -- seminal pieces he's written -- "but for me it's in the top drawer. I'm self-critical; I wouldn't say that about every piece. But I'm proud to win it for this one."

Staff writers Bob Thompson, Peter Marks and Anne Midgette contributed to this story.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company