He's only 17 but Malachi Jones has joined an exclusive club of legendary writers such as Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King as a winner of the national Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.
A senior at Charleston County School of the Arts, Jones competed against a record-breaking 346,000 entrants this year to become one of 16 high school seniors chosen by the nonprofit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers to receive the award program's highest honor, the Gold Medal Portfolio.
Only one other student from South Carolina received the honor, Vicky Brown of Greenville.
The award comes with a $10,000 scholarship and a trip to Carnegie Hall this summer for the ceremony. Capote, Plath, Oates and King were all childhood Scholastic Art & Writing Award winners before embarking on their illustrious literary careers.
Jones' award-winning work — a collection of lyric essays and free-verse poems — revolves around his experience as a black teenager struggling with and finally coming to terms with his identity.
In a poem titled "Pantoum for my Mother," Jones writes, "Stripped of my blackness, / uprooted by judgement. / I was never dark enough for you / or for the ones who called me whitewashed."
It's about the questions and judgment he endures from both his white and black peers for not fitting the stereotypical "formula of a black male."
Jones said he has outgrown any insecurity he's ever felt about who he really is.
"I’m unapologetically who I am and black. I’m happy about it. I love it," Jones said.
Jones lives with his brother and grandparents in rural Hollywood but he spent his early childhood in Queens, New York, where his mother, an anesthesiology student, still lives.
He'll move closer to his mother when he heads to Columbia University this fall. He wants to study creative writing, English or history — perhaps, a combination of all three. A staff writer for School of the Arts' student paper, Jones is considering a career in journalism.
He cites Kurt Vonnegut, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison and James Baldwin as his greatest literary influences. But he credits his creative writing teachers and classmates for inspiring him on daily basis.
"Knowing him since middle school and seeing him grow up in the manner in which he's grown up, I think he spoke very passionately about a topic in U.S. history that we don't spend a lot of attention (on)," said School of the Arts assistant principal Robert Grant. "Black males and assimilation into the realm of academia, it's challenging at times."