Rutgers University–Newark Professor Salamishah Tillet was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her New York Times essays on race in arts and culture, the Pulitzer Prize board announced.
Tillet is a Henry Rutgers Professor of African American Studies & Creative Writing at Rutgers-Newark and the director of Express Newark, a center for socially engaged art and design that brings together the Rutgers-Newark community and city residents. She joined the faculty in 2018.
“I'm overjoyed. I’m deeply honored and humbled by this recognition of my work,’’ Tillet said after receiving news of the award.
A contributing critic-at-large for the New York Times since 2015, Tillet’s work covers popular culture, gender, sexuality, race and politics as they play out in both popular entertainment and high art, from Netflix series to museum exhibitions.
Since 2020, the murder of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests have informed the way she approaches her role at the New York Times, she said.
“I really wanted to pay attention to the ways in which culture and art can both be an indicator of change and also perhaps an alternative to the problems that we have today,’’ explained Tillet. “Most of my work over the last year was looking at how Broadway or television or films or photographs have explored this loss but also offered us solace, and particularly the role of Black artists as a way of understanding how to get through what is really a traumatic and profound moment for our nation."
The Pulitzer judges cited Tillet "for learned and stylish writing about Black stories in art and popular culture–work that successfully bridges academic and nonacademic critical discourse."
Tillet, who lives in Newark, received her bachelor's degree in English and Afro-American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, her Master of Arts in Teaching from Brown University, and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University.
Her recent work includes the podcast series Because of Anita, which focuses on the impact of Hill’s 1991 testimony at hearings for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, where she accused him of sexually harassing her.
Tillet is the author of Sites of Slavery: Citizenship and Racial Democracy in the Post-Civil Rights Imagination and In Search of The Color Purple: The Story of an American Masterpiece. She was recently awarded the 2020 Whiting Foundation Creative Nonfiction Grant for her work-in-progress, All The Rage: Mississippi Goddam and the World Nina Simone Made. She is also the co-founder of A Long Walk Home, Inc., a nonprofit organization that uses art to end violence against girls and women.
At Rutgers-Newark this year, Tillet organized Black Portraiture[s] VII: Play & Performance, a conference that included the acclaimed photography exhibition Picturing Black Girlhood: Moments of Possibility, featuring work by 85 Black girls, women and genderqueer artists from ages 8 to 94. It was curated by her sister, photographer Scheherazade Tillet, and Zoraida Lopez-Diago and is on view at Express Newark through July.
Tillet expressed gratitude to Rutgers-Newark for nurturing her projects at the university. "My colleagues, especially at Express Newark and in Africana Studies and the MFA program, are real guides for my work and I'm just honored to be at a university that gives me the space to imagine and to collaborate and to really focus on art that matters to the city of Newark but also hopefully can change lives,’’ she said.
Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor praised Tillet’s work. “She is a brilliantly incisive observer and artist-activist. Bringing the full depth and breadth of her person to bear on every piece she writes, she amplifies voices that we all need to hear and prismatically reveals spectrums of lived experiences and ideas that we all need to see,’’ said Cantor. “She is so deserving of the recognition of a Pulitzer Prize.”
Rutgers-Newark School of Arts and Sciences Dean Jacqueline S. Mattis added, “This award recognizes the power of Salamishah Tillet's voice, and her impact as a force for cultural and sociopolitical transformation in the US...We are proud that she is advancing those conversations through her work at the New York Times, and proud that she continues to be a leading voice on those issues here at Rutgers-Newark.’’