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Dara T. Mathis Wins The 2024 American Mosaic Journalism Prize

“Not everything turns out the way we think, but there’s beauty in the struggle.”

Writer and journalist Dara T. Mathis has mastered the use of language and ideas, using her commentary to shape conversations around some of the country’s most pressing issues. The award-winning essayist sat down with BLACK ENTERPRISE to discuss this unique ability, what it’s like being a recipient of the 2024 American Mosaic Journalism Prize, and a writer’s responsibility to reflect the present times. 

Though her hometown is Tampa, Florida, one could argue that Mathis has forged roots everywhere through literature. “I grew up reading,” she shared. “I had a mother who was very instrumental in getting me to read, and my community was very invested in getting me to read Black books and exposing me to all kinds of literature at an early age.” Apart from her childhood reading, Mathis modeled her storytelling after several scholars such as Toni Morrison, Sheree L. Greer, and Sarah M. Broom. She cites those writers as being influential in her career: “I owe a great debt to Black feminist writers. I take a lot of inspiration from them, both in life and in writing,” she said.

Mathis was recently awarded the American Mosaic Journalism Prize, an accolade that celebrates long-form and narrative reporting. The author shared her reaction to the announcement and how the $100,000 prize has altered her life.

“I think my reaction initially — and to some extent currently — is still shock and complete surprise and amazement. My secondary and most lasting reaction is just sheer gratitude. I’ve heard people describe it as life-changing and, as cliché as that sounds, it definitely changes my material reality, at least for the next 12 months,” she said.

A former insurance specialist, Mathis has come a long way since she started professionally writing, just five years ago. 

“I started my career as a freelance writer in a very non-traditional fashion,” she revealed. “I was actually working in insurance, which was admittedly not where I wanted to be but it was where I could find a job at the moment.”

It was at the height of a recession and in the midst of taking care of her newborn that Mathis made the decision to pivot to writing — a particularly daring plunge, as she was a relative novice at the time.

“I had just had a baby — my first child. I realized holding her, rocking her and doing all of the things that entail motherhood, that I was never going to get any more time in my day than I had in that moment. I realized that more time was not going to magically drop into my lap.” 

So before any more time could lapse, she dove headfirst into a new beginning. Mathis began to dedicate herself to building a portfolio and gaining experience anywhere she could find it. “I realized that there was no time better than the present to start to carve a pathway into writing, and I didn’t see one in front of me, but I did see a lot of bloggers so I started a blog and I had plenty to say. One thing led to another, and people would reach out to me to ask me to contribute to different outlets.”

The more pieces she wrote, the more exposure she gained. Soon, Mathis was overwhelmed with messages inviting her to write, and eventually the mother of three began to establish herself among her peers.

“If I got commissioned by an editor, I would write a piece for them, or they would invite me to pitch something, and that’s how I learned how to pitch to different outlets. That’s how I learned to write an op-ed and different book reviews.”

We broached a writer’s dual responsibility as both a reflection and critic of the times. Mathis shared how she reconciles this responsibility with her identity as a passionate advocate for Black liberation, referencing her piece “A Blueprint for Black Liberation,” for which she received the American Mosaic Prize.

“One thing I’ve not shared with people is that I was shaking in my boots the entire time,” said Mathis. “I was terrified to mess that piece up because I knew that I would have to answer to my community not just for its factualness but getting the spirit of the movement wrong or getting the spirit of the people involved in the movement wrong. So I feel very strongly about writers being accountable to the communities of which they belong and to the communities they report on. Not just to do things with integrity but to be truthful, to have their writing bear an emotional truth.”

She expressed her thoughts on the overall media’s responsibility in covering global movements and connecting them to the larger scheme for liberation, especially in the current climate.

“I think that if we ignore movements past that we miss learning from a really rich tradition. Someone once described movements past as not so much past but existing on a continuum. I think if we neglect both history and the scholarship, the writing, the art, the culture of movements past, then I don’t think we get very far because we’re standing on folks’ shoulders,” Mathis continued. 

Since embarking on this path, Mathis has appeared in news publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Week, and Blackbird. Though she’s already accomplished so much in less than a decade, the writer has no plans of slowing down anytime soon, especially with so much left to do. 

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