UChicago scholar Mitchell S. Jackson wins Pulitzer Prize for essay on Ahmaud Arbery

Writer honored for ‘deeply affecting account’ of Arbery’s life and killing

Asst. Prof. Mitchell S. Jackson of the University of Chicago was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for his essay in Runner’s World about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed in February 2020 while jogging in Georgia after being chased by white men in vehicles. Arrests were made only weeks after the killing, once video pertaining to the incident was shared widely on social media. 

Jackson interviewed Arbery’s friends and family remotely while quarantining in New York City, he said. The essay, published in June last year, about four months after Arbery’s death, provides a detailed account of his life, personality and relationships and “how running fails Black America.”

“I was really thankful because many of Ahmaud’s family members and close friends really opened up to me about him,” said Jackson, a faculty member in the Program in Creative Writing and the Department of English Language and Literature. 

“You can tell a lot about a person by who they have in their life; who cares about them. It was really clear that they cared deeply about him, and that they were really good people. That gave me a lot of energy when I was writing the piece.”

The Pulitzer Prize Board recognized Jackson “for a deeply affecting account of the killing” of Arbery that “combined vivid writing, thorough reporting and personal experience to shed light on systemic racism in America.”

Arbery’s killing, along with those of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans, contributed to a wave of protests last summer in the movement against systemic racism and police brutality.

“Oftentimes victims of police brutality or misconduct … are just seen as a victim,” Jackson said. “It was really important to me to show how Arbery lived, which is why I named the piece ‘Twelve Minutes and a Life,’ because his life was just as important as the 12 minutes when he was hunted.”

Jackson noted that the murder trial is still ongoing, and that justice has “not been served.” He said he hopes his Pulitzer win will help keep society’s attention “where it needs to be.” 

A prolific writer and columnist for Esquire whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, The Guardian, The New York Times Book Review, Harpers, The Paris Review and other leading publications, Jackson’s nonfiction often explores important social and political topics through a close, personal lens. 

Jackson is the author of multiple works of fiction and nonfiction, including the recent memoir Survival Math, about his experiences growing up in the Black community in Portland, Oregon; and the novel The Residue Years. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Creative Capital Grant, a PEN/Hemingway debut fiction award and numerous other writing honors

“Mitchell S. Jackson’s special brilliance, announced in his memoir, ‘Survival Math,’ lies in presenting individual Black men with respect, honesty and love, tracking with detailed research and in powerful prose how each has found ways to survive in a hostile world,” said Prof. John Wilkinson, chair of UChicago’s Program in Creative Writing and in the Department of English Language and Literature. 

Jackson said he was deeply honored by the award, which he did not know he had won until a friend called him. Jackson initially thought the congratulations were for the National Magazine Award that he won yesterday, he said.

“I don’t think anyone can anticipate winning a Pulitzer,” he said. “I felt just flabbergasted when I got the news. It was a surreal moment.”

After June 30, 2021, he will be departing UChicago and joining the English and creative writing faculty at Arizona State University.

Two UChicago alumni were also collaborators on a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism project last year: Andrew Fan, AB ’13, and Damini Sharma, AB ’15, SM ’20, worked on an investigation of police dogs and the damage that K-9 units inflict on Americans, which won the prize for national reporting.

Fan is a data reporter who spent more than a year investigating police dog bites at the Invisible Institute, a nonprofit journalism outlet based in Chicago that was one of four organizations that jointly won for their work on the project. Sharma also contributed as a data reporting fellow at the Marshall Project, which produces nonprofit journalism about criminal justice.

Other recent UChicago-affiliated winners of Pulitzer Prizes include alumni Brent Staples, AM’76, PhD’82 (editorial writing, 2019); Martyna Majok, AB’07 (drama, 2018); Tyehimba Jess, AB’91 (poetry, 2017). 

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, author Philip Roth, longtime Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, historian John Hope Franklin, astronomer Carl Sagan and novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder are also former winners who are UChicago alumni or former faculty.