2017 Commencement speaker Colson Whitehead wins Pulitzer Prize

New York Times best-selling novelist Colson Whitehead. Photo by Madeline Whitehead.
New York Times best-selling novelist Colson Whitehead. Photo by Madeline Whitehead.

New York Times best-selling novelist Colson Whitehead, who will deliver the keynote address at Connecticut College’s 99th Commencement next month, is the winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Whitehead won for his most recent novel, The Underground Railroad, which chronicles a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. The work, which was named No. 1 novel of 2016 by Time magazine, has been praised as a “brave and necessary book” that uses the power of fiction to explore unspeakable truths about slavery and oppression.

The Underground Railroad also won the 2016 National Book Award for fiction in November. Established in 1950, the National Book Award is an American literary prize administered by the National Book Foundation, a nonprofit organization. Previous winners of the award include William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Philip Roth, John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter, Saul Bellow and Flannery O’Connor.

Whitehead, a 1991 graduate of Harvard College, began his career at the Village Voice, where he wrote reviews of television, books and music. His first novel, The Intuitionist, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award and a winner of the Quality Paperback Book Club's New Voices Award. His 2001 novel, John Henry Days, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Fiction Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Zone One, his 2011 novel about post-apocalyptic New York City, was a New York Times Best Seller.

In addition to penning seven novels and two works of nonfiction, Whitehead has written for The New Yorker Magazine, The New York Times and Granta magazine. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, the Dos Passos Prize and a fellowship at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. He has taught at the University of Houston, Columbia University, Brooklyn College, Hunter College, New York University, Princeton University and Wesleyan University, and been a Writer-in-Residence at Vassar College, the University of Richmond and the University of Wyoming.

Whitehead was chosen to speak at Conn's Commencement because his creative and courageous examination of race, identity and the slave experience has demonstrated a concern for humanity that resonates deeply with the College’s commitment to social justice. The Underground Railroad recently stimulated a rich discussion among students, faculty and staff in the College’s new American Studies colloquium, led by History Professor James Downs.

At the Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 21, the College will confer on Whitehead an honorary degree. President Katherine Bergeron said the award reflects not only Whitehead’s achievements as an author, but also “his dedication to values that animate this community: academic excellence, personal integrity and a commitment to social justice."

Connecticut College has a tradition of inspired and inspiring commencement speakers. In 2014, National Public Radio did a feature of the 300 best commencement speeches of all time, and 19 of them had been delivered at Connecticut College, the largest number of any institution on the list.

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April 12, 2017