59, Number 5
September 25, 2006
Isabel Wilkerson’s coffee was getting cold; her slice of pumpkin bread remained untouched. Despite the chatter of the crowded coffeehouse, the new James M. Cox Jr. Professor of Journalism was completely focused on the story she was telling, one of many that has built her reputation as an award-winning journalist.
This particular story, written while serving as the Chicago bureau chief for The New York Times, centered around a small Missouri town devastated by the great Midwestern floods of 1993 that washed away its cemetery. While other reporters focused on the more macabre aspects of caskets floating down the streets, Wilkerson chose to concentrate on the humanity. “In the end, nothing really matters until I can see from the perspective of the human heart,” she explained.
Her approach was to witness and inhale the moment with her subjects. She spent time with the townspeople, went with them to comb the crater that ruptured the cemetery, listened as they spoke of their desperate search for the remains of loved ones lost yet again. The story she chose to tell “was not about the bodies at all, it was about the living grieving all over again.”
She won a Pulitzer Prize for that compassionate coverage, part of three stories that earned her the prestigious award in feature writing. But just as importantly to Wilkerson was the reaction it elicited from readers.
“People said to me, ‘I thought I’d read every story’ [on the floods]—and everyone gets compassion fatigue, it’s just human limits,” she acknowledged. Wilkerson has saved letters from readers that said “your story suddenly made the heartbreak real for me.”
For Wilkerson, “storytelling is as old as fire,” and clearly comes naturally to her. Creative as a child and good
at English, she remembers being “hooked” on journalism at her first byline in the high school newspaper, where she was later recruited as editor. She attended Howard University in her hometown of Washington, D.C., selected because it had the best newspaper of the colleges she was considering. Methodical and focused, she set her sights on becoming editor of The Hilltop, and the self-described risk taker never doubted she had the ability to accomplish her goal. In a bold and unusual move, she was able to get a foot in the door as a freshman, and from there “never stopped” until she eventually secured the much-coveted role of editor-in-chief.
While at Howard, she became “internship queen” at a time when classroom work was valued far more than real-world experience. Wilkerson was accepted to summer internships with national dailies such as the St. Petersburg Times, the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, the Los Angeles Times—and what she called the “holy grail of internships”—the Washington Post.
Those “sink or swim” internships helped Wilkerson obtain her dream of becoming a feature writer. One article, a Cinderella story of a D.C. office cleaner, earned her the Mark of Excellence award, which she said is “like the Pulitzer for college students.”
That story also attracted the attention of author and former New York Times editor Anna Quindlen, who told Wilkerson “if you could do this as a college student, I know you can do even greater things.” Thus began Wilkerson’s long and prolific career at The New York Times. Her provocative and unique brand of storytelling earned her a George S. Polk award for regional reporting in 1993. The following year she would win the Pulitzer Prize—the first black woman to win a journalism Pulitzer, as well as the first black journalist to win the prize for individual reporting.
But Wilkerson is modest about this accomplishment—certainly a career highlight—saying simply, “it was an honor.” She seemed more concerned that her stories make an impact on her readers. Just as rewarding as winning, she said, is “hearing from the people I’ve written about.” Wilkerson views each interview as “a gift,” as a “privilege and an honor to allow me to take their lives into my hands and tell their story in such a way as to do justice to their life.”
Wilkerson values the importance of that connection. “It’s all about the connection between the storyteller and the listener or the reader or viewer, and making that intimate connection with that person,” particularly in a time when the Internet, television and radio compete for readers’ attention.
And she is convinced that “storytelling will always win out.” Wilkerson is at the forefront of the trend towards moving away from the classic inverted pyramid style to incorporate narrative elements into even the most basic stories, a believer in the “potential to lift anything from the mundane to something special through the use of narrative technique.” She plans to teach this approach to her Emory students in the spring, and has taught similar courses at Princeton, Northwestern and Harvard. Her class this fall is focused on the history and ethics of journalism, an area where she holds truth as the highest standard. “I really like the idea of making an impression on a new generation of students who are going to be entering a very complicated world in journalism,” she said, which in turn “inspires and motivates me in my own work.”
Although Wilkerson is new to Emory, having started her three-year appointment in the journalism department this fall, she is not new to Atlanta. While on leave from The New York Times and in between her lecture circuit, she has been working from Atlanta on a book that will chronicle the multi-generational saga of the Great Migration. This mass movement of African Americans from the South to the North in search of a better life created the first large, urban black communities in the North and continued until the 1960s. Supported initially in part by a Guggenheim Fellowship, the work-in-progress is now in the final stages. Wilkerson said she is grateful to Emory for its support as well.
She describes the research and writing involved in such an epic event as “a huge undertaking,” calling the project “truly a labor of love.” For example, she spent two years scouring the country, interviewing hundreds of potential subjects in her search for just three central characters.
Her interest in the movement stemmed from her years living in Chicago, where she routinely tackled stories on the issues that shape—and plague—urban life. Wilkerson herself is a product of the Great Migration. Wilkerson’s father, a Tuskegee airman from Virginia, and her mother, from Rome, Ga., both migrated to Washington, D.C., where they met as students at Howard. “It was something in my history that I had taken for granted, but if my parents had not been participants in this movement, I wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
A listener by trade, it’s clear that Wilkerson also excels as a talker. She is equally comfortable being on the other side of the interview—having a “60 Minutes” feature and several public appearances under her belt—and her enthusiasm for her work shines through.
In a world of deadlines, Wilkerson said it is important to recognize that “every story is a miracle.” She added:
“We as journalists need to applaud ourselves more.”
Well done, Wilkerson.