On The Daily: Pullin’ Pulitzers

Monday, April 10, 2017 - 7:58pm

Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history in the Afro-American and African Studies Department, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in history for her novel “Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy.” 

In an email interview, Thompson — who is also in the Residential College Social Theory and Practice Program — wrote she found out about her award during class and looked at her students in disbelief.

“I am so deeply grateful for this, it's hard to put into words,” she wrote. “It is amazing to have one's work recognized for sure, but, mostly and overwhelmingly, I am grateful because the story of all that the men inside of Attica really endured back in 1971 — prisoners and guards alike — is being honored.”

In a University of Michigan press release, President Mark Schlissel said the award shows how dedicated University faculty are to their work.

“Dr. Heather Ann Thompson's Pulitzer Prize in history is an outstanding example of our faculty's talent and commitment to academic rigor being recognized at the highest levels,” he said. “I am proud to congratulate her on this amazing achievement.”

Thompson's book highlights the Sept. 9, 1971 incident, in which nearly 1,300 prisoners took over the prison and held guards and employees hostage to bargain for better living conditions. The takeover lasted four days and ended when New York state troopers shot and killed 39 prisoners and hostages and injured hundreds of others.

After the demonstration, the state of New York tried only the prisoners and did not provide any legal or financial support to the families of victims or survivors.

In her novel, Thompson recounts the demonstration and the aftermath and places the event in the context of the civil rights movements in the United States.

“Drawing from more than a decade of extensive research, historian Heather Ann Thompson sheds new light on every aspect of the uprising and its legacy, giving voice to all those who took part in this forty-five-year fight for justice: prisoners, former hostages, families of the victims, lawyers and judges, and state officials and members of law enforcement,” Thompson’s publisher wrote.

A New York Times review by Mark Oppenheimer wrote Thompson made the entire event thought-provoking by focusing on the inmate conditions and smaller details of the uprising that many would never consider.

“A book this long (571 pages, not including acknowledgments and footnotes) and bleak could have been unbearable, but every time its pages bog down, along comes a pick-me-up of an unexpected insight,” Oppenheimer wrote. “How many have thought about what dentures mean to the imprisoned?”

Thompson has written on the topic of prison systems for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Time Magazine and other publications. She also wrote “Whose Detroit?: Politics, Labor, and Race in a Modern American City” in 2004.