Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah calls it like she sees it.
The essayist, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Best Feature Writing for her profile on white supremacist and home-grown American terrorist Dylann Roof.
Ghansah’s 9,000-word piece for GQ Magazine, “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof“, was awarded for its examination of the historical and cultural forces behind the 2015 massacre that left nine parishioners dead at the Charleston Emanuel AME Church and ten families forever altered.
The article, which also won the National Magazine Award for Best Feature, was initially set to focus on the victims and their families but after spending three months in Charleston covering the trial Ghansah was struck by Roof’s silence and refusal to explain why.
“I had come to Charleston intending to write about them, the nine people who were gone. But from gavel to gavel, as I listened to the testimony of the survivors and family members, often the only thing I could focus on, and what would keep me up most nights while I was there, was the magnitude of Dylann Roof’s silence, his refusal to even look up, to ever explain why he did what he had done. Over and over again, without even bothering to open his mouth, Roof reminded us that he did not have to answer to anyone. He did not have to dignify our questions with a response or explain anything at all to the people whose relatives he had maimed and murdered. Roof was safeguarded by his knowledge that white American terrorism is never waterboarded for answers, it is never twisted out for meaning, we never identify its “handlers,” and we could not force him to do a thing. He remained inscrutable. He remained in control, just the way he wanted to be.
And so, after weeks in the courtroom, and shortly before Dylann Roof was asked to stand and listen to his sentence, I decided that if he would not tell us his story, then I would… To try to understand the place where he wasted 21 years of a life until he committed an act so heinous that he became the first person sentenced to die for a federal hate crime in the entire history of the United States of America.” Ghansah explains in GQ.
Her decision and her hard work led her to win the Pulitzer Prize–a first for her and GQ. Ghansah has written features on Toni Morrison, Dave Chappelle, Missy Elliot, and Kendrick Lamar, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album Damn, among others.
“I like writing about people who look like me and the people I know who don’t have good pieces written about them, because we deserve it.” Ghansah tells PBS. “We don’t always hear about the people who we know as legends the ways that they were very true to themselves. I’m more interested in the moments when they were uncompromising and they were fearless, because what I hope is that that fearlessness tells us a little bit about how we can be fearless.”
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s forthcoming book, “The Explainers and the Explorers” on how black america will define itself in the 21st century is expected to be released this November.
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