Tufts professor Erin Kelly wins Pulitzer Prize

Philosophy Professor Erin Kelly is pictured on Feb. 5, 2018. Erik Britt / The Tufts Daily

Professor of Philosophy Erin Kelly won a  Pulitzer Prize in the biography category for “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South” (2022), which Kelly co-authored with Winfred Rembert, the biography’s subject. Rembert, who died in 2021, received the prize posthumously.

Awarded annually since 1917, the Pulitzer Prizes recognize outstanding achievements in American journalism, letters and music.

The Pulitzer Board described Rembert and Kelly’s book as “a searing first-person illustrated account of an artist’s life during the 1950s and 1960s in an unreconstructed corner of the Deep South, an account of abuse, endurance, imagination and aesthetic transformation” in their live-streamed announcement of the 2022 prize winners.

Kelly reflected on winning the Pulitzer and discussed her book in a conversation with the Daily.

Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Tufts Daily (TD): How did you find out that you won the Pulitzer? And what was your reaction?

Erin Kelly (EK): I received a couple of congratulatory emails before I knew what they were about. And a friend of mine called me and told me. So I was just sort of flabbergasted and stunned. It was unexpected and really exciting. I felt just joyous for Winfred and his legacy and for the book. I didn’t know that we were finalists because they only announced the finalists at the same time that they announced the winner, so it was a big surprise.

TD: How are you feeling now that you’ve reflected on the news?

EK: It’s very moving to receive this great honor in recognition of Winfred’s accomplishments and the significance of the book. I guess I’m kind of speechless. I feel very grateful for all the people who supported the book, who made it possible. Most of all to Winfred Rembert for sharing his story in such a thoughtful and reflective and important way.

Winfred unfortunately died before the book was published, so this is bittersweet. I feel sad that he’s not here to be recognized and to understand the impact of his story in the book and his art. But I’m grateful that we finished the book and that we can share it with the world and that he will be remembered.

TD: How do you imagine Winfred Rembert might have reacted to winning the Pulitzer? 

EK: I think he would have been thrilled; he would have been eager to talk about the book himself. He would have been very moved at the opportunity to draw the public’s attention not only to what he went through in his life but to a lot of other people in Georgia in the Jim Crow era that they lived through and the ways in which they struggled under those conditions.

So I think that he viewed this book as speaking for others as well as himself, as telling the story of an important and recent part of American history. That was important to him. I think he would have been very proud to have this recognition and to have the opportunity to share what he wanted to say with so many people.

TD: Can you talk a little about what it’s like to receive so much recognition for a book that details such pain? What does it mean for a book like this to receive a Pulitzer?

EK: I hope that it’s — and I believe that it will be — a moment of education for this country. I think it’s important to recognize what Winfred lived through and not only his remarkable talent as an artist and his resourcefulness as a person but also just the many ways in which he survived under conditions that many ordinary people had to go through.

I feel a lot of appreciation for the Pulitzer committee and for their courage in recognizing this book and what it represents.

TD: How do you hope people reading the book today receive the history and stories detailed in it? 

EK: I think when you read the book, you’re impressed by how recent some of the experiences that Winfred unfortunately went through are. I think it brings history up to the present in a powerful way. Winfred was someone who was incarcerated for many years. We’re currently in an era of mass incarceration, where many, many people’s lives are being ruined by the incredibly punitive response that our criminal justice system has decided to take to crime and social problems. So I think it calls attention to the life experience of people who have been and are incarcerated. I think that’s an important thing to think about and to reckon with and to try to change.

TD: How do you see this book fitting into your work as someone who studies philosophy and as a professor at Tufts?

EK: As someone who’s interested in ethics and in criminal law, the project was an opportunity to learn from somebody who had experienced incarceration and had a lot to say about the life experience and social setting that led him to end up being caught up in the criminal justice system. From an ethical point of view, the complexity of a person’s life experience under conditions of social injustice is worth meditating on and trying to understand and draw some lessons from.

TD: What’s next for you?

EK: I have some philosophy projects on notions of accountability in criminal justice and in ethics. It’s led me to think about restorative justice as a model that presents an alternative to more punitive notions of accountability that are familiar to us and in criminal law. So I’ve been thinking about restorative justice, writing a little bit about it, and am excited to pursue work on that subject.

TD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

EK: Winfred was just such a dynamic person; he had this great sense of humor. He was very determined and resourceful and insightful. It was a privilege to hear him reflect on the significance of his life and think about how he wanted to tell his story.


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