Brent Staples, the New York Times editorial writer who won a 2019 Pulitzer Prize last week, grew up in Chester, the second oldest in a working-class family of nine children. His father was a truck driver, his mother a homemaker. He has written about the chaos of moving seven times before eighth grade, when his parents separated or reconciled, or when the landlord demanded past-due rent.

His path to college was, he has said, “miraculous.” The only black professor at what is now Widener University sought out kids like him, with “middling grades" and no college board scores, and urged him to apply.

Thirty-four years after joining the Times, at age 67, Staples reflected on winning journalism’s biggest prize for a series of essays on race and social justice in America. (When his editor told him he had won, he said, “I was briefly struck speechless — which is a rarity for me.”) Staples has been a member of the editorial board since 1990.

You’ve dedicated your Pulitzer to your great-great-grandmother Somerville Staples, born enslaved, who later bought land in her own name. Her son kept her stories alive. How did hearing those stories drive your career?

The Staples family — particularly the men — are storytellers all the way back. My father and his brothers all drove for the same trucking company in Chester, Pa. For a time, they belonged to a club called ‘the Big Wheels.’ When they got together on weekends, the room was awash in stories. Stories about places they had been, about service in World War II, about memorable characters they had known. Storytelling, in other words, was the medium of my childhood.

On social media, you’re known to cite a quote: ‘History is the only education; everything else is just training.’ What does it mean?

I picked it up 20 years ago in Tulsa, Okla. I was covering the commission that investigated the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which a white mob destroyed most of the 35-square-block area of the black community known locally as ‘the Negro Wall Street.’ The fiery pogrom left perhaps as many as 300 dead. Nevertheless, the nightmare was banished in newspapers, textbooks, and polite conversation, so that Tulsans born just 20 years later had no idea that it had occurred.

The Tulsa writer and history teacher who had braved threats to resurrect the story looked at me one day and said: ‘History is the only education; everything else is just training.’ He meant that the city could never understand itself until it learned the full extent of the horror that overshadowed its every hour. The saying has been with me ever since.

Writing about race can be soul-crushing. There are the killings of unarmed black people and children. How do you manage emotions while writing about incidents like these?

I am the equivalent of a coroner. It is my job to examine the facts of these grisly cases and deliver a judgment about the lessons that can be drawn from them.

I am of course affected by tragedy, but, for better or worse, I long ago developed the ability to see such events coolly — in a way that permits me to write about them calmly. The forensic character of my writing is intentional. One has to be coolly factual — no matter how bloody the topic — to be persuasive.

The Times’ editorial board wrote you ‘sought to correct the parts of the national narrative on race that have been sanitized and distorted....’ How and why was that narrative distorted?

The United States devalued blackness to justify slavery. This devaluation metastasized into every aspect of American life — newspapers, radio, film, advertising. As I showed recently in a Times editorial page essay on minstrelsy, commercial advertisers used dehumanized images of black people to sell everything from tobacco to molasses to detergent. This same spirit dominated the discipline of history until relatively recently. A new crop of historians, many of them black women, is changing that.

Did any one of your winning essays affect you more than others?

My visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala., was profoundly affecting. The memorial consists of more than 800 steel pillars inscribed with the names of more than 4,400 African Americans who were victims of racial terror lynchings between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries.... To write about the memorial was to relive what I describe as the ‘carnivals of death where African American men, women, and children were hanged, burned, and dismembered as cheering crowds of whites looked on.’ Lynching was the cornerstone of white supremacy — and a daily reminder to black people that there would be a price to pay for insisting on basic human rights. The memorial brings that home in a deeply moving way.


How did you go from a doctorate in psychology to journalism?

I was always interested in how the mind worked. For a time, I wanted to be a psychotherapist. But my study of people quickly took a journalistic and literary turn. I am happy that it did. I was writing my doctoral dissertation in the morning and would break in the afternoon to write magazine and newspaper stories. At first, it was for free weeklies, and then for the Chicago Reader. One day, the Chicago Sun-Times asked me to apply. After a couple of years there, I heard from the Times.

Where would you be without the ‘miraculous’ meeting with the professor who pushed you to go to college?

Life would have been much different. For starters, I might have ended up working at the local shipyard, which was shrinking steadily by the year and that soon closed. In my senior year of high school, Eugene Sparrow, a professor from Widener, happened into a League of Women Voters office in Chester, where I was hanging out eating doughnuts and watching other guys play pool. We fell into a conversation.... He was visibly shocked when I said I had no plans for college and needed to get a job.... He decided I would be perfect for a summer preparatory program the college was starting.

The moral of the story, of course, is that talented young people are everywhere and can succeed — and even flourish — if given the opportunity

In ‘Parallel Time,’ you wrote about your brother, Blake, who sold drugs and was murdered at 22. The book wrestled with questions about responsibilities to family members while carving out your own life. Did you worry if you could have helped him?

When I was touring with my memoir, young people often criticized me for what they saw as the abandonment of my younger brother and argued that I had not done enough to ‘save’ him.

In response, I would tell them: ‘You can prod, guide, castigate, encourage, and all the rest. But in the end, you cannot live people’s lives for them.’ It may sound callous, but it is indisputably true.