NEW YORK — In her 1993 bestseller, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, the African-American author Jill Nelson wrote that when newsrooms and police departments began to integrate following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., white journalists and patrolmen often encouraged their new black co-workers to prove their professional loyalty by “shooting their own.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the nation’s most prestigious journalism award, the Pulitzer Prize. What connects many of the African-American journalists awarded the 102-year-old prize is a willingness — perhaps even an enthusiasm — to mow down other blacks in print.
What Blacks win Pulitzers for
Consider, for example, Leon Dash’s eight-part Washington Post series on an illiterate, drug-addled, HIV-infected, larcenous sex-worker named Rosa Lee Cunningham, which won a Pulitzer for Explanatory Journalism in 1995. Dash, who is black, “explained” how Rosa Lee represented an isolated urban underclass. She was, in fact, quite the opposite: a white-supremacist’s chimera, a sociological aberration, and an outlier in her impoverished, mostly-black community in the District of Columbia, who was no more representative of a black underclass than the serial murderer Ted Bundy represented the white, suburban middle-class.
Twelve years later, Cynthia Tucker, the black editorial page editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution won the Pulitzer for a series of columns published in 2006 in which she took dead aim at black political figures in Georgia. First, she took former U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney, who is also African-American, to task for anti-Semitic remarks made by the lawmaker’s father, playing the race card to further her personal agenda, and assaulting a Capitol Hill police officer.
“She slugged him with her telephone,” Tucker wrote in a column.
One of the most progressive voices on the Hill at the tme, McKinney was never charged with any crime, and Tucker’s assertion was not substantiated by any witnesses. Her radical views — including her ardent support for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation — earned McKinney the enmity of Georgia’s corporate elites who poured money into the campaign of her primary challenger, and ultimate successor, Hank Johnson.
“Cynthia Tucker,” McKinney later wrote in a defamation suit against the columnist and her employer, Cox Communications, “is the Cox corporate owners black pit bull.”
Of Tucker’s prize-winning submissions, the Pulitzer selection committee wrote:
For her courageous, clear-headed columns that evince a strong sense of morality and persuasive knowledge of the community.”
In the interest of full disclosure, this writer has twice been a bridesmaid but never a bride in the Pulitzer sweepstakes, as a lead reporter on projects that were finalists for a Pulitzer in the Public Service category. It should be noted as well that both Tucker and Dash were finalists for the prize before they won. Dash was a finalist for a 1985 series on unwed teenage African-American mothers that was excoriated by many in DC’s black community; and Tucker was a finalist for her 2005 columns, including one in which she referred to the blacks trapped in the New Orleans Superdome after Hurricane Katrina as “bestial;” Of her 2005 entry, the Pulitzer board wrote:
For her pungent, clear-eyed columns that tackled controversial issues with frankness and fortitude.”
Kendrick Lamar this week became the first rap artist to win a Pulitzer — for his album, Damn, and anyone who’s heard it would be hard-pressed to say that the award wasn’t well-deserved. Indeed, the Pulitzer’s arts jurors have historically been less dogmatic in their choices, famously awarding a special citation to the African-American jazz composer Duke Ellington in 1965 and awarding the jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis with the Pulitzer in 1996 for his three-hour-long oratorio on slavery entitled Blood on the Fields.
If you’re black, how to win and how not to win a Pulitzer
But a familiar pattern is adhered to in the consideration of journalistic, or historical works that can either support or challenge the popular and politicized narratives that discredit African-Americans. The late Manning Marable’s 2011 biography, Malcolm X: a Life of Reinvention, is firmly within that ignoble tradition. Jurors saw fit to award the book a Pulitzer in 2012 despite its thinly-sourced (only 25 interviews) narrative and the use of gossip and innuendo to repeat unfounded rumors that one of the 20th century’s greatest intellectuals had a homosexual encounter, multiple extramarital affairs, and was, the reader is led to believe, lousy in bed.
So disappointing was the Marable biography that black writers and academics openly wondered whether the book wasn’t a counterintelligence ploy intended to preempt the next generation of radical social movements in the U.S. One Malcolm X biographer, Karl Evanzz, called the book a “fraud” and a “failure.”
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The Pulitzer jurists thought otherwise, writing that the Marable work was:
An exploration of the legendary life and provocative views of one of the most significant African-Americans in U.S. history, a work that separates fact from fiction and blends the heroic and tragic.”
Manning’s book — published posthumously — remains a mystery of sorts. As a historian and prolific writer, the Columbia University professor was renowned among the black political left, leading many to speculate that what was published was not what he intended.
The African-American journalist Janet Cooke was viewed quite differently. When The Washington Post published her 1980 profile of a black, eight-year-old heroin addict, titled “Jimmy’s World,” her black colleagues in the newsroom complained that the story was a fabrication. What’s more, they countered, the aloof Cooke, who had no relationship to Washington’s black community, couldn’t possibly pull off the immersive reporting required to write such a story. White editors at the Post, including Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, dismissed the complaints as petty jealousies and submitted Cooke’s story for a Pulitzer the following year.
It won, and the embarrassment to both the Post and the Pulitzer Prize was considerable when it was discovered that Cooke’s story was indeed an urban fable. The Post returned the award.
Just as telling are the books that did not win a Pulitzer. Compare, for example, the Pulitzer’s initial exaltation of Cooke’s article, or Dash’s, with Michelle Alexander’s 2010 best-seller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, which expertly identifies structural racism, rather than personal failures, as the primary factor in racial disparities.
While Alexander’s book is glaringly absent from the Pulitzer’s page of award-winners, this year’s award-winners include James Foreman’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America, which rightly focuses on the complicity of African-Americans in jailing poorer blacks, but is nevertheless in lockstep with black-bashing narratives.
Rewarding Oriental Orientalism
The Pulitzers are, of course, representative of Orientalism, the term coined in the late Edward Said’s 1978 book, which shined a light on the West’s efforts to qualify its imperialism by assigning men of science and letters the exercise of shifting the blame for colonialism from the colonizer to the colonized. The practice dates back to France’s 1798 invasion of Egypt, when Napoleon encouraged artists, writers, and anthropologists to re-imagine the Nile’s inhabitants, or to Orientalize the Orient.
In present day America, Orientalism explains the exaltation of racial narratives embodied in movies like Driving Miss Daisy, The Blind Side, and The Butler; the tendency of jurists for the Grammy Awards to shower awards on mediocre white artists such as Macklemore, or apolitical artists such as Bruno Mars; and the Pulitzer awarded to New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines for his reminiscences of his black mammy while growing up in Jim Crow Alabama.
Yet, if scholars define Orientalism as white people writing about people of color for white people, then the rise of a Black Jacobin class has reformulated the syntax for a neo-colonial era. With the American Empire at its nadir and seeking both absolution and scapegoats, black journalists, academics, police, filmmakers and philanthropists are the post-Obama Orientalists, increasingly charged with writing about people of color for white people. It is a pernicious disinformation campaign.
Said Malcolm X:
If you’re not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.”
Top Photo | Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker celebrate in the newsroom Monday, April 16, 2007, after it was announced that they won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for history and commentary. (AP/John Bazemore)
Jon Jeter is a published book author and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist with more than 20 years of journalistic experience. He is a former Washington Post bureau chief and award-winning foreign correspondent on two continents, as well as a former radio and television producer for Chicago Public Media’s “This American Life.”