Portland Man Basks in Pulitzer Prize

Black author who overcame hardships now teaches creative writing

Mitchell S. Jackson, Portland native and Portland State University alumnus, was recently awarded the Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor, for writing about the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot dead after allegedly being racially profiled and chased by three white men while he was out jogging.

Jackson’s long-form feature story in Runner’s World magazine, “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” (https://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/a32883923/ahmaud-arbery-death-running-and-racism) weaves back and forth between significant and mundane events in Arbery’s daily life and, in excruciating detail, the minute-by-minute events that led up to his stalking and killing in Brunswick, Ga. on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020.


Arbery, whose nickname was Maud, was a formidable high school football player even though, at 5’10” and 165 pounds, he wasn’t a real big guy. But what he lacked in bulk he made up for in heart, as Jackson described in the article.


“Game time, the opposing team calls the play that Maud put the fierce kaput on in practice, and beneath a metal-halide glare that’s also a gauntlet, Maud barrels towards the running back and—BOOM!—lays a hit that sounds like trucks colliding,” Jackson wrote.


Other excerpts show Arbery’s tender side, such as helping his sister care for her new puppy and driving more than an hour to Savannah to buy a Build-A-Bear and a gold, heart-shaped promise ring for his girlfriend Shenice Johnson, who said he was always a perfect gentleman.


“When I was with him, I didn’t have to worry about anything,” she said.


Jackson’s detailed description of Arbery’s life reveals a personable and caring young man with a lot of love for his family and friends. Jackson’s narrative about the murder is both chilling in its brutality and heart breaking, that such a promising and hopeful young man was slaughtered because of the color of his skin.


Jackson was certainly aware of racism while growing up in north and northeast Portland, “the whitest city in America,” but he doesn’t think things have gotten much better.


“I realized how segregated we were then, but I didn’t understand the mechanisms, like redlining,” he said in an interview with the Portland Observer.


Violence in last year’s Black Lives Matter protests overshadowed the violence that Black lives face every day from police, and Jackson lamented that white groups, though they had good intentions, took over some of the demonstrations when they should have let Black voices lead.


“They were not wrong, but they seemed to overshadow the violence that actually happened against Black people and people of color,” he said. “Maybe one thing to learn in Portland is that allyship doesn’t have to be so loud – let them lead.”


But whites, if they will, can help combat racism, he said, by examining their own vanities and motives and doing what they can to even the racial playing field.


“If you see something (that is racist), say something,” he said. “That’s what white people should be doing all the time.”


Jackson also wrote about the history of jogging, which was started in the U.S. by Bill Bowerman, former track coach and co-founder of Nike, but he said it’s still a white man’s sport.


“Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running,” Jackson wrote. “That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America…Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites…”


And education, of course, is another way to combat racism, by teaching children the truth about our racist past.
“I think it’s necessary,” he said. “It’s been politicized but it doesn’t have anything to do with politics…I’m not buying into that it’s making white kids racist to teach about racism in America. It’s not making little white kids racist or feel guilty, and if they do, that’s healthy.”


Jackson said racism is an insidious problem here and it’s easy for Black people to feel defeated. He knows what he’s talking about. He got into trouble as a teen and spent 16 months in the Santiam Correctional Facility in Salem. But he turned himself around and earned a bachelor’s in speech communication and master’s in writing from Portland State University followed by a master’s in fine arts in creative writing from New York University. You just can’t give up hope, he said.


“I think it’s almost about learning about your circumstances but don’t feel submerged in them, which is easy to do, with people getting shot every day, living in Section 8, it’s real easy to feel defeated,” he said. “But if you investigate and interrogate, to have a better perspective and also find people who will give you aid and perspective — and stay hopeful — that’s what it’s all about.”


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, which Jackson addressed in an interview with the University of Chicago News, where until recently he was a faculty member teaching creative writing. He’ll be starting a new position, also teaching creative writing, in the English department at the University of Arizona this fall.


“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.”


He succeeded, according to the Pulitzer Prize Board, which 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.”


Jackson is the author of multiple works of fiction and nonfiction, according to the University newspaper, including his memoir “Survival Math,” about his experiences growing up Black in Portland, 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 John Wilkinson, chair of  the University of Chicago’s creative writing program.


--Beverly Corbell