Alumna and Adjunct Assistant Professor Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah '11 Wins Pulitzer
BY Corinne Lestch, April 17, 2018
Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah '11, an Alumna and Adjunct Faculty Member, won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for her searing, in-depth profile of killer and white supremacist Dylann Roof for GQ magazine.
Ghansah's work was cited by the Pulitzer committee for its "unforgettable portrait of murderer Dylann Roof, using a unique and powerful mix of reportage, first-person reflection and analysis of the historical and cultural forces" behind his killing of nine parishioners at the historically black Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in June 2015.
According to the Charleston City Paper, Ghansah spent three months in the city covering Roof's federal trial in 2016. She folded some of this reportage into her GQ feature, "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof," which also won the National Magazine Award for Best Feature and was included in Best American Essays of 2018, edited by faculty member Hilton Als.
The essayist told the New York Times that she initially thought her 9,000-word piece would revolve around the victims' families, but "it felt inappropriate to keep probing them while allowing Dylann Roof to have the sanctity of silence we often afford white domestic terrorists."
"I had come to Charleston intending to write about them, the nine people who were gone," she wrote in the GQ feature. "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, who is currently on death row in Terre Haute, Indiana, walked into a bible study at the church in downtown Charleston and murdered nine people when he was 21 years old. Investigators found a manifesto detailing his white supremacist ideology. Ghansah spoke with Roof’s mother, father, friends, former teachers, and victims’ family members in order to unearth answers about the killer.
The award, presented by Columbia University to recognize the best in American journalism and the arts, was the first Pulitzer for GQ magazine. Ghansah has also written for The Believer, ELLE, The New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review. Her book, The Explainers and the Explorers, is forthcoming from Scribner and centers on "how black America will define itself in the 21st century."