Reporting with an Anthropologist's Eye

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism professor Leon Dash answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Interviewed by Abigail Bobrow

Leon Dash
Swanlund Chair Professor of Journalism
Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts 
BA Howard University

Wearing a Polo pullover and blue slacks, journalism professor Leon Dash sits in front of the computer, his face concentrating on any one of the many commitments he has at Illinois. His office in Gregory Hall, many decades ago a storage room for WILL, is filled with books piled on the floor, stacked on the sofa, scattered on a wooden desk. The space looks like someone just moved in or is about to move out.

Acquiring all these books is a habit he jokingly promises to break.

He joined the university in 1998 after being courted by journalism departments all over the country. But it was actually Illinois’ strong Disability Resources & Educational Services that sealed the deal. His college-bound daughter, Destiny (FAA ’05), has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

“I didn’t tell anybody initially,” Dash recalls, “but when I saw the services they would provide my daughter, and that she would have the chance to get a college degree, that’s why I decided to come here.”

Destiny and Leon Dash
Destiny Dash with her father Leon in her Rockville, Maryland apartment when celebrating his birthday on March 16, 2021.

Dash’s approach to his work has always been part academic study, part gumshoe reporter, and all journalist, not content with the examination of a topic until he shares it with the public.  Colleagues at the Washington Post used to call him the “staff anthropologist.” He has always been fascinated with the human condition: why we make the choices we make and the ways our cultural identity plays a part.

His parents cultivated and understood those interests early on.

Unsatisfied with the Harlem public school education the young Dash was receiving in the 1950s, his father, a postal clerk, enrolled him in a Manhattan private school, where Dash excelled. It was also there that he encountered a defining racist moment that informed the trajectory of his life.

“No, you won’t be in the photograph, you might as well turn around and go out right now,” the photographer told the high-achieving Dash, who was supposed to appear in an advertisement for the school in the New York Times. “As I turned around and walked out, I absorbed his reaction: that merit didn’t really count. He saw my skin color and told me I couldn’t be in the photo.”

Leon Dash photo from 1961 yearbook
Leon Dash pictured in the 1961 Rhodes School yearbook.

That experience prompted a career in reporting and researching the implications of racism in this country.

The story he won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for, “Rosa Lee’s Story: Poverty and Survival in Urban America,” is an immersive, in-depth examination of the effects of being Black in America told through one woman and her family. Written over the course of four years, the story reads like it was created yesterday, tackling issues that are all too familiar in 2022.

Leon Dash sitting in a car with Rosa Lee.
Leon Dash sits with Rosa Lee Cunningham in his car in the summer of 1991. Photo by Lucian Perkins, provided by the University of Illinois Archives

In Dash’s current project “American Voices: Defining moments in black and white,” he interviews White and Black Americans about their defining ethnic moment. It grew out of interest, as well as frustration, Dash has with the prevalence of disinformation and resistance to accept facts and truth.

Dash, who just turned 78 and is a great-grandfather, concedes people still fascinate him and is committed to what has always been his core mission: informing the public and giving his students the tools to do the same.

Leon Dash interviewing
Leon Dash interviews Evelyn Randolph “Randy” Ruffin about defining ethnic experiences growing up White in the American South. He met with her on March 14, 2022 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Photo by Charles Ledford

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We wanted to get to know Dash a little better, so we’ve asked him to answer an abbreviated version of the Proust Questionnaire for STORIED. Once a popular Victorian parlor game made famous by Marcel Proust, the Proust Questionnaire has been used by reporters over the century and across the globe to reveal a side of leaders, artists, actors, and public figures we may not usually see. You might recognize the format from the back page of Vanity Fair, which has had celebrities answer the questions since 1993.

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Leon Dash with his family
Dash with his daughters Darla, standing with her husband Paul, and Destiny seated.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

What is your idea of misery?

Which talent would you most like to have?

What is the quality you admire most in a person?

Who are your heroes in real life?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Who are your heroes throughout history?
Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton.

What is your most treasured possession?
Photos from 1969-1970 when I was a Peace Corps rural high school teacher in Kenya.

Leon Dash teaching high school students in Kenya
Leon Dash teaches high school students in Kenya in the early 1970s. Photo by Susan Biddle/Peace Corps, provided by the University of Illinois Archives

What is your motto?
“There but for the grace of God go I.”

What motivates you?
Informing others.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Lord Help me!

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Pulitzer Prize is my greatest professional achievement.

Who is your favorite musician? Writer? Artist?
Miles Davis.

Where is your favorite spot in the world?
Kilibwoni, Kenya on the western escarpment of the Rift Valley.

This story was published .