Since joining ESPN’s The Undefeated for its launch in May 2016, Soraya McDonald has been writing unabashedly about the intersections of race, arts, and culture.
The New York-based critic has spared no play – on- or off-Broadway, film, documentary or TV series, a reality check on race bias. And in the process, she has become one of the most sought-after voices in race and arts criticism.
On Monday, McDonald was named a 2020 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in Criticism. This marks the first time an ESPN writer has been cited as a Pulitzer winner or finalist for work produced on an ESPN platform.
According to the judging panel, The Undefeated writer received the honor “for essays on theater and film that bring a fresh, delightful intelligence to the intersections of race and art” in 2019.
McDonald, a Howard University graduate and former writer for The Washington Post, discussed the Pulitzer Prize honor with Front Row:
Where were you when you received the news of this accomplishment?
I was sitting in my office in Bed-Stuy in front of my computer working on a review of the new Michelle Obama documentary when my phone began pinging nonstop.
Since this news was announced, how would you describe the reaction of your colleagues at ESPN and peers outside the company?
The reaction has been overwhelming. It’s always nice to know that folks are rooting for you, and experiencing everyone else’s elation on social media (especially since I was not watching the livestream of the announcement) was – and continues to be – absolutely surreal.
Criticism is the toughest form of writing I’ve ever attempted. Doing it well demands rigor and fearlessness, and it’s an honor to know that other folks see and value that in my work. – Soraya McDonald
In what way does this honor affirm your work?
I’m not a person who has ever focused on awards, and frankly, I didn’t think that they would ever find me. But it’s extraordinarily gratifying to be recognized for doing what I love to do — searching for truth, beauty, and wisdom in art, and then obsessively researching whatever it is that I’m writing about. Criticism is the toughest form of writing I’ve ever attempted. Doing it well demands rigor and fearlessness, and it’s an honor to know that other folks see and value that in my work.
We all can use some good news in this time of crisis. What was your first thought when you received the news?
“Holy s**t, this is way better than finally getting eggs today.”
And of course, I’m lucky to have a tremendous support system in ESPN [SVP/The Undefeated Editor-in-Chief] Kevin Merida, Raina Kelley [managing editor, The Undefeated], and my editor, Steve Reiss [senior deputy editor, The Undefeated]. They, too, saw something that I didn’t see in myself. – McDonald
To what do you attribute this successful outcome in your career?
I stand on quite a few shoulders. I often tell people that I’m doing the job my parents raised me to do. They immersed me in arts and culture from a young age, then sent me to Duke Young Writers Camp in middle and high school. I’m also inspired by my late aunt, Cornelia McDonald, a poet, playwright, and chronicler of McDonald family history who was never afraid to share painful truths as well as triumphs with the world.
I wrote my first play when I was six years old, and it’s because I wanted to be like my Aunt Cornelia. When the journalism industry was experiencing incredible upheaval in the 2000s, it was she who told me “stay the course,” even when I doubted myself.
And of course, I’m lucky to have a tremendous support system in ESPN [SVP/The Undefeated Editor-in-Chief] Kevin Merida, Raina Kelley [managing editor, The Undefeated], and my editor, Steve Reiss [senior deputy editor, The Undefeated]. They, too, saw something that I didn’t see in myself. You cannot win prizes if no one submits your name for them, or provides you with the time and resources to do great work.
For so many outlets, criticism is a luxury, one that gets scratched from budgets in difficult times. But it is a necessity. Good criticism isn’t just about art. It illuminates the way we think about the world. It is a search for truth, a celebration of beauty, and an art form in and of itself.
And if there is anyone who is a master of understanding what the form can be, what it can do, and where it can go, it is Steve. On top of being a peerless editor, he’s just one of the kindest, smartest people I know, and every day I feel enormous gratitude to be able to work with him.
Soraya McDonald produced the video.