ORANGE, NJ — Former Orange resident Salamishah Tillet became the latest writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism when the awards were announced on May 9, winning for her writing for The New York Times. A contributing critic at large, Tillet is also a professor of African American studies and creative writing at Rutgers University–Newark. According to the judges, she won for her “learned and stylish writing about black stories in art and popular culture — work that successfully bridges academic and nonacademic critical discourse.”
In a phone interview with the Record-Transcript on May 23, Tillet said she was surprised and elated to have won the Pulitzer. She submitted six pieces to be considered, some of which delved into how the art that was inspired by the murder of George Floyd in 2020 resonated with her. Though she won the award for criticism, she doesn’t always review art; most of her writing is about how art has an impact on culture.
“What does art tell us about our cultural and political attitude?” said Tillet, who spent her teenage years living in Orange and went to high school at Newark Academy in Livingston. “I wrote in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the reckoning we had after. How did that impact the art being made?”
Tillet said she’s been interested in literature since she was in high school, and wrote for both her high school and college newspapers. She credited her English teachers at Newark Academy for fostering her love of reading and writing.
“I loved reading and literature, and I loved understanding what authors were saying,” Tillet said. “I like interpreting what the author was thinking. As I was doing that, I was writing essays. So I’ve been doing this since I was 16.”
In her professional work now, Tillet sometimes does more in-depth reporting, and often she writes about the interaction between art and its viewers.
“It’s looking at a television show or a play and asking, ‘What are they telling us? What is the artist’s vision?’” she said. “‘What does this teach us, and why?’ Those are things I’m interested in.”
Her own experiences are woven into her writing as well; Tillet was in high school when the video of Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers was released. All of the officers were acquitted.
“I learned not to believe what I saw,” she said. “It looked like he was being beaten, but they were acquitted. What happens when black people see something like that?”
Tillet teaches classes on cultural criticism at Rutgers and doesn’t see much of a difference between teaching it now and when she began her career.
“You’re teaching interpretation and how art is produced,” she said. “I don’t think it’s particularly different from when I was in high school.”
Tillet’s work can be read at www.nytimes.com/by/salamishah-tillet.
Photos Courtesy of Volora Howell and Rutgers University–Newark