In “Shine Bright,” music critic Danyel Smith makes it plain she wants “credit to be given where credit is due.”
Subtitled “A Very Personal History of Black Women in Pop,” Smith puts the story of Black women singers into her shimmering pop music memoir, interweaving their stories with her own rise as one of the nation’s preeminent music writers. The result is intoxicating.
Scan the table of contents and the usual suspects are there: Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Aretha Franklin. But Smith makes the inspired choice to include those with a smaller spotlight — among them 1960s girl group The Dixie Cups, Linda “Peaches” Greene of ‘70s duo Peaches & Herb, and Broadway songbird Stephanie Mills, who had a string of hits in the ‘80s.
An Oakland native, Smith, 56, received her first paid writing assignment in 1989 — covering a Natalie Cole concert for ten cents per word. By 1994 she had been named editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine, making her the first woman to helm a national music magazine. A few years later she moved on to become an editor-at-large at Time, Inc, and editor at Billboard, The Root and ESPN’s The Undefeated.
That swift rise was at times scalding. Smith battled racism and sexism in multiple professional settings. “I hadn’t gone to NYU, or Columbia, or Brown,” she writes. “In fact, I had no college degree. I was unmoved by Basquiat. I did not view New York City as the center of the cultural universe. I could feel the energy, though, of fools feeling I was an inch too East Oakland, years before I was told.”
Music served then, as it has most of her life, as a balm; she came to lean even heavier into the beats and lyrics of her favorite artists. As a child, she dwelt in the shadow of her alcoholic stepfather, whose cruelty might have inadvertently pushed the young creative into a career as a writer.
Smith recalls an incident in sixth grade where her stepfather ripped out pages of her diary and burned them, angry that she had been writing about him. “You want to write something?” he dared her, pointing at a window. “Describe the fucking sunlight.”
This story is tucked into her chapter on Gladys Knight, who also navigated abusive men to achieve success. The chapters read like mini magazine profiles, with Smith inserting her story organically, an approach that might not have been tolerated at Billboard. At times, it can be a little disorienting (wait, what year was the interview with Janet?). But the richness is in the details — Smith dug up what sandwiches Gladys Knight ate at her tenth birthday party.
Smith shares that she was driven to create a more complete, truthful record: “What if no one ever gets [Black women] right? What if our spirits and stories are never truly known? It could so easily be that we — except for our songs, our art, our children — were never here at all.”
“Shine Bright” puts light on some of the complex Black women who make the immortal American music. By including herself, she helps readers understand why.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 87th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2022 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
Percival Everett, “The Trees,” Fiction
Donika Kelly,“The Renunciations,” Poetry
George Makari, “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia,” Nonfiction
Tiya Miles,“All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake,”Nonfiction
Ishmael Reed, Lifetime Achievement
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video below.
ABOUT OUR WINNERS
Percival Everett is an experimental writer of novels, short stories and poetry. “The Trees” opens as a comic story in Money, Miss. before morphing into a metaphysical commentary on lynching, racism and police brutality – a mystery tied to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till. “This is a wickedly clever novel of ideas in the guise of genre fiction, a combination of mystery, thriller, police procedural and absurdist comedy,” said Anisfield-Wolf Juror Joyce Carol Oates. Read more…
Donika Kelly graduated from Southern Arkansas University and went on to earn her MFA in Writing from the Michener Center for Writers and a doctorate in English from Vanderbilt University. Her first book of poetry, “Bestiary,” won the 2015 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the 2017 Hurston/Wright Award. “The Renunciations” responds to her childhood trauma and exists in part to recast its meanings. It also speaks to a wife and lover exiting the speaker’s life. Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove lauded these poems: “Several mini-sequences are woven throughout; their periodic reappearance – the “Dear –” erasures, Self-Portraits, Sightings, Oracles – acts as a subtle yet devastating reminder of the cycle of violence. I returned to Kelly’s book, and she set me gasping anew. This is poetry of the highest order.” Read more…
George Makari is an historian, psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist whose “Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia” was a Bloomberg Best Nonfiction Book of 2021. The text is a riveting investigation into the history of an idea, xenophobia, which was declared the 2016 word of the year by Dictionary.com. The word, unlike antisemitism and racism, puts the emphasis on the perpetrator — not the victim — of these irrational fears, bigoted hatreds, and indefensible acts. “We see countless books that consider instances of racism,” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker notes. “Very few seek to understand it as a phenomenon to be studied and analyzed. ‘Of Fear and Strangers’ does that, free of cliché and jargon.” Read more...
Tiya Miles is a public historian who wrote the 2021 National Book Award-winning “All That She Carried” after learning about a plain cotton sack discovered at a flea market near Nashville. “All That She Carried” traces the history of three women, Rose, her daughter, Ashley, and her great-granddaughter, Ruth, who embroidered 10 lines of their matrilineal story of coming out of slavery on the sack. “I found it enormously illuminating, incredibly moving – it made me think in fresh ways about this long and difficult and challenging history,” writes Anisfield-Wolf juror Simon Schama. Read more…
Ishmael Reed — a poet, novelist, playwright, lyricist, cartoonist, musician and founder of small presses and publications — has remade literature. He has done so across six decades with satire, curiosity, teaching and an increasingly global reach. Known as “Uncle Ish” to his many admirers, the 1998 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship recipient remains a fierce critic of the tokenism of multi-cultural artists and of establishment media. The New Yorker magazine positioned Reed in 2021 as “a canonical author of the 20th century and an underground voice of the 21st.”
“Reed is one of the most extraordinary and fearless authors in the great tradition of American satire. He is also, without question, the godfather of Black postmodernism, and one of the most continuously innovative and prolific writers at work today,” said Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. Reed serves as a distinguished professor at California College of the Arts. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2022 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
A 2014 road trip to a North Carolina brewery sparked the idea for Aaron Hosé’s film, “One Pint at a Time.” The documentary will screen twice at the Cleveland International Film Festival in April.
The Florida-based filmmaker and his wife/producing partner Brigitte took a weekend trip to Asheville, where the couple fell in love with craft beer. (Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale from Catawba Brewing Company was the specific brew that lit the flame.) But as the Hosés continued to explore their new shared passion over the following year, the director noticed something felt amiss.
“When you consider the amount of people of color who are beer consumers, that makes up one third of the consumer market, yet you have less than one percent of Black people who own breweries, that doesn’t seem to make sense,” Hosé said in a phone interview. “That was the jumping off point for me to make the film about the Black experience in craft beer.”
Over the course of four years, Hosé and his team followed three Black-owned brewing companies as they perfect their recipes, hunt for brick-and-mortar locations, and expand their brew into new territories.
“I like being as observational as I can,” Hosé said. “You’re actually filming people’s lives as they grow. They’re evolving as human beings and professionals. You want to be open to sticking it out as long as it takes.”
Hosé swept the country, traveling from New Haven, Connecticut, where dance instructor Alisa Bowens-Mercado launched Rhythm Brewing Co., to Tampa, Florida, where Huston Lett co-founded Bastet Brewing, named after the Egyptian cat goddess.
Hosé interspersed the journey of the brewers with beer industry experts, who discuss the beverage’s African origins.
One standout is the crew behind Cajun Fire, a brewery attempting to set roots in New Orleans East. Founder Jon Renthrope started dabbling in craft beer after Hurricane Katrina and after founding his company in 2011, is still working on a physical location. The company’s plans to build a cultural hub — an on-site brewery with space for a community garden, event space and cultural museum — have been met with resistance, with neighbors lobbying for a change in local codes to prevent the brewery from being built.
While the challenges accumulate, the wins get camera time as well. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch Lett mingle with customers in his own brewery after seeing him begin the film in his garage.
For Hosé, the progress is the point. His goal is for viewers to question their own habits: Are there local brewers they could support?
“Look around and investigate,” Hosé said. “Show them some love. That’s one of the ways we’ll move the needle in the right direction.”
Watch “One Pint at a Time’‘ Friday, April 1 at 5:05 pm or Saturday, April 2 at 12:05 pm. Tickets are $14 for film festival members; $16 for others. Moviegoers can receive a $1 discount at the box office, online or ordering on the phone, by using the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards code: AWBA. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2022.
For most of her childhood, professor Daisy Hernández, believed her aunt Dora Capunay Sosa died from eating a contaminated apple. It wasn’t until adulthood that she understood the disease that killed her aunt and ten thousand others each year: chagas.
Hernández tells her aunt’s story in “The Kissing Bug,” an intimate, meticulous investigation into an illness that disproportionately affects the Latinx community.
Chagas, named after the Brazilian doctor who described it in 1909, is similar to Lyme disease in that it is not the insect itself that harms the heart and digestive system, but the parasite it carries. These triatomine bugs or “kissing bugs” are found in warm, rural regions, flourishing in the southern United States, Mexico, Central America and South America.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates nearly 300,000 people in the U.S. live with the parasitic infection, nearly all of them immigrants. Another six million carry it outside these borders. But it’s infuriatingly unpredictable — after decades of study, doctors still can’t pinpoint which patients will develop life-threatening symptoms.
In the opening chapter, Hernández, a Miami University professor, explains that the parasite can live in the body undetected for decades, “quietly interrupting the electric currents of the heart, devouring the heart muscle, leaving behind pockets where once healthy tissue existed.”
In some cases, like her Aunt Dora, it will also attack the digestive system. After an exploratory surgery in Colombia, doctors told Hernández’ family that Dora’s large intestine had grown to the point she “had enough for 10 people.”
“This could have easily been a 700-page book,” Hernández said, speaking to an attentive audience at Hiram College in late March. She spent seven years researching not only her family history but crisscrossing the country to find patients and doctors to speak on the history of this little-understood, marginalized disease.
“It is really challenging because you have to not only find a patient but find a patient willing to spend hours with you,” Hernández said. “And in my case, I wanted to interview them over the course of several years.”
One patient, Carlos, slept next to a stack of overdue bills from mounting medical costs, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with his three brothers. Hernández met him as a patient whose heart had been decimated by the disease; she later served as his interpreter at an appointment following a successful heart transplant.
“The Kissing Bug” is Hernández’ third book, after serving as co-editor of 2002’s “Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism” and releasing her memoir “A Cup of Water Under My Bed” in 2014.
“The continuity for me has been Latinx communities and intersectionality and racial justice issues,” she noted.
Hernández quoted a piece of advice from writer Cherrie Moraga: “Some of us have to write the memoir first because we have to clear everything out so a different story can come through. I definitely felt that way with ‘A Cup of Water.’ A memoir of growing up with this immigrant family, with being queer, of having an alcoholic parent, really difficult dynamics, being the first in my family to go to college and have that experience in the U.S….I needed to write all of those stories so I could have space for other stories. I could not have written this book before my memoir.”
Hernández shared that a deleted chapter on America’s link between citizenship and access to health care might find its way into her next book: “Don’t hold me to that, if seven years from now you see me with a very different book,” she joked.
Early this year, Hernández became the first Latina to win the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which recognizes a book for its originality, merit, and impact, and for breaking “new ground by reshaping the boundaries of its form and signaling strong potential for lasting influence.”
What connects American Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet across 400 years to rapper Cardi B? The answer, for Lillian Faderman, is the concept of womanhood, as she explores in her sharp, scrupulously-researched new book, “Woman: The American History of an Idea.”
Faderman, a professor emerita at California State University, Fresno, draws a line across 500 pages between the two icons. And she brings the same exhilarating vigor found in her 2015 book, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle.” It earned the Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction prize the following year.
“Woman” began in questions that Faderman’s adolescence posed to her. Born in 1940, the author recalls her junior high school classmates with their “short, tight skirts and see-through nylon blouses” in open rebellion against the mid-century television norms of women like Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver.
The most unruly ones ended up at the Ventura School for Girls, where they were sent to charm classes and church services meant to “reform the girls by inculcating in them the dominant culture’s ideal of womanhood.” This book wonders “how, when and why had that ideal of woman been created.”
Faderman wastes no time sharing who created the ideal: “For centuries, the men with the megaphones did not simply describe ‘woman,’ they prescribed who she must be. They left out of their prescription those who were beneath their concern.”
Faderman begins in the 17th century, exploring the Puritanical influences on white women in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the tyranny Black women faced on forced-labor estates in the Deep South, alongside the leadership some Indigenous women assumed in their nations. The scholar shifts her lens masterfully throughout the book, contrasting the experiences of privileged women with those disenfranchised. A standout is her chapter on women in higher education, full of nuggets such as the fact that Spelman College was named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, Ohio abolitionist and wife of John D. Rockefeller.
Finalized over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, “Woman” touches on its still-unfolding effects on women’s economic agency. “The pandemic forced a recognition of how tenuous the expansion of women’s lives beyond the bounds of domesticity might be,” Faderman writes, noting the number of daycare centers that had shuttered. “Women can move out into the world only if they are childless or if their young children can be watched over.”
“Woman” closes with an examination of the ways womanhood has morphed within the last 20 years, touching on the expansion of gender identity among Gen Z and the ascent of Vice President Kamala Harris. There is no tidy conclusion.
Perhaps that’s the point, as Faderman writes in the epilogue: “It remains to be seen whether ‘woman’ will always be the default concept that takes hold in times of duress or whether ideas of ‘woman’ have now mutated so completely that there will never be a long return to the prison of gender.”
Readers rooting for the latter would do well to take up this book.
The title is a French word for a music that hovers between song and ordinary speech.
In the story, Roberta and Twyla are roommates at a shelter for orphaned or otherwise homeless youth. Their lives unfold over the next 40 pages. Morrison is opaque about which girl is Black and which is white, but sprinkles details: they’re both poor, one has a sick mother, the other’s mother is a woman who “dances all night.”
The girls meet again and again as they grow up, begin families and continue to hold on to memories of their four months together at the shelter.
The short story published in a 1983 collection called “Confirmation: An Anthology of African American Women.” Morrison wrote in 1992 that her goal was to craft “an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.”
The result is uncomfortable, as Morrison surfaces her readers’ impulse to scan each page, each bit of dialogue, for a racial clue. Just when you think you’ve settled on an answer (Twyla’s white, you assert confidently), another paragraph makes you double back.
Even knowing Morrison’s aim, it’s difficult to detach from our deep socialization. Race matters, we know it matters, and to remove it feels like our roadmap has been snatched. We’re driving blind.
Smith notes this conundrum in the introduction: “If race is a construct, whither blackness? If whiteness is an illusion, on what else can a poor man without prospects pride himself? I think a lot of people’s brains actually break at this point. But Morrison had a bigger brain.”
The women collide into each other on scenarios that give readers space to examine their own biases. Is the waitress more likely to be black? What about the mother protesting school integration? Who would be more likely to be on their way to see Jimi Hendrix? Part of the fun is recognizing where bias falls short and commonality emerges.
“Morrison constructs the story in such a way that we are forced to admit the fact that other categories, aside from the racial, also produce shared experiences,” Smith concludes. “Categories like being poor, being female, like being at the mercy of the state or the police, like living in a certain zip code, having children, hating your mother, wanting the best for your family. We are like and not like a lot of people a lot of the time.”
Startling that what was true in 1983 feels fresh almost 40 years later.
In a career spanning nearly 60 years and encompassing over 40 publications, Samuel R. Delany has written memoirs, novels, literary criticism, and personal essays. But he is most frequently cited as a foundational figure in the genre of science fiction for sweeping, dystopian tales like 1975’s “Dhalgren” and inventive, interstellar fantasies like “Babel-17,” published in 1966.
But Delany, known to his friends as Chip — a nickname he gave himself as a child in summer camp — is also a fearless pioneer of gay literature. His memoir, “The Motion of Light in Water,” reveals a life that ran counter to the mainstream culture of the 1960s, including a string of homosexual relationships, during his 19-year marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker.
Science fiction allows space for transgressive worlds in ways that realist genres may not. Look at his Triton, a society on Neptune’s moon free of sexual and gender normativity, or the post-apocalyptic world of the Fall of the Towers trilogy, which is set far in a future in which distinguishing races based on melanin is impossible.
For creating fantastic new worlds that invite us to better reckon with the real ones in which we find ourselves, Samuel R. Delany is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Set in a fictional New York City public housing project in 1969, “Deacon King Kong” begins with a shooting. But former journalist James McBride’s tragicomic novel is not a whodunit but rather a whydunit.
Written with warmth and tenderness, McBride infuses each of his characters with intricate backstories that humanize and intertwine them — from the old, bumbling church deacon who pulled the trigger, to the feared, but talented, young drug dealer he shot, from Italian mobsters to Irish cops to black church ladies. This is not a story of urban isolation but rather of connected and human cacophony.
As he did in his memoir, “The Color of Water” (which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for non-fiction in 1997), McBride again richly imagines the love, violence, and everything in between that forge a community.
For his multilayered and generative understanding of the multitudes of humanity, James McBride is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966, Natasha Trethewey’s existence was the result of an interracial marriage, still illegal in the state at the time of her birth. In richly poetic prose, the former US Poet Laureate captures the collective trauma evinced by growing up Black in a society where Black lives matter most as a bolster to white supremacy.
But “Memorial Drive” is also the powerful story of personal tragedy: the murder of her mother in 1985, at the hands of her abusive ex-husband. Trethewey blends her own self-reflection with her mother’s concrete and straightforward account of violence, reproduced from the police record. A portrait of the writer emerges from the transcription of her mother’s voice.
For turning wounds into words that memorialize a life both trapped by and transcendent of its circumstances, Natasha Trethewey is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
In “Obit,” poet Victoria Chang prefers the stark, objective language of the journalistic obituary form to the elegy, overflowing with sorrowful and often florid language.
The immediate spark for these poems was her mother’s death in 2015. But Chang’s obituaries memorialize not just people but also lost things—appetite, language, control. Printed in narrow columns as if clipped from a newspaper, these pieces are interspersed with shorter pieces, giving multiple forms to a single voice’s expression of loss.
For giving strikingly original language to the universal experience of grief, in a year in which too many lives have been lost, Victoria Chang is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Poetry.
We’re all too familiar with the recitation of Black history—both in the US and globally—as an unrelenting catalog of sorrow and loss: slavery, Jim Crow, police brutality and other structural racisms. But in “Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War,” historian Vincent Brown presents a different, far more nuanced story, detailing the strategic, political revolt orchestrated by enslaved West Africans in Jamaica in the 18th century.
Even in the dire world of Caribbean slavery, Brown reminds us that Black people were actors in their own story. Brown meticulously plumbs the archive to split open the received British wisdom about the revolt, to represent the enslaved as engineers of a revolt that, though “put down,” in fact destablilized the institution of Atlantic slavery and propelled it toward its eventual abolition.
For rewriting the traditional telling of a brutal era of history, Vincent Brown is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
Pittsburgh fiction writer Deesha Philyaw dedicated her award-winning short story collection to her daughters “and for everyone trying to get free.”
That search for freedom marinates each of the nine narratives in “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” named in 2020 a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of The Story Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award.
“I started off writing novels about dissatisfied women,” she said of her earliest drafts. “The early characters were church ladies but I didn’t think of them that way. They were simply women conjured from my memory, and I drew them into my imagination.”
In “Secret Lives of Church Ladies,” the stories are delightfully sexy and compelling. In one, a covert love affair between a pastor and a member of his congregation spans a decade and many, many pans of peach cobbler. In another, a reluctant art teacher finds herself entangled with a scientist. Closing the book is a daughter who finds herself struggling to care for a mother with dementia, who is fixated on the lead singer of The O’Jays.
Writing started as a creative escape for the self-described “stay at home mom with a toddler who never napped.” Philyaw began pouring out short stories and longer fiction pieces, but after her first divorce, she switched to more lucrative avenues — freelancing for magazines, consulting for nonprofits and governmental agencies and teaching at a local college, often at the same time.
Early on, she got advice from a mentor that transformed her view on publishing. “Your growth as a writer is more important than getting published,” she remembers being told. “All of us write terrible first drafts. When you stop resisting revision and welcome it as the only way to make your drafts less terrible, you’re growing as a writer.”
Pittsburgh essayist Damon Young, author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker,” introduced Philyaw at the conference. He described his friend as a literary Stephen Curry. “She gets better every year,” Young said. “Deesha is an example of how mastery isn’t a static dynamic. It’s a living and breathing process. Mastery involves work.”
That camaraderie between Philyaw and Young extends to a bevy of writers in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. “We are intentionally in community with each other,” she said, noting the famous falling out between Harlem Renaissance contemporaries Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. “It’s individual writers deciding to be good kinfolk to each other and abandoning the scarcity mindset that says ‘There can only be one.'”
Among the Church Ladies’ fanbase is actress and producer Tessa Thompson, who is adapting the collection for a series on HBOMax. Philyaw is scripting the series with co-writer Tori Sampson: “I want to be able to answer all of the burning questions [about these characters] but add some new complications as well.”
As she closed, Philyaw pushed back on an “age ceiling” in publishing. “I was 49 when ‘Church Ladies’ came out. It took me 20 years to get here. While it may have happened sooner, I’m glad I didn’t rush to publish a book that I didn’t love. But I feel I published the best book I could because I had been growing as a writer over these twenty years. I’m glad I didn’t give up when it got hard.”
Join the Ursuline College community for an afternoon conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.
Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” explores her mother’s life and death and the abiding tie between the two women. Trethewey writes of how her mother came to die at the hands of a former husband when the author was 19, as well as the Mississippi context that formed and informed both women.
“When my backstory was written, my mother entered it only as a footnote, or an afterthought – as simply a ‘victim’ or ‘murdered woman,’” Trethewey told the New Yorker. “It really hurt me because her role in my life, in me becoming a writer, was being diminished or erased. I just decided that if she was going to get mentioned then I was going to be the one to tell her story, and to put the important role she played in my making in its proper context.”
Ursuline English Chair Katharine Trostel participated in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative summer session on teaching “Memorial Drive,” and brought the idea of a campus read of Trethewey’s new classic back to her liberal arts college. Administration and faculty agreed it was an ideal text, especially during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Hear Trethewey share the story of “Memorial Drive” October 28. This virtual event is open to the public, and registration is required.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
Cleveland Book Week features a one-hour documentary with historian Vincent Brown, poet Victoria Chang, memoirist Natasha Trethewey, novelist James McBride, and lifetime achievement recipient Samuel R. Delany. Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. hosts.
“The 2021 documentary is intimate, crisp and time well spent with five beautiful minds,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “For viewers who loved last year’s documentary, this second installment is glorious. It both renews and challenges the ways we see the world.”
Stream the documentary via the above video at any time.
Journalist and author Isabel Wilkerson, an authority on the Great Migration and the anthropology of caste, will anchor the Cleveland Foundation’s annual meeting with a keynote conversation Monday, August 23. Guests can register to hear Wilkerson at 7 p.m. here.
Sixty-one years after the writer was born in Washington, D.C., Wilkerson has observations worth attending: about why India and the United States have proven especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, about the traces of caste detectable in this year’s summer Olympics and how she thinks about the January 6 insurrectionists carrying the Confederate flag into the Capital.
“The freedom to be able to decide for oneself what to do with your God-given talents is a very new phenomenon for African-Americans in this country,” Wilkerson observed in 2015 on a visit to Cleveland. She asked her audience to ponder all the wasted human potential through 12 generations of slavery on American soil.
Wilkerson sees these times of pandemic and reckoning as a signal moment to live up to what Martin Luther King Jr. called the citizenry to do, another chance to “transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony.”
The writer will join Daniel Gray-Kontar, founder of Twelve Literary Arts, in a discussion of what Clevelanders might do now.
By Lisa Nielson
Almost 90 years ago, two women quietly cooked up what is to this day the only juried literary prize addressing racism in the United States.
Edith Anisfield Wolf was born to privilege in 1889, but rather than living the comfortable life of a wealthy, educated woman, she dedicated her life to philanthropy and books. That choice stems from her family legacy.
When Edith was 12, her father called her into his office to ask her to help him best decide how to use the family wealth to help the community. Together, that’s exactly what they did. Her father, John Anisfield (1860-1929), immigrated from what is now Krakow, Poland, in 1876 at age 16. With the help of family and friends, he began working in Cleveland’s textile industry, eventually owning his own company, and later expanding into real estate.
A philanthropist and bridge builder, he quietly and effectively helped found Mt. Sinai Hospital and started Camp Anisfield. Edith and her father also faced tragedy. In 1901, Edith’s 9-year-old sister, Lizzie, died of pneumonia, followed by her mother, Daniella, a year later.
Edith graduated from East High and attended Mather College briefly but never finished. She married Cleveland lawyer Eugene Wolf (1884-1944) in 1918, and together they ran the family businesses after her father’s death. Edith was a poet, self-publishing five chapbooks and contributing poems to the Plain Dealer, a member of the Cleveland branch of the Pen Women Society and was unanimously elected to serve on the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943.
After talking with her friend, Amy Loveman, about how best to honor the legacy and memory of her father, Mrs. Wolf started the John Anisfield Prize in 1935, later the Anisfield-Wolf prize in honor of her husband Eugene.
She endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Community Prize, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Edith left her books to the Cleveland Public Library, three paintings and other art pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her house on East Boulevard to the Welfare Federation.
In 1964, the Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund at the Cleveland Foundation provided a third of the funding to endow the Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Judaic Studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It also awarded $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to Black history in Cleveland, the first such archive in the country.
Mrs. Wolf loved to garden, experiment with unusual recipes, and apparently was a fine pianist. Given that her father was fluent in German and Yiddish, she herself likely spoke both languages, in addition to French and Spanish. The list of books she donated to the Cleveland Public library indicates she (and her father) had wide ranging interests in history, philosophy, and languages.
From what thin correspondence remains from her, it seems she was an intensely private person and a woman of few words. Her handwritten notes are succinct, to the point, and written on the old-fashioned, thick-stocked note cards. Mrs. Wolf even refused to be involved in the prize she founded: “Mrs. Wolf made a great point of disassociating herself from the actual judging of the awards. She even refused to attend the annual awards ceremonies, on the grounds that she might seem to be putting herself forward too much.”
For all her reticence, however, her presence is felt. The Plain Dealer described her as a shrewd businesswoman who can spot a “phony” from a distance. References to her are invariably respectful, calling her “Mrs. Wolf” – a designation she herself preferred. On her election to the board of the library, the July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer reported, “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft spoken, but she manages to have her way.”
If you want to visit her remains, go to Knollwood Mausoleum in Mayfield Village, Ohio. She is in crypt #321. To visit the Anisfield and Wolf families, go to the Mayfield Cemetery in Cleveland Heights. You’ll find the Anisfields in the Mayfield Mausoleum and the Wolf family is close by.
Traces of Amy Loveman’s friendship with Edith can be glimpsed through random articles and off-the-cuff references. Given their mutual love of books, and Loveman’s importance as an editor and reviewer, their bond makes perfect sense.
Born in 1881, Loveman came from a literary family in New York City. Her maternal grandfather was the son of a rabbi. A linguist, encyclopedist and outspoken anti-slavery advocate, he wrote for The Nation. Her father emigrated from Hungary in 1850 and was a cotton broker who spoke six languages. Perhaps that is how the Anisfields and Lovemans became acquainted?
Loveman received her BA from Barnard in 1901; interestingly, she took no literature classes because she knew her love of reading would never end. In her first job, she worked for an uncle who was revising The New International Encyclopedia. She went to New York Evening Post, and became first a book reviewer, then later associate editor of the Post’s Literary Supplement, which she helped found in 1920.
In 1924, Loveman left with several colleagues to found a literary magazine, The Saturday Review, where she worked for the next 30 years. The masthead listed her as an associate editor and she wrote nearly 800 book reviews, editorials, and answers to questions from readers. In 1950, she became the poetry editor.
Despite being a poetry critic, (and culling 98% of submissions) she never wrote poetry herself: “I wouldn’t dare to,” she said, “knowing how well supplied the world already is with bad verse.”
Loveman edited, proofed, and mocked up Saturday Review editions, answered correspondence, and kept her male colleagues organized. She even rescued the paper on several occasions by locating missing items. Once she traveled to the dump to rummage in the trash to locate a missing photo. On another occasion, she and editor Norman Cousins spent hours frantically searching the warehouse for a missing manuscript to avoid legal repercussions. They found it behind a desk in the offices and the threatened lawsuit was dropped.
Along with the Saturday Review, Loveman was vital to the Book-of-the-Month club. She joined the reading committee in 1926 shortly after it was founded, then later became head of the editorial department in 1938, eventually joining the board of judges in 1951. Colleagues describe her as an optimist, kind, an elegant writer who adored Jane Austen, and corresponded with every great writer at the time. She was widely respected, to the degree that when her colleagues tried to throw a small surprise party to recognize her contributions to literary endeavors in June 1942, so many people wanted to attend, they had to rent a ballroom.
Loveman received the Columbia University Medal for Excellence and the Constance Lindsay Skinner Achievement Award of the Women’s National Book Association in 1946. Wheaton and Wilson colleges awarded her honorary Litt.D degrees in 1950. Amy served on the Anisfield Wolf jury in the 1940s.
On her death in 1955, Norman Cousins penned a lengthy obituary for the Saturday Review, and in 1956, published a 21-page eulogy with Overbrook Press. In his magazine obituary, Cousins wrote, “Amy Loveman was less cluttered emotionally than any person I have ever known. Her nobility was a universe: and to know it was to soar inside it.”
Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
Hurricane Maria scythed more than 3,000 souls on Puerto Rico, according to the official death toll. Among that number was “Landfall” director Cecilia Aldarondo’s grandmother, who died in the aftermath of the 2017 storm.
The assessment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency found nearly every building in Puerto Rico damaged, and parts of the island stayed dark for almost two years without power.
Aldrarondo bristled at the “unsatisfying” media coverage, glib reports that she believes glossed over the anemic government response and Puerto Rico’s longstanding economic woes.
She got to work on a film that would concentrate on what residents did to save themselves.
“This is a film that’s not so much about a hurricane as it is about aftermath,” Aldarondo told Deadline. “It’s about how we pick up the pieces in the wake of these kinds of seismic watershed events.”
Aldarondo’s documentary focuses on citizens who banded together to create their own recovery plan. In one scene, locals explain how they broke the lock on a damaged school building and turned it into a community center and emergency housing.
“The hurricane has brought us toward a system where the common denominator is the common good,” one resident said.
The 90-minute film also tells history through archival footage, pulling back the curtain on years of economic destabilization and exploitation from hungry U.S. investors.
“Landfall” has made a splash on the festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC’s Viewfinders competition, and nabbing Best Documentary at four others.
“People in Puerto Rico have been engaged in really extraordinary acts of solidarity and recovery precisely in the wake of that kind of abandonment by the federal and local governments,” Aldarondo noted in the Deadline interview. “There’s a really quite instructive case study of communities caring for one another when their institutions fail them. I wanted people in Puerto Rico to not be seen as victims but as leaders, as global leaders, in a way that I think colonized people very rarely get to be.”
Watch the trailer below:
Watch “Landfall” during Cleveland International Film Festival’s CIFF45 Streams, where you can view the documentary from the comfort of your home for $9 with discount code AWBA. CIFF45 Streams ends April 20. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2021.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 86th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2021 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video above.
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and the human condition,” said Gates Jr. “This year, we honor a brilliant military history, a breakout poetry collection that wrestles with mortality, a novel bursting with love and trouble centered around a Brooklyn church, and a memoir by a daughter reclaiming her mother’s story. All of which is capped by the lifetime achievement of Samuel R. Delany, who has broadened our humanity and sharpened our minds through his groundbreaking science fiction.”
About Our Winners
Vincent Brown is an innovative scholar who combines impeccable historical research with innovative mapping and visual tools. He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. “Tacky’s Revolt” is a groundbreaking investigation into the roots, combatants, cartography and reverberations of the largest slave revolt in the 18th Century British Atlantic world. Read more…
Victoria Chang is a celebrated poet, children’s book author and professor who grew up in Detroit and now lives with her family in Los Angeles. Her first two degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, are in Asian Studies, then she earned an MBA at Stanford University. Restless in the financial sector, Chang earned an MFA at Warren Wilson College and now serves on Antioch University’s faculty. In “Obit,” she distilled her grief after her mother died into a series of prose poems, structured like obituaries, for all she had lost in the world. Read more…
Samuel R. Delany is a pioneer of gay literature and a science fiction icon, as comfortable at academic conferences as he is at comic book conventions. His gifts as a novelist and critic put him on the creative writing faculties of the University of Massachusetts and Temple University. Born in New York City, Delany had won four Nebula Awards and a Hugo prize by the time he was 27. The Lambda Literary Report named him one of the 50 most important people in changing the culture’s view of gayness over a half century. His books include the novels “Babel-17,” “The Einstein Intersection,” “Dhalgren” and the memoir “The Motion of Light in Water. Read more…
James McBride is the first Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction, for “The Color of Water,” to be honored in fiction. A celebrated novelist, musician, composer, Spike Lee collaborator and a National Humanities Medalist, McBride was praised by Barack Obama for “displaying the character of the American family.” A fictionalized version of his parents’ Baptist church in Brooklyn, N.Y., anchors and animates “Deacon King Kong,” a rollicking tale set spinning in 1969 when an elderly, alcoholic deacon shoots off the ear of a notorious drug dealer. Read more…
Natasha Trethewey is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and a 2007 Pulitzer winner for “Native Guard,” who wrote “Memorial Drive” to reclaim her mother, born Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, from becoming a footnote to her daughter’s more prominent story. Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day to a Black mother and a white father, the poet explores how she embodies some of the Civil War’s persistent contradictions. “Memorial Drive” investigates the life and death of Turnbough, killed when her daughter was 19 by a man she had divorced. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2021 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is proud to present The Asterisk*, a new podcast hosted by Karen R. Long, manager of the awards. An asterisk is a reference mark, indicating an omission. Each episode will delve into some of the holes in our knowledge about an esteemed AWBA winner.
“There is always more to learn from the individuals who win an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award,” Long said. “They continue to grow as artists and thinkers even as their reflections on our shared civic life are urgent and intriguing. Plus they are just cool people.”
Season 1 of The Asterisk* opens with Eric Foner, the 2020 lifetime achievement winner. In this episode, recorded January 7, Foner discusses the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, his marriage to a fellow historian and his place among the most influential American historians of the last half-century.
“When somebody told me that they had just seen the Confederate flag on TV being carried around the Capitol, my first reaction was ‘good,’” Foner told The Asterisk*. “These people are telling us exactly what they believe. You cannot beat around the bush. You cannot claim to be a patriot and display the Confederate flag. You cannot claim to believe in racial equality and display the Confederate flag.”