Carnegie Mellon University
August 25, 2017

Book Offers 18 Years of Student Perspectives on “Challenges to the Dream”

By Shilo Rea

Unfortunately, being young does not shield anyone from facing discrimination. For the past 18 years, western Pennsylvania high school and college students have been given a safe, creative space to express their personal struggles with race and diversity through the written word.

A new anthology, “Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University,” includes a powerful selection of the poetry and prose pieces from the writing contest’s history. The book will be published by CMU Press in October and features 91 pieces from 83 writers and 31 different schools on topics ranging from racial and cultural stereotypes and school bullying to homophobia and identity questions.

Tracy K. Smith poet laureate of the United States and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, called the anthology, “the mortar that will mend our nation’s spirit.” 

“It is consoling beyond words to witness these young writers wrestling with the realities of race, bringing solid thought and well-wrought language to bear upon that process,” Smith said.

In 2012 during her senior year of high school at Pittsburgh CAPA, Claire Matway won first place in poetry for “Squint.” 

And it’s Uncle Steve’s house with the rough blue couches and bright lamps
and deer heads on the walls and sandwich materials
piled on the long low table in the kitchen;
it’s three dogs and a view of wintry hills and red-lit radio towers;
Christmas Eve means
five cousins sprawled on the wooden floor amidst
crumpled wrapping paper and gift cards for T.J. Maxx,
a semicircle of aunts, uncles, grandparents
leaning in from folding chairs, cycling
by age through piles of gifts. Christmas Eve means
my uncle’s best friend is standing by the tree, beer in hand,
gray stubble and plaid shirt and manly as ever
(and you will not know it by watching,
but he and my uncle are best friends in the sense that
they will never leave each other their whole lives,
that they are each other’s

Colorblindness was the theme of “Black Tigers,” the 2016 winning prose entry by Taylor Thomas, then a junior at Winchester Thurston High School. She wrote, “Colorblindness seeks to keep the voices of the oppressed quiet, and increase the volume of those who are comfortable with the status quo.”

Since its inception, the contest has received more than 2000 entries. The anthology’s purpose is to not only share especially moving pieces from the awards program but also encourage and extend more conversations about racial, political, gender, cultural and other diversity issues.

"We want the contest to continue to grow here in Pittsburgh and also to expand the reach of the awards to be a part of our national discussion on race and discrimination. The anthology seemed like a good way to help us accomplish those goals. The quality of the writing is truly remarkable, and these pieces deserve to be read and discussed in classrooms and communities across the country—the honesty, bravery, and insights these young voices offer in telling their individual stories will resonate with any reader of any age, from any background," said Jim Daniels, the Thomas Stockham Baker University Professor of English at CMU who founded and directs the awards program. Daniels edited and wrote the introduction to “Challenges to the Dream.”

Purchase an advance copy of “Challenges to the Dream: The Best of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards at Carnegie Mellon University.” 

Learn more about CMU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Writing Awards ProgramEnter in the 2018 contest