Let’s start this post off with a story. Imagine if you will, that you are older and your health is failing. You do not have many family members around to help care for you, get you to doctor’s appointments and generally keep an eye on your wellbeing.
Then imagine that the year is 1893. And that you are black.
A fact of life in the years after Reconstruction is that there wasn’t any real option for aging African Americans. Nursing homes were segregated and even homeless shelters would turn away black people at the door. Eliza Bryant, the daughter of freed slaves and a well-known humanitarian in the Cleveland area, found this utterly unacceptable and took on the task of creating a space for the elderly to reside and live with dignity. She helped found the Cleveland Home of Aged Colored People, in 1896, effectively establishing the first nursing home in the country for African Americans.
Today, her legacy stands. The home was been renamed to the Eliza Bryant Village in honor of its founder in the early 2000s.
CWRU professor James Sheeler understood the historical significance of Bryant’s actions and charged his journalism class to capture the stories of the residents who lived there. Students brought microphones, tape recorders, video cameras and more to record the oral histories that, in most circles, had never been told before.
Join us on Thursday, January 31 at the Baker-Nord center (on the Case Western Reserve University campus) for a presentation highlighting the stories of the residents’ of Eliza Bryant, the nation’s oldest African-American nursing home. Register here.
Have your debut novel selected as Oprah’s second selection in her book club and you must expect for your life to change, as Ayana Mathis is now finding out. Once The Twelve Tribes of Hattie received the literary world’s highest blessing from Ms. Winfrey, her publisher rushed it to bookstores to capitalize on the wave of publicity soon to follow. Now, Mathis’ name is on the lips of readers’ everywhere, with Oprah even comparing her to the all-time great, Toni Morrison.
Twelve Tribes is a book looking at generations of a family after their matriarch migrates from Georgia to Pennsylvia in search of a better life. In taking a fictional look at the world Isabel Wilkerson told so well in her acclaimed Warmth of Other Suns, a nonfiction piece, Mathis gives it to us straight – no fantasy, just cold-hard truth. The family goes through more than its fair share of heartache throughout the story. As Mathis says in the below interview with Mathis and Winfrey, perhaps identifying the suffering is our way of releasing pain in our lives. Take a look at the interview and tell us what you think.
On Monday, President Obama delivered his second Inaugural Address in the cold Washington air, laying out a progressive agenda for the next four years. He spoke clearly on the issues of gay marriage, climate change, and social service programs, while pushing members of Congress to work together to solve some of the biggest issues of our time:
Progress does not compel us to settle century’s long debates about the role of government for all time, but it does require us to act in our time.
For now, decisions are upon us and we cannot afford delay. We cannot mistake absolutism for principle or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.
We must act. We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect (ph). We must act knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.
We perked up when the president spoke of issues of equality and justice, echoing Martin Luther King in his visions for a country where inequality and injustice cease to exist:
What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.
While analysts debate the significance of President Obama’s speech and whether his vision will becoming a political reality in the coming years, we are simply proud to be witnessing history. In a piece for MSNBC, 2009 winner Annette Gordon-Reed wrote that regardless of his policy positions, President Obama has already changed the landscape of American politics:
By virtue of being the first black president—and being re-elected—Barack Obama has already been a transformational figure in American politics and history. We are not a “post-racial” society, certainly. But the president has transformed the sense of what is possible in the country.
Martin Luther King III spoke on CBS “This Morning” about his father’s legacy and what it means to have the Inauguration and Martin Luther King Jr Day coincide.
On the eve of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Yale University hosted a live chat with Elizabeth Alexander, whose “Praise Song Of The Day” was her selection at his first inauguration. Watch the video above for her thoughts on what it’s like to be selected to have a part in such a tremendous day.
1996 winner Jonathan Kozol will be speaking with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West at the January 17th event, Vision For A New America: A World Without Poverty. In advance of the event, Kozol appeared on the Smiley and West PBS show (link to the full show here) to discuss his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America and his work to change education policy to create a more even playing field for impoverished children.
As Dr. West said in his introduction, “There is just nobody like Jonathan Kozol in the culture, going back to 1967 with Death At An Early Age, on through 14 more powerful texts…No one else has been able to keep track of the rich humanity and resiliency of our poor brothers and sisters of all colors.”
In an Art Works podcast hosted by the National Endowment of the Arts, Isabel Wilkerson describes what life was like for African Americans at the turn of the century, at the beginning of the “Great Migration” from the southern states to the northern. It is almost hard to believe that we are only sixty years from this type of lifestyle:
“…many of us believe that we have an understanding of it based on the pictures that we might have seen of the black and white water fountains, for example. But in many ways, that was just the least of it. That was, in some ways, probably what many of them might have been able to live with, considering all that they were really up against. From the moment they would awake in the morning to the moment that they turned in for the night, there were reminders, rules, protocols, expectations, limits, restrictions on every single thing that they might do. In Birmingham, for example, it was against the law for blacks and whites to play checkers together. In courtrooms throughout the South, there was a black Bible and a white Bible to swear to tell the truth on. That meant that if a black person were to take the stand, they could not swear to tell the truth on the same Bible that had just been used for the white eyewitness who might have just testified, so they’d have to stop everything and find a different Bible for that person to use, so that in every sphere of life, anything that could be conceived of was put into law. There were separate staircases, separate telephone booths. Also, interesting enough, one that many young people respond to more than anything is the idea, the fact that an African American motorist was not permitted to pass a white motorist on the road, no matter how slow that motorist might be going. And of course, because a caste system in itself is in some ways hard to maintain–and it lasted for 60 years by law, and longer than that by tradition– it was difficult to maintain. And so therefore, the way to enforce it required violence, and so every four days, somewhere in the South during the time period we’re discussing, the early years of the migration– the early decades of the migration, I should say– there was a lynching of an African American once every four days. And that was what was necessary in order to maintain this caste system, which in some ways was untenable.”
As we wrote before, Isabel Wilkerson has been educating her fans on the impact of the Great Migration by posting stories of prominent African Americans to her Facebook page. Recently, she profiled Zora Neale Hurston, one of our favorite writers and one of the literary world’s greatest treasures.
We loved what she had to say about Hurston so much that we decided to share it with you here:
On this day, January 7, in 1891 or 1901, beloved author Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Ala., to Rev. John and Lucy Hurston. She grew up in the all-black town of Eatonville, Fla., and went north as a young woman, just as the Great Migration was starting during World War I. She attended what is now Morgan State University and then Howard University, where she got her first story published in the literary magazine, Stylus, and co-founded the student newspaper, the Hilltop, while working odd jobs as a maid and a manicurist.
She went to New York at the height of the Harlem Renaissance, and, in 1928, became the first black student known to graduate Barnard College. There, she majored in English and studied anthropology, but was not permitted to live in the dormitories. As was her way, she never complained. She once famously said: “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”
She would become a renowned folklorist and novelist, acclaimed for her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which some see as drawn from parts of her own life. Five years later, she published an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about her many journeys, but her star faded as she appeared removed from the changing politics of the day. In 1946, she supported the Republican who was opposing Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, the most famous black politician of the era. Powell won reelection by a landslide, and the election seemed a window into the distance between her southern traditionalism and a growing push for equality in the North.
She returned to Florida and, in January 1960, she died in a welfare home in Fort Pierce, Fla., after suffering a stroke. She has grown more legendary in death than even in life after acclaimed novelist Alice Walker went in search of her unmarked grave, erected a headstone in her honor, and helped return her to her rightful place in literary history.
Hurston has inspired generations of writers with her free-spirited wit and imagination and her love of black southern folkways. “I am not tragically colored,” she once said. “There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes….No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
We highlighted the reboot of Oprah’s book club (dubbed Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 as a nod to the newly added interactive elements) with her first pick, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Now she’s announced her next selection, Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Oprah said, “Not since Toni Morrison have I read a writer whose words have moved me this way.”
Oprah Announces Her Second Pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0
This masterful debut novel was so astonishing that Oprah had to share it with the world. Watch to find out what Oprah loved so much about Ayana Mathis’ The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. Learn more about how you can participate in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
We are thrilled to announce that Karen Long, until recently the book editor at the Plain Dealer, will be coming on board as a consultant to the Anisfield-Wolf Awards. She will be replacing our kind and venerable leader, Mary Louise Hahn, who will be retiring after 17 years at the helm of the awards.
Long is leaving the Plain Dealer after an impressive 34-year career, covering not only books, but science, religion and cops as well. She became the newspaper’s book editor eight years ago and was an incredible supporter of the awards for many years (read one of her reviews here). Not only does Karen know and love books, but she fundamentally embraces our mission of highlighting works that address racism and diversity.
In the fall of 1956, a baby was born in Seattle. Things did not look good.
The parents were young, inexperienced and poor. The infant was sickly. The father was not finished with school; the mother was unhappy to lose her job to tend to an ill child. They had fervently wanted a son.
Still, the trio pulled through. The little girl grew stronger. The father became the first in his family to graduate from college. He read “The Catcher in the Rye” and decided to become a teacher, inspired by Holden Caulfield’s notion of standing near a cliff, keeping all the rushing children from falling off.
His wife, meanwhile, fought down her fear and isolation by reading, first a novel then a nonfiction title, one after the other, keeping her interior life nourished. Not surprisingly, the girl grew into a literary bigamist, loving both fiction and factual books.
Eight years ago, I told this story to introduce myself as that girl — grown and newly named The Plain Dealer’s book editor. Today, I retell it to say goodbye, and to put my good fortune into perspective. (Read her full column here.)
Mary Louise Hahn will stay on for one year as an advisor. “I’m thrilled,” she said. “I believe Karen Long is the perfect person to garner the high-level attention that the book awards deserve.”
When we see Haiti in the news, it is often downtrodden and negative. Edwidge Danticant, our 2005 winner for fiction, tries to bring a different light to Haiti through her work. In a 2011 interview on PBS, shortly after the Haiti earthquake of 2010, Danticat talks about the side of Haiti we rarely get to see. “The beauty surprises people sometimes. The physical beauty of certain parts of Haiti, the beauty of the arts – the music, the paintings, the literature – that Haiti, I want people to also know.”
With a new year comes new reading lists. We at Anisfield-Wolf rounded up some of the new and not-so-new books we’d like to read over the next few weeks. If this proves popular, we’ll keep adding books here as suggestions and have a discussion about what we’ve enjoyed over on our Facebook page.