Editor’s Note: Mikki Kendall is the author of “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
As a writer, I am ready to congratulate the winners every year when the Pulitzer Board announces its awards – and to commiserate with friends who had hoped to make that storied list.
This year, the Pulitzer Board’s announcement that Darnella Frazier – the teenager who filmed the killing of George Floyd – had won a special citation feels like a big moment, but not necessarily a celebratory one.
Floyd’s death is not something to celebrate, obviously, and despite the narrative of martyrdom and so-called sacrifice assigned to him posthumously, the horrifying truth is that he was murdered in front of a community. He did not choose to give up his life to change anything, and sadly in many ways, his death at the hands of police was just one part of the story.
Before Floyd was murdered, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by police in her own home. Within hours of Derek Chauvin’s conviction for killing Floyd, six people were killed by police. Floyd’s death at the hands of law enforcement was part of a pattern that is still in motion.
So then how do we respond to this announcement? The board explained the honor by saying Frazier received the citation for “courageously reporting the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.” The Pulitzer Board has awarded similar special citations in 43 other cases.
In some ways, the citation for Frazier mirrors the 2020 announcement that the Pulitzer board would honor Ida B. Wells-Barnett by awarding $50,000 to still-unnamed recipients. That recognition was far too little and came far too late. In Wells-Barnett’s case, as well as Frazier’s, the Pulitzers’ history has to be recognized as part of the context of this citation.
Even the award to Wells-Barnett – a journalist who risked her life and used pioneering methods to document and protest the lynching of Black people under Jim Crow – represented an overdue, inadequate attempt to counter over 100 years of silence and erasure about her work.
A better recognition for Frazier’s work would have been inclusion in an existing category, or the creation of or call for a new category honoring citizen journalism. Quite simply, her citation now is not enough. It does not change the history of the Pulitzers, nor does its symbolism alter the traumatic reality she recorded and preserved.
According to a 2016 analysis of 100 years of award data done by the Columbia Journalism Review, 84% of Pulitzer Prize winners have been White. At that time only 30 named African Americans had won awards. Despite the impressive and deserving work done by Black writers and journalists who have won awards since 2016 – among them, Colson Whitehead, Mitchell S. Jackson, Les and Tamara Payne, Marcia Chatelain, Wesley Morris and others – increasing diversity is not the same as substantially interrogating or publicly striving to alter the cultural norms that allowed such disparity to happen in the first place
Even the way the award is worded – the citation’s failure to mention racism or trauma, for instance – devalues in some ways the impact of Frazier’s choice to record and keep recording – even as you can hear in her voice on film how scared and appalled she was by what she was seeing. Awards are usually a mark of success after an intentional effort, instead, for Frazier this commemorates not only a single horrible day, but the beginning of months of inescapable traumatic moments, and may spawn many more as her name and face reenter the news cycle.
While many of the 2021 Pulitzer award descriptions reflect a deeper engagement with the issue of racism in America and its impact on individuals and communities, the awards themselves have been soundly criticized over the years for failing to be inclusive. As the most prestigious award in journalism, the way that Pulitzer juries have largely chosen to honor White people creates a false narrative that the work of marginalized people is unworthy of recognition unless it (like Frazier’s or Nikole Hannah-Jones) is so momentous it cannot be ignored.
Floyd was effectively lynched in front of Frazier’s eyes. While it is amazing that she was able to bear witness in a way that forced the world not to look away, her trauma is not something to applaud either. So how can we respond as a community, as a society to an announcement like this in a way that will not add to her trauma, and will not erase the courage she displayed?
Perhaps, like me, the Pulitzer jurors did not know what to say, and so they chose the special citation to communicate their support. Unfortunately, that still leaves unaddressed the deeper context of the prize’s history with race and the ways that this could bring her further unwelcome attention.
On the recent anniversary of George Floyd’s death, Frazier posted a powerful statement to Facebook. In it, she said “I’m not who I used to be,” describing how her experience had left her with nightmares and anxiety attacks and required her family to “up and leave because my home was no longer safe.”
Floyd’s death, she wrote, “changed how I viewed life … It made me realize how dangerous it is to be Black in America.” About her video, she wrote: “My video didn’t save George Floyd, but it put his murderer away and off the streets.” About herself, she said: “Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
Frazier did do something that will live on in American and global history: she filmed the truth of police brutality, highlighting the sheer absurdity of the ways extrajudicial murder by state actors like law enforcement has been normalized and justified. In many ways, she has sacrificed a part of herself to bear witness to a horror that most of America has yet to fully confront, much less resolve.
Somehow it feels worse for an institution like the Pulitzers to give a token award to Frazier for her pain without the committee really reckoning with whether it will add to her burden.
It boggles my mind that the Board can recognize that what she did is iconic – and that people can praise them for it – without considering her worthy of an award that does not feel like it comes with an asterisk.