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Essay Contest Winners Honor “Writer as Witness” Book

First-year American University students read a common text, discuss, and share impressions in essay contest sponsored by Writing Studies Program and AU Campus Store

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For more than 25 years, the Writer as Witness (WAW) program has been a beloved part of American University’s first-year student experience. Each year, a common nonfiction text is chosen to engage incoming students in a reflective dialogue about important and current themes. Incoming students are invited to read the text, attend a live interview with the author, discuss the text in Writing Studies Program courses, and enter an essay contest to honor writing inspired by the text.

Isaac Bailey’s Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man In Trumpland

The text chosen for this year’s first-year students was Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland (Other Press, 2020), written by award-winning Black journalist Issac J. Bailey. The book is described as a collection of impassioned, powerful essays that explore what it means to be Black in an America that supports former President Donald Trump. Bailey is the Laventhol Visiting Professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and Batten Professor at Davidson College. His work has been published in the New York Times, Politico Magazine, Time Magazine, the Washington Post, the Charlotte Observer and, and he has appeared on NPR, CNN, and MSNBC. 

Bailey visited campus on September 6, 2023, to discuss the book at Bender Arena.  

The Contest: Bearing Witness to Text 

The writing contest encourages students to submit original compositions inspired by the Writer as Witness book. The idea of bearing witness to a text is an important one, says Daisy Levy, senior professorial lecturer in the Department of Literature. “It’s an idea that encourages people from all backgrounds to observe and comment on our society. This is fundamental to our intellectual community and more generally, our human one. We all see things. We all think about those things and have significant insights to offer. Expanding our understanding of what happens in the world, and even more importantly — what it means — helps us build complex bodies of knowledge. Simply, the more witness we bear, the more possibility we see — more knowledge, more questions, more complexity, connection, relationships, and difference.”

Contest Winners

Levy says that she received a robust stack of submissions this academic year, all of them excellent in distinct ways. “At the award reception, I shared how heartening it is to see and hear from this next generation as they step onto public platforms and speak their minds. All these writers are responding to big issues and questions in incisive ways. It’s a real pleasure.” 

Judges are looking for works that exemplify the idea of “writing as a witness,” and that showcase the writer’s unique voice alongside voices of others. Prizes include a cash prize for the Grand Prize winner and Runners-Up Prizes of gift cards for the AU Campus Bookstore. Prize Winners are invited to read from their works at the Awards Ceremony, and the Grand Prize winner’s piece is published in Atrium, the student magazine published by AU’s Writing Studies Program. Runners-Up winners’ works (and Honorable Mentions) are sent to the editors of Atrium for consideration. 

This year’s contest winner are as follows:

Grand Prize

Luke DiBonaventura for “The Apotheosis of Lies: Judeo-Christian Morality and the Deification of Man” 

Runners Up

  • Aideen Scanga for “This”
  • Anna Sperans for “A Stigmatized Relationship: The ‘Predatory’ Black Man and His White Female ‘Prey’”

Honorable Mention

  • Ben Ackman for “Enemies Abound: The Role of Fear in Modern Racial Politics” 
  • Madeline Gee for “#justgirlythings: Are Taylor Swift, Barbie, and Beyonce Destroying Feminism?” 
  • Charlotte Strier for “The Stigmatization of Mental Health Conditions”

Challenging Themes, Listening with Respect

Every year, the committee receives a wealth of submissions — spanning genres, topics, and voices. Every year, the judges are faced with the challenging task of selecting a few as exemplars. Levy points out that it’s heartening to read these essays and witness how willingly American University students embrace the challenge: to look into the world, to think about what they see there, and then weave that into prose that stimulates their audience to think things in new ways.

Each year, the dialogue that develops around the challenging themes in the community text unifies students and faculty in an intellectual experience, she adds. “When we ask tough questions, consider what’s at stake for all involved, and listen to one another respectfully, we can develop our own positions and ideas about the world and participate in an academic community.” The contest asks students to consider themselves as important commentators, “not just published writers, not just scholars, but our students — new generations of thinkers and writers and witnesses. This is the hallmark of our essay contest, as I see it. The world needs to hear what you have to say.”

Congratulations to all the participants!

For More Information and Previous Texts

For more information about the WAW Program, visit the program website.  

The previous texts chosen for Writer as Witness are as follows:

  • Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, by Laila Lalami, long listed for Andrew Carnegie Medal and named one of the best books of the year by Time, Bookpage, NPR, and LA Times
  • Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, by Brittney Cooper, named best/most anticipated book of 2018 by The Atlantic, The Root, Politico Magazine, Glamour, and Bustle
  • Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist, by Eli Saslow, winner of the 2019 Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Nonfiction. 
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in the General Nonfiction Category 
  • Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, National Book Award finalist 
  • We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, by Jeff Chang, the Northern California Nonfiction Book of the Year 
  • Notes from No Man's Land, by Eula Biss, winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. 
  • The Good Soldiers, by David Finkel, a "Best Book of the Year" for the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, and others, and the winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism. 
  • The Devil's Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist and winner of the Lannen Literary Award. 
  • Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.