Best of 2021: Profiles

The profiles that left us reeling.

Since we started the #longreads hashtag in 2009 to share great reads on Twitter, curation has been the beating heart of Longreads. All year long, we highlight our favorite stories in the weekly Longreads Top 5. At the end of the year, we love to reflect on and share the pieces that stayed with us, a tradition we’ve kept for 10 years! Now it is the turn of the profile — as we highlight the craft of writing about someone else. These five writers are masterful at providing insights into another’s world. 

The Girl in the Kent State Photo, Patricia McCormick, The Washington Post Magazine, April 19, 2021

On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students gathered on campus to peacefully rally against President Richard Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia, which would expand U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Fourteen-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, a free-spirited teen who hitchhiked around the country to escape a volatile family life in Florida, found herself on the school’s Ohio grounds, drawn to the protests. National Guard troops shot four students dead that day, including a man, Jeffrey Miller, whom Vecchio had been talking to. She dropped to the ground and knelt beside his body — her arms raised, her face full of anguish and horror. McCormick documents her pleas: “‘Doesn’t anyone see what just happened here?’ she remembers crying. ‘Why is no one helping him?’”

Student photographer John Filo snapped a picture of her at that very moment, capturing what would become an iconic image, one that “fundamentally changed the way we see ourselves and the world around us,” writes Patricia McCormick. Through a dozen phone interviews with Vecchio, who is now 65 and living a quiet retired life, McCormick recounts that fateful day and how the image “hijacked” Vecchio’s life, haunting her even 50 years on. (Her reaction to the video of George Floyd’s last moments shook her to her core.) Affected from “opposite ends of the lens,” Vecchio and Filo are intimately connected to one another through the photo — Vecchio a “human flashpoint” and a symbol of the national conscience, and Filo full of grief and guilt over what the image did to her, despite his winning a Pulitzer for his work. Compassionate and superbly reported, McCormick’s profile hits a nerve, and especially resonates in our time of virality and smartphone-recorded moments of injustice. —Cheri Lucas Rowlands

La Cancion de la Nena, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, Oxford American, June 1, 2021

In this beautiful piece, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal offers a haunting portrait of her father, Gilberto Villarreal, a virtuoso guitarist and musician, a man who was a “prodigy at the foot of this country, in a place no one ever expects to find someone extraordinary.“ Villarreal recalls the struggles her father endured as a Mexican immigrant trying to be discovered in a music business dominated by white interests and pernicious racism: “What I experienced as poetry came first through the song my father wrote for me when I was two years old, a song whose melody is a turning helix in my blood, another way of speaking my name. It is the rarest gift I have ever received.“ This is a piece steeped in love and admiration for a man and an artist who, despite his many musical skills and achievements, did not consider himself a success. “You might think from my tone that this is a sad story,“ Villarreal writes. “And maybe it is, but it is also a tribute to an unseen life, a long overdue recognition of ordinary genius worn down by circumstance.“ —Krista Stevens

Author Vanessa Angélica Villarreal on the story from 2021 that impacted her most:

Carina del Valle Schorske’s “Dancing Through New York in a Summer of Joy and Grief“ in The New York Times Magazine was an incredibly rich, historical snapshot of embodiment, grief, vitality, and rebellion in the shared ritual of social dance, specific to Black, Latin, queer, and immigrant communities. From Harlem to Brooklyn and everywhere in between, del Valle Schorske writes a history of social dance as a site of healing after mass tragedy that is part personal essay, part performance theory, part history lesson — an erotics of survival and joy at the end of the world.

What Mike Fanone Can’t Forget, Molly Ball, Time, August 5, 2021

Given the state of the celebrity-industrial complex, the vast majority of profiles you read in any given year are about people you already know. The truly special ones, though, tend to buck convention. And that’s exactly the case with Molly Ball’s riveting portrait of Mike Fanone, the Washington D.C. narcotics officer who drove to the Capitol on January 6 to help defend it against insurrectionists. Sure, you may have seen Fanone on cable news in the aftermath of the riots, may have thought he was a hero or a martyr or a turncoat or anything else — but you didn’t know what he’d gone through that day, let alone who he was. Ball’s scene work and deft reconstruction help bring together the splintered shards of a complicated, imperfect man, one who somehow both validates and punctures whatever assumptions you had. “He’s not asking to be called a hero — he just wants us to remember what his sacrifice was for,” she writes. “Fanone believes we can’t keep trying to outrun this thing; we’ve got to turn around and face it, defeat it once and for all. That if all we do is turn away and hope it fades, it will just keep getting stronger until it comes back to kill us all.” Once upon a time, that may have sounded overwrought. Today, it’s all too real. —Peter Rubin 

Stop Hustling Black Death, Imani Perry, New York, May 24, 2021

What happens when the worst day of your life animates a social movement over which you have no control? This question is the engine of Imani Perry’s profile of Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice, killed by police in 2014. Samaria was anguished, and she wanted justice. But she didn’t want to be told how to act, or to see “leaders” she didn’t know speaking for her — much less making money off her son’s death. In Perry’s hands, Samaria’s story is a window into the growing pains of Black Lives Matter. If readers are uncomfortable with what they see, that’s the point: We can’t look away from the truth, Perry says, just because it’s messy. “We have lost a great deal of history by relying upon a neat consensus narrative,” she writes. “If we’re not careful, we run the risk of letting that become the story of today as well.” —Seyward Darby

The opening lines of another profile by Imani Perry, which author Becca Andrews chose as her favorite lede of the year:

“I knew from the beginning that I would not meet Gayl Jones.

Or see a recent photograph of her. Or ask her any questions. What does it feel like, 46 years after the first, to have a new novel coming out? Why did you step out of view? Did it make you a more honest writer? Did it serve your soul? I would not get answers. I would not be able to charm her into laughter. I know she is brilliant, obscure, irascible. I imagine her smile is still wry. But does she still wear her head wrapped in 2021? Is she still adept at putting a nosy questioner in her place?“

“She Changed Black Literature Forever. Then She Disappeared,“ The New York Times Magazine

Benji Is One Down Dog, Madeleine Aggeler, Texas Monthly, June 2, 2021

This piece brought a smile to my face and delight to my heart. For even in the age of the Instagram-famous pet, it’s not often we get a proper pooch profile. Benji the dog is a George Clooney lookalike who “prefers to greet the world au naturel whenever possible,” writes Madeleine Aggeler. He is “confident that wherever he goes, everyone will be thrilled to meet him,” and he is right — they are: Benji is “one of the most famous dogs in America right now.” A worthy profile subject, indeed. His is an interesting story: His owner, the YouTube yoga instructor Adriene Mishler, was the champion of COVID lockdowns, with her online exercise classes becoming incredibly popular. Benji was a part of this, making cameos on camera that brought joy to Adriene’s viewers. Written with great creativity and humor, Aggeler’s article shows us why Benji is such a scene-stealer. — Carolyn Wells

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