In honor of Black History Month, I was meant to write an article about various unknown Black artists, creators, and entrepreneurs, and I truly had every intention to do it. However, by and by, I had this incredible opportunity to be in the presence of Hilton Als, and I can’t not talk about it. He spoke of his writing, of his history, of race, and it was such a beautiful evening that it’s impossible to truly encapsulate it; but I would like to try.
Hilton Als has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1994 and is now their chief film critic. He also won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017. I think those two sentences pretty much prove that he is one of the best writers of our generation. Furthermore, he also wrote two acclaimed books, The Women and White Girls, and has won numerous accolades for his novels and for his work at The New Yorker. As if all that weren’t enough of an accomplishment: he has curated art exhibitions globally and is a professor at Columbia University, though he has also taught at Yale, Wesleyan, and Smith College. Basically, he is a genius—someone that we mere mortals can only dream about becoming.
Now, many people outside of literary circles may be unfamiliar with Hilton Als. I only know him because I have subscribed to The New Yorker since I was in 7th grade, and reading that magazine has been one of the formative turning points that made me want to be a writer. Every single article I read in this magazine, whether I agree or disagree with the viewpoint, was so beautifully written that I couldn’t help being awestruck to discover that people could actually write like that. Hilton Als was someone I grew up reading, and though I couldn’t fully comprehend his genius at such a young age, I always have admired his writing style. So finding out that he was coming to my school to give a talk was an opportunity I knew that I couldn’t miss. And I wasn’t disappointed (even though I missed Hasan Minhaj, who happened to be doing a different event at the same time).
Hilton Als is a Black writer, and one of the panelists asked him about how race has played a role in his writing career. He told a story about how he would have “older readers” of The New Yorker come up to him and tell him that they didn’t “know” he was black. He said that racism is that invisibility—and the corresponding implication that the visible default is white. He followed up this story with a beautiful little anecdote: across the street from the building he lives in, there is a security guard—another man of color. Als said that whenever they see each other, they do a wave, a smile. He doesn’t know the guard’s name, has never spoken to him, but he said that that recognition—a little wave that implies “I love you, I am happy you are here”—is the most beautiful thing.
He also gave the audience a little insight on what’s it like being a writer. He said that if he doesn’t write, he feels himself go mad. He also said that “projection of life isn’t real; but projection on paper is.” Throughout the evening he spoke with so much wit and grace and humor that it was plain to see why people like Hilton Als get to write for The New Yorker. And it was such an honor to share my afternoon with someone as renowned as him.