Book Notes: Georgia author wins posthumous Pulitzer Prize

Winfred Rembert wins Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, "Chasing Me to My Grave."
Courtesy of Bloomsbury

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Winfred Rembert wins Pulitzer Prize for his memoir, "Chasing Me to My Grave." Courtesy of Bloomsbury

MLK’s “I Have a Dream” gets a special anniversary release, and Mary Kay Andrews does it again.

This week Book Notes recognizes a winner of the country’s top literary prize, a local author who made an appropriately splashy debut and an historic collaboration resulting in the publication of a legendary piece of writing from the civil rights era.

Power of storytelling: The Pulitzer Prize winners were announced last Tuesday, and among them is Georgia native Winfred Rembert, who won posthumously for his illustrated autobiography “Chasing Me to My Grave” (Bloomsbury, $27). He shares the prize for biography with cowriter Erin I. Kelly, but it is Rembert’s incredible story and arresting illustrations that make this memoir a must-read.

Born in Cuthbert in 1945, and given to a great aunt to raise, Rembert spent much of his childhood picking cotton instead of going to school. He learned to read and write in prison.

In the ‘60s, while attending a civil rights protest in Americus, Rembert got separated from the crowd, and a couple of shotgun-wielding white men began to pursue him on foot. Desperate, he stole a car to escape. He was soon caught and jailed, but when a deputy sheriff entered his cell and proceeded to beat him up, Rembert escaped. Upon apprehension, he was put in the trunk of a police car and driven to a location where a group of white men had gathered beneath a tree strung with ropes. To Rembert’s horror, he was stripped of his clothes and suspended by a rope tied to his feet. He received a single stab wound to the groin when a man suddenly stepped forward and stopped the atrocity.

Rembert was returned to jail and would spend the next seven years working on a prison work gang. For the remainder of his life, he was plagued with nightmares about the day he almost got lynched.

Years later, when he finally told his wife, Patsy, what happened, she encouraged him to tell his story through art. And so he did. Using leather as his canvas and the leather-carving skills he learned in prison, he began creating gorgeous, colorful renderings of people picking cotton, working in the fields and attending church services. They now sell for six figures.

“My pictures tell about cotton plantations, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and my time as a prisoner,” Rembert writes in “Chasing Me to My Grave.” “They celebrate the people I knew and loved and how they lived. These are my memories of Black life in the 1950s and 1960s, and how those of us who left the South took it with us and kept it. I want to share my memories with people who lived through what I lived through. Even after I found success as an artist, in Connecticut and New York City, I dreamed of going home.”

Rembert told his story in 2020 on NPR’s Storycorps podcast. You can hear him tell it at storycorps.org. His prize-winning memoir followed last year, and is illustrated with images of Rembert’s artwork. Sadly, he died at age 75 just five months before publication.

On the Storycorps recording, Patsy Rembert tells her husband, “I wish the world knew what kind of man you are.” Now it does.

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"I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

"I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr.
Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

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"I Have a Dream" by Martin Luther King Jr. Courtesy of HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

Credit: HarperCollins

Historic partnership: Martin Luther King Jr.’s legendary “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered at the March in Washington in 1963, will be published next month in a new collectible edition featuring a foreword by Amanda Gorman, the youngest presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history.

It is the first book published under HarperCollins’ new Martin Luther King Jr. Library imprint, the result of a deal the company struck last year with the King estate to be the official publisher of King’s archives. HarperCollins published King’s first book, “Stride Toward Freedom,” in 1958.

The publisher plans to reissue the speech annually with a foreword by a different contemporary writer each time. The book will be accompanied by “The Dream Journal,” featuring inspirational quotes from King with space for the owner to jot down their own thoughts.

“I Have a Dream” (HarperCollins, $19.99) goes on sale June 14. It will be published in Spanish, Portuguese, French and German later this year.

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(St. Martin’s Press)

Credit: TNS

(St. Martin’s Press)

Credit: TNS

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(St. Martin’s Press)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Queen of the Beach Read: For 30 years now, Atlanta’s own Mary Kay Andrews has published a fun and frothy page-turner just in time for beach-going season, and this year is no different. Her latest, “The Homewreckers” (St. Martin’s Press, $28.99), was released to her legion of fans on May 5. Five must be her lucky number, because the book debuted at #5 on the New York Times bestseller.

Part mystery, part romance, “The Homewreckers” prominently features one of Andrew’s favorite pastimes — fixing up old houses. Young widow Hattie Kavanaugh restores homes for a living, but when she tries to go solo and flip a house on her own, it’s a flop. With her confidence at an all-time low, she gets the opportunity to star in a beach house renovation reality show costarring a male lead who gets under her skin, for good or bad. During demolition, evidence is discovered relating to the mysterious disappearance of a young woman many years ago.

Why all of Andrews’ books haven’t been made into TV movies yet, I’ll never know. This one sounds like an ideal candidate. Are you paying attention, Hallmark Channel?

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor for The Atlanta Journal Constitution. Contact her svanatten@ajc.com, and follow her at @svanatten.