Jim Daniels dolefully admits that the same words could ring true every single year at his presentation of the Carnegie Mellon University Martin Luther King Jr. Writing Awards: “In light of recent events, these awards are more important than ever.”
The poetry and prose writing contest for area high school and college students that Daniels established in 1999 has produced a stunning collection of original and personal pieces about race, prejudice and feelings of otherness. The contest, and the works submitted, continue to be timely.
“I look at the winners for this year,” Daniels said. “I’ve got one called ‘Charlottesville.’ I’ve got one called ‘Penance after DACA.’ So, it’s writing dealing with the politics that are happening right now and writing from a personal perspective.”
Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at CMU, has compiled an anthology of the best prose and poetry submitted to the contest in the last 19 years in the newly published “Challenges to the Dream” (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2017).
Within the collection are pieces from a diverse student population, including three pieces composed by students who identify culturally or religiously as Jews.
The anthology features 91 pieces by 83 writers on topics ranging from ethnic stereotypes to sexual identity discrimination.
“It’s amazing what these young kids can come up with,” said Daniels. “They are really heartfelt, trying to figure out how the world works.”
The annual contest offers separate categories for prose and poetry, and for high school and college students. The winners read their pieces as part of CMU’s daylong schedule of panel discussions and performing arts presentations in commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
This year, the program will be held on Monday, Jan. 15 at the Cohon University Center. It is open to the public and there is no cost for admission.
Daniels, who has been at CMU since 1981, launched the contest to provide an outlet for students to “write about their own experiences as a way to connect and be aware of how discrimination can affect them in their daily lives.”
A writer who is originally from Detroit, Daniels had previously edited an anthology called “Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race” in which he “gathered work by nationally known writers of all different backgrounds writing about subjects that often divide us,” he said.
When Martin Luther King Day became a national holiday, and CMU was interested in offering activities to mark the day, Daniels was inspired to reach out to students, asking for personal narratives on race and discrimination of all types.
“Coming from Detroit as a white guy — living on the edge of Detroit — there were a lot of racial tensions and problems growing up in my community, and I didn’t quite understand them as a kid,” he recalled. “When I was in graduate school, I had a course from the writer James Baldwin, and in that class, he really challenged us to examine our own pasts a little more honestly in terms of these issues.
“I always considered some of my own writing on race to be a late paper for his class,” Daniels said. “He kind of inspired me to learn more by reading other writers’ viewpoints. Every year I learn something through the awards about how these kids are perceiving things. It’s not like they are going to solve all our problems — because we can’t solve all our problems — but getting a fresh viewpoint on things, young people struggling to figure things out, can remind us of our own background and the difficulties of how we deal with these issues.”
Emily Nagin, who now teaches fiction-writing at CAPA, has two poems published in the new anthology. She wrote the poems while she was a student at CAPA in 2005 and 2006. “Keeping” and “Eye to Eye” each won first place for high school poetry, referencing both ambiguity toward, and persecution for, identity.
“Writing these pieces was affirming as a writer,” Nagin said. “I am from an interfaith family, and it was good to sit down and think about these things.”
Daniels receives about 200 submissions each year for the contest; first, second and third place winners in each category are named and given a cash prize. The best entry from individual schools that do not win in the overall competition are also recognized. Seventeen public and private schools in Western Pennsylvania submitted entries this year.
This is the first time Daniels has anthologized some of the works.
“I really wanted to represent the range of material we’ve gotten over the years, in quality, and in the different ways we define difference,” he said.
This year, Syndey Roslin, a junior creative writing and vocal performance major at CMU who is Jewish, received honorable mention for her poem, “Charlottesville.” The poem finds equivalence in the Nazi march in Virginia last year to the rise of Nazi Germany.
“It was bone-chilling to see that hatred, and for no reason,” Roslin said. “And it happens time and time again.”
Poetry “is a good way to get to the heart of these things,” she continued, adding that she has been moved by the work of the other winners of the contest.
“It’s heartbreaking to read what my peers have gone through,” she said. “And it’s an honor to be published along with these pieces.”
It’s important, Daniels said, for students to be able to express their experiences of discrimination and for others to read about them.
“I think that often the easy thing to do in certain situations is to remain silent,” he said. “And I think the challenge that Martin Luther King issued is to speak up in the face of discrimination.”
“Challenges to the Dream” is available at amazon.com and at CMU. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at