An Open Letter to the Pulitzer Board
Today’s blog post is by author Rae Bryant
Snowden. NSA leaker, traitor and patron saint of American privacy. Snowden’s stolen national security documents, what Obama to Feinstein and other government officials have referred to more than once as an act of treason, present a sexy irony. Snowden’s choices certainly fall within the national standards of treason, and yet, Snowden’s actions also make him a stalwart son of liberty and all that we hold dear, or think we hold dear, as American citizens. His leaks have forced us to question standards of individualization and governmental entitlements.
About a year ago, my son came home from school. He was in eighth grade at the time, and he told me about a friend who had been abused that day in gym class. We’ll call this friend, John. My son described John, who is black, as being tied up and, with jumping ropes, whipped “playfully” by “friends” and fellow football players. The boys used the N word. John, one of my son’s best friends, has suffered under this sort of obvious and more subtle forms of prejudice for years at the hands of, really, one particular boy from one particular family—we’ll call this boy, Whitey. This sort of prejudice has been around in this town since my husband and I were in grade school here. It is one main reason we moved away. We came back, family being family, hoping for better and seeing some progress but, obviously, not nearly enough.
When John, John’s mother, my son and I went to the guidance department and the office and explained our concerns, Whitey was called in for questioning. He and the other boy who participated were disciplined. We did see a change in diversity and leadership at the school, which was a great step forward for this school and town, an important moment for my son. He saw necessity and effectiveness of stepping up. Standing. We all came out of this encouraged. He wants to join the Navy now and become a leader. As terrifying as it is to think of him in violence and service, I am encouraged by a simple truth: our country needs young men and women willing to step up and push the hard questions.
My son and I and our family suffered a bit of social blaming and ousting that year by Whitey, Whitey’s family and Whitey’s family’s friends, but this was all expected. It didn’t change our actions, our expectations or our resolve. In our town, the overall accepted concept of right and wrong is not always what another town might view as true, loyal or patriotic. And so it wasn’t the sense of town loyalty or patriotism that guided our actions. It was a commitment to personal, individual truth. A commitment to pushing the question. Something Jack Thornell’s 1967 photograph of the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi by a roadside rifleman encouraged an entire country to see and consider and question. There were many American citizens, in 1967, some in high-ranking leadership, who did not seek or welcome this question. They would not have gone to the guidance department, talked to the principle, demanded conversation about an eighth grade boy being tied up with ropes by his peers in gym class.
What I find interesting aren’t the multiple discussions of Snowden as treasonous or Snowden as sexy rebel, but rather, how the issue of presenting the actions and supporting evidence of the leaks can be anything less than journalistic and essential and so very Pulitzer. The Snowden leak is by many standards the biggest story of the year, perhaps of the decade. No one is arguing the national security issues of publicizing Big Brother; however, it’s a journalists’ job to poke and ask the hard questions. Checks and balances. The same checks and balances that have brought years of social injustices to light, both illegal and government-sanctioned. Both “patriotic” and “unpatriotic.”
Pulitzers are not given to the righteous and the safe. They are given to the writers and the artists and the photographers who dig into the underbelly and force us to continue questioning what righteous and safe and patriotic mean, which is an essential reason to mourn any year we lose an award for a board’s refusal to give the award. I’ll just put this out into the ether now. To withhold the award, again, on such a year would be, again, disappointing. A coward’s way.
Reforming and questioning our social narratives is essential to the progress of our social narratives, how we view our humanity and the humanity we wish to instill in our young. Jack Thornell’s 1967 photograph of the shooting of James Meredith in Mississippi by a roadside rifleman. Eddie Adams’ photograph of Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing Nguyễn Văn Lém in 1968. Anthony Roberts capturing a woman being beaten in an LA parking lot in 1973 then moments later capturing her assailant’s parking lot execution as the assailant straddles her. The Pulitzer awards are not the culmination of what we see in proper and polite and unquestionable society. Pulitzers award the defining moments that make us question. Or they should. It is what we have come to expect and why we have been disappointed. (Nudge. Fiction. 2012. 1977. 1974. And so on.)
Politico asks “does [the Pulitzer] honor reporting by The Washington Post and The Guardian… Or, does it pass over what is widely viewed as the single most significant story of the year — if not the decade — for the sake of playing it safe?” We should all be asking this question. Does it sit well, this idea of Pulitzer safety? Does it sit well that we must even consider whether the Pulitzer would pull back under this idea of safety? Is this what we want from our most distinguished American prize in the arts and letters?
I hope not. For my son’s and my daughter’s sakes, I hope not. I would like to hope that the social discomforts my children suffer, in the interest of what is just and right, isn’t on their shoulders alone and on the shoulders of so many who would stand. Sometimes it is the faith and the goodness of our innocents and our idealists that should guide us most. Our cynicisms and practicalities must share space with our ideals if we are to create fuller conversations. And it is in the moments when we question what is right and just and safe that we should stand. Even if Big Brother stands taller and looming.
Rae Bryant is the author of the story collection The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Paris Review, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, Huffington Post, BLIP Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, and Redivider, among other publications. She is editor-in-chief of the literary and arts journal, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. Visit her online at raebryant.com