June 11, 2021

Wesley Morris of The New York Times won the Pulitzer for criticism for essays “on the intersection of race and culture in America.”

It is the second time Morris has won the award — he previously won in 2012 while he worked at The Boston Globe.

Morris began his career as a film critic and still writes frequently about the arts. However, his job at the Times is now critic-at-large, allowing for pieces with much broader subjects.

The centerpiece of the entry was an extraordinary and lengthy magazine story titled “My mustache, myself.”

It begins describing Morris’ quarantine project of growing a mustache — and the mixed reviews the result got from family and friends. He settles as a best description that it made him look like an earnest “lawyer for the NAACP legal defense fund.”

That’s just the jumping-off point for a deep autobiographical reflection on identity from his childhood in Philadelphia, to the isolation of being one of few Black people at an Ivy League college to whether he has — or now wants to — “become just a person.”

On balance, no, he concludes. “I’m not a Blexiteer.”

Along the way, Morris compares himself, or at least the impression he made on people, to the character Carlton on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” — polished, well-educated, middle-class, verging on becoming someone whose “familiarity with whiteness made him indistinguishable from it.”

By the time he reached Yale, Morris writes he was feeling pressure to be an “ambassador to white people,” eyes turning to him anytime a classroom discussion turned to a work of Black literature or film.

The feeling of isolation has persisted into his professional career which began in San Francisco and included a stop as an essayist at the website Grantland.

He writes that he realized by middle school that he was gay and “never suffered any major drama about” it — but it did reinforce a sense of being different. 

Morris notes how many prominent Black Americans in political life and the arts have chosen to wear a mustache. The article is illustrated with blocks of headshots of many of those people.

The mustache, he speculates, from Thurgood Marshall on, gradually became a marker of black maleness 

Leaders of the civil rights era also took care to dress formally even during protest marches — aspiring to earn full respect from the often hostile white culture they were trying to reform.

The essay concludes with an anecdote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s barber. King, the barber said, took particular care anytime he got a haircut that his mustache was trimmed just so, ideally looking “like a butterfly.”

In addition to his writing for the times, Morris is co-host of a 5-year-old podcast focused on race, “Still Processing.”

The full Pulitzer citation praised Morris for “unrelentingly relevant and deeply engaged criticism on the intersection of race and culture in America, written in singular style, alternatively playful and profound.”

Other finalists in the category were Craig Jenkins of New York magazine “for writing on a range of popular topics … contending with the year’s disarray and exploring how culture and conversation can both flourish and break down online,” and Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times for a series of critical essays recommending an eclectic array of recordings “as entertainment and solace essential to the (pandemic) moment.”

More from Poynter

Here are the winners of the 2021 Pulitzer Prizes

What journalism students can learn from this year’s Pulitzer Prizes

Here’s some of the journalism that won past Pulitzers for covering pandemics and epidemics

Behind the Pulitzers: A look into the inner workings of journalism’s Super Bowl

A freelancer who wrote a Runner’s World essay on Ahmaud Arbery’s killing has won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing

California Sunday Magazine closed last year. It just won a Pulitzer.

A podcast about guns, God and Facebook awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Audio Reporting

Coronavirus and race (and not Trump) dominate the 2021 Pulitzer Prizes

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

More News

Back to News