Michelle Kuo, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants, describes herself as a shy child growing up in western Michigan who rarely raised her hand in class. But her first book, a memoir called “Reading with Patrick,” has captured the accolades of two men who think deeply about education:

  • James Forman, who teaches at Yale Law School and is the author of this year’s “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.”
  • Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars program at Case Western Reserve University

Evenchik and Forman have posted a 2,500-word book review on The Atlantic website, concluding, “in all of the literature addressing education, race, poverty, and criminal justice, there has been nothing quite like ‘Reading with Patrick.’”

Patrick is Patrick Browning, an eighth-grader in the Arkansas Delta when Kuo, newly graduated from Harvard, showed up in the front of his class. The 22-year-old, a Teach for America instructor, was profoundly out-of-her depth but recognized in the often-absent teenager a sensitive and astute learner.

But instead of the laughable tropes — think Michelle Pfeiffer in the ridiculous film “Dangerous Minds” – Kuo finds a way to tell her truth alongside that of Browning, who was charged with murder while she was earning a law degree. Kuo returned south to spend seven months visiting Browning each day in jail, where they read Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Derek Walcott and Frederick Douglass.

“In her penetrating, haunting memoir, ‘Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship,’ she confronts all the difficult questions that the teacher-as-savior genre claims to have answered, and especially this one: What difference can a teacher actually make?” write Forman and Evenchik.

The answer – and this review – makes a potent case for this new work.

Thanks to Wesley Lowery and his colleagues at the Washington Post, citizens anywhere can click on the newspaper’s “Fatal Force” webpage and see the running tally of people who have been shot and killed by police this year.

When Lowery, 27, returned to his hometown September 22, he looked up the number on his phone to answer a question at the City Club of Cleveland: 714. Less than a week later, it had ticked up to 730.

Last year the total was 992 and in 2015, when Lowery and his team won a Pulitzer for creating the database from scratch, it was 963. Despite heightened awareness around police shootings, despite the protests of Black Lives Matter, the number dying is steady. It is tracking to come in again close to a 1,000 deaths this year, Lowery said.

“It’s a pace of about three a day,” he told a sold-out crowd. “What is difficult is fatal police shootings are a relatively random event. Every year, you have police departments that have their first fatal shooting ever. It’s not a set of 12 departments doing most of the fatal shootings . . . You have very few departments that have double-digits.”

And with more than 19,000 U.S. police jurisdictions, a lesson learned about police use of deadly force doesn’t travel, Lowery said. He gave this example: when the New York City police discovered in 1973 that forbidding its force from shooting at moving cars cut citizen fatalities in half, that was good news for New York, but it didn’t disseminate.

Lowery, a self-effacing man who decided in a Shaker Heights middle-school that he wanted to become a journalist, drew strong reviews for his first book They Can’t Kill Us All: Ferguson, Baltimore and A New Era in America’s Racial Justice MovementCritic Dwight Garner of the New York Times wrote, “This book is electric, because it is so well reported, so plainly told and so evidently the work of a man who has not grown a callus on his heart.”

Lowery described his baptism into covering “policing and race” as accidental, dating to a spot decision by a Washington Post editor who sent him to St. Louis in the aftermath of August 9, 2014, when Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown.
“I thought this was going to be a very quick story,” Lowery said. “I’d covered police shootings before and I knew the appetite was small. I’d write a story and people would likely move on.”

Instead, Lowery discovered a crowd of perhaps 150 waiting milling in a church parking lot while some 800 people packed inside for a hastily called NAACP news conference. He started in with what he now characterizes as “quaint, naïve questions” asking residents to describe their relationship with police.

“What I’m hearing back are stories that are horrifying: stories of nights spent in jail for unpaid parking tickets; stories of people calling the police for help and ending up in handcuffs,” Lowery said. And even as he is listening, he is editing, discarding anecdotes as unprovable, weighing others with skepticism.

Back in D.C., Lowery and his colleagues went looking for data on police shootings and discovered no entity took responsibility to gather them. The best they could scavenge was a squishy FBI estimate of 463 killed per year, a number the bureau knew was a gross undercount.

“In a country that is obsessed with quantifying and counting, we had no accurate account of how often people were getting killed by police officers,” he said. “But we can tell you exactly how many people saw the movie ‘Get Out’ in Shaker Square and how many bought popcorn.”

The Post decided to track fatal force by looking for media hits, reasoning that on most occasions of lethal police killings a reporter would have filed one story. The team discovered that a quarter of the cases involve mental illness: “Our society solution to mental breakdown is to insert someone with a gun,” Lowery said.

Asked by the lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family about the paucity of convictions of police, Lowery was blunt: “We allow police to kill people when they get scared. Period.”

The Post’s examination of prosecutions found them exceedingly rare, and convictions close to nonexistent. Lowery recommended Jill Leovy’s groundbreaking 2015 book, Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America, as one key to pondering these complexities. He also likes Chris Hayes’ A Colony in a Nation, which published in March.

The reporter reflected back on his own incredulity during those first days in St. Louis. “I think if there is a lesson to this work,” he said, “it is we have to listen to our own communities when they tell us stories about the pain and the trauma they are in.”

The chestnut about journalists speaking for the voiceless also began to ring hollow, thanks to an activist who chastened Lowery: “There are no voiceless people,” he said. “There are only people who are unheard.”

U.S. Congress member John Lewis is short and bald and unfailingly humble. Before he could say a word during a quick September stop in Cleveland to accept the Louis Stokes Community Vision Award, a breakfast crowd of more than 500 gave the 77-year-old a thunderous standing ovation.

Overhead in the Renaissance Hotel’s Grand Ballroom, the film trailer for “Selma” had spun out a brief, heart-clenching re-enactment of Bloody Sunday in 1965, when law enforcement officials beat Lewis unconscious on Alabama’s Edmund Pettis Bridge. The Canadian actor playing Lewis – Stephan James – appears in the
trailer four times.

A clip from the John Lewis episode of “Finding Your Roots” followed. It re-played the revelation that Tobias Carter, the Atlanta congress member’s great great great grandfather, had registered to vote in Alabama in 1867, after the end of the Civil War. “Maybe, just maybe, it’s part of my DNA,” Lewis says, shaking his head
in disbelief. “It’s just incredible.”

For writing about his own incredible life, Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999. His memoir, called Walking with the Wind, got a graphic version update: March. This trilogy has reintroduced the Civil Rights movement for the 21st -century generation, and became the campus-wide reading selection at Marquette, Michigan State and Georgia State universities.

Steven A. Minter, master of ceremony for the Stokes award, called Lewis “a great moral leader in these troubled times.” Minter quoted Lewis from Walking with the Wind: “When I care about something, I am prepared to take the long hard road. That is what faith is about.”

Minter called on the audience to celebrate Lewis, the late Louis Stokes and the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation, which works to revitalize Cleveland’s historic Fairfax neighborhood.

“Revitalizing communities takes time,” said Executive Director Denise VanLeer. “It really is unique to get input from everyone in a way that no one is more important than anyone else. And that’s not easy.”

VanLeer said she loved hearing Lewis’ standard story about being a four-year-old boy preaching to the chickens in the yard of his parent’s farm in Pike County, Ala. In his mellifluous baritone, Lewis still preaches, delivering a few choice words for Cleveland: “Louis Stokes believed health care was a right for everybody. Growing up in rural Alabama, we did not have health insurance, we had burial insurance. . .We’ve gone a distance; we’ve made a bit of progress. But there are forces today trying to take us back.”

In the ballroom and on Twitter, Lewis urges: “Each and every person has a mission, a mandate and a moral obligation to speak up and stand up for those left out and left behind.”

VanLeer reflected on a recent example close to her, when a grandmother in Griot Village, the intergenerational housing in Fairfax, was asked to take in a fourth grandchild, an infant. The woman said she was too weary to begin again with a new baby, but her neighbors rallied to take shifts of childcare and the staff of Fairfax Renaissance rounded up clothing and supplies. In the end, the grandmother took that fourth child.

“It was a beautiful example of the community pulling together,” VanLeer said. “It is why we get up in the morning.”

The September 18 double-issue of Time Magazine profiles 46 living women pioneers – among them Rita Dove, the former U.S. poet laureate and current Anisfield-Wolf Award juror.

The list brims with astronauts and actresses, athletes and ambassadors, and a Nobel laureate in molecular biology. The only person to make the cut as a writer is Dove. Drawing from her years growing up in Akron, Ohio, she transformed American letters with Thomas and Beulah, her groundbreaking poetry collection inspired by her grandparents.

Dove mentions this book in the first sentence of her Time Magazine essay, which appears under the headline “Raising hackles means you are not being ignored.”

In the last paragraph, Dove, 65, writes, “Although I am not a confrontational person by nature, racism and sexism are still very much alive, and whenever I encounter prejudice, I tackle the issues and move on, refusing to be sidetracked by hate or bitterness. When I was a young poet, my work was considered ‘slight’ by some male critics. The sexist tone was undeniable, although difficult to corroborate.”

Brazilian photographer Luisa Dorr photographed the pioneers on her iPhone, positioning Dove outdoors, framed by what appears to be a tree in winter. Time Magazine editor Nancy Gibbs writes of the cohort, “Some striking themes
emerged – the importance of joy, the fierce motivational force of failure, the satisfaction of successes both achieved and shared.”

Dove shared a variety of that satisfaction of success in Cleveland September 7 during the 82nd Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, where she helped honor the newest honorees. She remains masterful in cultivating young writers, both as a juror and as the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.

“Whatever I pursue – writing poetry or teaching or speaking in public – I want to be excited by the challenge,” Dove states, “curious about where life might next lead me.”

Peter Ho Davies – a gracious, wise and observant British-born fiction writer – welcomed a question about the title of his most recent work, “The Fortunes.” It won both the Chautauqua Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award this year.

Tentatively called “Tell it Slant,” a reference both to Emily Dickenson and a racial slur against Asians, the edgy title pleased both Davies and his editor. But it gave a large book chain pause. And Davies realized its tone fit just one of the four chapters – short stories in a way – that compose his novel.

Davies, clearly attuned to nuance, told an appreciative crowd at the Chautauqua Institute that he understood the booksellers’ reservations. But he is also intrigued by the phenomena of groups reclaiming labels originally meant to denigrate – “queer” in the LGBTQ vernacular, “suffragette” among feminists and sometimes the N-word among African Americans.

And the June U.S. Supreme Court decision greenlighting the use of “The Slants” as the trademark name for an Asian-American band fits into this language-subverting vein, noted the University of Michigan professor.
“The Fortunes,” Davies said, is a good titular fit: “It captures the Chinese interest in luck and it touches on questions of fate. It is plural, which reflects multiple characters, and it gestures at that most Chinese-American of tokens, the fortune cookie.”

Davies, 50, spent a week at Lake Chautauqua with his wife, novelist Lynne Raughley, and son Owen, to celebrate “The Fortunes” as the sixth winner of The Chautauqua Prize. It recognizes a book annually that contributes to literature and is a pleasure to read.

In four linked sections, “The Fortunes” considers a valet in the 1860s California Gold Rush, the actress Anna May Wong during the 1930s, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker, and the adoption of a Chinese daughter by contemporary American parents. Each protagonist is a fictional version of a historical figure, including the half-Chinese adoptive father, who has a cluster of characteristics in common with Davies himself.

“The book is an immigrant narrative caught up in an obsession of mine: identity,” said the author, whose dentist mother was Malaysian Chinese and father was a Welsh engineer.

“How do we find ways to get beneath the skin of history to tell someone’s story?” he asked. “I was lucky to come across a reference to a Chinese manservant to Charles Crocker, a baron of the Central Pacific Railroad often credited with bringing in Chinese to build the railroads. His servant, a valet I imagine, is Ah Ling, someone I think of as Asian Zero. And Ling becomes the first example of that problematic category: the model minority.”

Ah Ling came to stand for the burden of racial representation, Davies said, which led him to the famously beautiful actress Anna May Wong. The song “These Foolish Things” was written for her by one of her lovers.

“She’s famous for being Chinese but she is limited in the roles she can depict because she can’t kiss on screen. It is against the anti-miscegenation laws,” Davies explained. And once a white man was cast as the lead in film version of Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth,” it meant Anna May Wong could not play the role many considered her destiny: O-lan.

The third section of “The Fortunes” ponders the beating death of Vincent Chin, adopted from Hong Kong and mistaken for Japanese by a drunk Detroit autoworker angry over the 1982 economic downturn. Chin, 27, was buried on what was to have been his wedding day.

“We’ve all done this. I’ve done this. It can have comedic implications,” Davies said of mistaken identity among Asians. A reader once approached Davies to inquire if he was the Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who in turn was once asked if he was Jackie Chan.

In the final story, the act of adoption brings identify formation to the fore. “The book is hybrid in its form and is about people who are hybrid in their identities,” Davies said. Although he didn’t start intending it, form serves content.
Because everyone has multiple identities, people — especially of mixed race — must wrestle with authenticity: “Who am I? How do others seem me?”

Humor, a Davies trademark, helps a reader navigate weighty topics such as race. The interplay, he believes, lets in some light.

Poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, wiping tears from her eyes, accepted the National Book Critics Circle Award Thursday night for her latest work, LaRose, before a cheering audience at New York’s New School auditorium.

LaRose tells of two families linked by tragedy, based on a story Erdrich heard about a gun accident long ago. “And of course the story was only two lines long: ‘A man killed a boy. The man gave up his son to be raised by the other family,’ “Erdrich told Kirkus Reviews. “I never thought I’d write about it, but the story stayed with me.”

The book is “an arresting, discerning, nimble novel that takes the entirety of Native American history in its grasp,” said critic Colette Bancroft as she introduced the prize. “Within that destiny, Erdrich is saying there is room for love and laughter and forgiveness with your ancestors whispering to you all the while.”

LaRose is dedicated to Erdrich’s daughter, Persia, who accompanied her mother to Manhattan. The younger woman has – unlike her parents — become a speaker of the Chippewa language and now teaches at a Native American immersion school.

Erdrich, one of the nation’s most celebrated storytellers and winner of a 2009 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for A Plague of Doves, has accepted many prizes. But at age 62, the Minneapolis bookstore owner brought an urgency to the stage as she called on writers and truth-seekers.

“The truth is being assaulted, not only in our country, but all over the world,” Erdrich said. “There is a great rush of deceit, and more than ever, we have to look into the truth. . . so let us dig into it, and go back to our offices and our rooms or wherever we write, and let us be fierce and dangerous about the truth. And let us find in that truth the strength to bear the truth, and the strength to demand the truth of our government.”

Margaret Atwood, honored with the NBCC’s Lifetime Achievement Award, joked about being allowed south across the Canadian border. Then she struck a similar chord to Erdrich’s.

“Never has American democracy felt so challenged,” observed Atwood, who has witnessed her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale, swoop back up the bestseller lists. “Never have there been so many attempts from so many sides of the political spectrum to shout down the voices of others, to obfuscate and confuse, to twist and manipulate and to vilify reliable and trusted publications.”

In a crisp Canadian accent, Atwood reminded her listeners of the three moves despots make to consolidate power: take over the military, stifle the judiciary and squelch an independent press.

The blazing new novel from Mohsin Hamid opens with this sentence: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

In “Exit West,” Nadia is “always clad from the tips of her toes to the bottom of her jugular in a flowing black robe,” a garb she will wear throughout her life. When Saeed meets her, they are taking an evening class on corporate identity and product branding, which seems like a sly reference to Hamid’s marvelous 2013 book “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.”

Saeed watches the robed Nadia don a motorcycle helmet and swing a leg over her motorbike before rumbling off. Later, over their first coffee, he is surprised to learn she doesn’t pray. Asked why she then wears religious garb, Nadia smiles over her cup at Saeed and says: “So men don’t f*** with me.”

In his taut and profound fourth novel, Hamid picks up the classic boy-meets-girl storyline and weaves it into a nuanced, melancholy love story of global significance. At age 45, the Anisfield-Wolf winner for “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” has delivered a story at once familiar and utterly new, a fable unlike any yet told.

In a tale inhabited by militants, migrants and cell phones, Hamid introduces his first element of magical realism: dark, door-like portals that the reader gradually realizes are opening up around the world. As is his wont, Hamid never names the couple’s home city. But as the place succumbs to “sandbagged checkpoints and razor wire,” helicopters, then howitzers and infantry, Saeed and Nadia reluctantly decide to pay a smuggler to move them through a portal.

“Exit West” moves forward – in very short, moving passages — to other distinct spots on the planet – Mykonos, Greece; Sydney, Australia; Tijuana, Mexico; Tokyo, Japan; La Jolla, California; coastal Namibia, London, Buenos Aires, Argentina and Amsterdam. In these last two cities a garden shed becomes a portal that connects two elderly men, unable to speak one another’s languages, who nonetheless grow fond. A war photographer witnesses “their very first kiss, which she captured, without expecting to, through the lens of her camera, then deleted, later that night, in a gesture of uncharacteristic sentimentality and respect.”

Hamid gives this vignette a lovely gravitas in eight short paragraphs; he is poetic as he suggests that untold beauty might arise on occasion if we could foil the arbitrariness of geography. In 2013, the writer told National Public Radio’s Morning Edition that he takes “six or seven years to write really small books. There is a kind of aesthetic of leanness, of brevity.”

So “Filthy Rich” was only 228 pages; “Exit West” is 231. Yet the novel is made of long, cool, scalloped sentences – one runs 276 words and still the reader hardly notices.

Hamid is emphatically a political writer; he anticipates and imbues “Exit West” with the present-day crisis. Rich countries are busy building walls even as refugees flee their “drone-crossed skies” by the millions. As these migrants emerge in new places, drones and satellite surveillance follow. Some violence travels with them and some violence awaits, new nights of shattering glass.

Nadia and Saeed respond differently to the threats; a great pleasure of “Exit West” is these characters’ complexity – alone, together and across time. Hamid’s portrait of them as a couple feels as authentic as anything fiction has mustered in the new millennium.

The writer gave Lit Hub an interview last year on “Exit West,” one of the most anticipated novels of 2017. He said, “I understand that people are afraid of migrants. If you’re in a wealthy country, it’s understandable that you might fear the arrival of lots of people from far away. But that fear is like racism: it’s understandable, but it needs to be countered, diminished, resisted.

“People are going to move in vast numbers in the coming decades and centuries. Sea levels will rise, weather patterns will change, and billions will move. We need to figure out how to build a vision for this coming reality that isn’t a disaster, that is humane and even inspiring.”

“Exit West” reads as a portal to that possibility.

The Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges famously said, “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

Bibliophiles might say amen, but books are barriers, not passports, for the estimated 36 million adults in the United States who can’t read above a third-grade level.

In Cuyahoga County, 400,000 people — almost half the population — read and calculate below an 8th-grade level, which bars them from standard job training; while 67 percent of Cleveland kindergarteners arrive “not fully prepared to start.”

Into this grim turf – so far from Borges’ Paradise – rides a short woman, Dr. Dana Suskind, who founded the Thirty Million Words Initiative in Chicago.

She came to Cleveland as a guest of the Literacy Cooperative, arriving with a PowerPoint and film clips to emphasize that there is a fix to the 30 million word gap. This is the chasm children experience by age four growing up in homes without much talking, compared to homes awash in words.

“Not since the dark ages has so much human potential been left off the table,” Suskind said, quoting her colleague John List, an economist at the University of Chicago.  

“What happens outside the hospital is what really matters,” Suskind told a lunch gathering in downtown Cleveland. “The critical factor is language – the power of the parent or caregiver talking to build the child’s brain.”

Because 85 percent of brain development occurs in the first three years, smart babies are not born, but made through interactive speech, Suskind said. She came to this realization by studying the research, spurred by her initial surprise as a cochlear implant surgeon when some of her young deaf patients thrived when she implanted a device that enabled hearing and other children made almost no gains at all.  The reason turned out to be how rich the speech was at home.

“Many families haven’t been exposed to the powerful science that shows that their language is the key architect for their children’s brain growth,” Suskind told National Public Radio. “Our focus is empowering parents with that knowledge.”

The vehicle is the Three T’s: Tune in, Talk More and Take Turns. From birth on, parents who engage with whatever has caught a child’s attention, bring rich language to their daily interactions and begin to echo and respond to their baby’s sounds are building hundreds of thousands of neural connections – without buying anything at all.

Asked about the ubiquitous cellphone, Suskind said she now notices an eerie quiet when she walks into waiting rooms. “To be truthful, it’s a little bit scary to me,” she said. “I think we need a fourth-T: Turn off your technology.”

Suskind praised Dr. Robert Needleman, a Cleveland pediatrician in the audience. He pioneered “Reach Out and Read,” which brings books into the lives of young families through well-child appointments.

“We’re working on a maternity ward intervention where new mothers and fathers learn about the power of language,” Suskind said. “We’re working in pediatricians’ offices, home-visiting programs as well as children’s museums and libraries. Our program is about getting this message and these science-based programs to parents — to really, hopefully, get it into the groundwater.”

The Chicago surgeon “really has changed the landscape with her Thirty Million Words Initiative,” said Kristen Baird Adams, chief operating officer in the PNC Office of the Regional President.  The bank has pledged $350 million over 25 years in its Grow Up Great program.

“All the pediatricians, all the health care workers, all the teachers in the world knowing the importance of language in a child’s first three years means nothing if the parents don’t know,” Suskind concludes in her book. “When I began Thirty Million Words, I would look at the babies’ heads and imagine the rapid firing of developing neurons just at that moment. Now I look at the adults who care for them and think, ‘You are more powerful than you ever imagined and I hope you know it.’”

The Literacy Cooperative hosted its largest gathering — about 175 community educators, librarians, doctors and literacy workers – to disseminate Suskind’s message. It partners with two pertinent initiatives locally: Reach out and Read and the Dolly Parton Imagination Library, which delivers a book a month to a child from birth to age five.  More information on both is available at www.literacycooperative.org.

Sixty-six writers and artists – including seven Anisfield-Wolf recipients and two jury members – wrote an open letter to President Donald Trump asking him to desist from broadly banning travel to the United States by people from seven predominately Muslim countries. The letter, sponsored by PEN America, is timed to influence the president before he issues a second version of his original, sweeping travel ban, which is now stayed by the U.S. District Court of Appeals.

“Preventing international artists from contributing to American cultural life will not make America safer, and will damage its international prestige and influence,” wrote the signatories, who include poet Rita Dove and historian Simon Schama, panelists on the five-member Anisfield-Wolf jury.

The letter continues: “Arts and culture have the power to enable people to see beyond their differences. Creativity is an antidote to isolationism, paranoia, misunderstanding, and violent intolerance. In the countries most affected by the immigration ban, it is writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers who are often at the vanguard in the fights against oppression and terror. Should it interrupt the ability of artists to travel, perform, and collaborate, such an Executive Order will aid those who would silence essential voices and exacerbate the hatreds that fuel global conflict.”

Anisfield-Wolf novelists who put their name to the letter include Chimamanda Adichie, Sandra Cisneros, Nicole Krauss, Chang-rae Lee and Zadie Smith. Nonfiction honorees include philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America.

“As writers and artists, we join PEN America in calling on you to rescind your Executive Order of January 27, 2017, and refrain from introducing any alternative measure that similarly impairs freedom of movement and the global exchange of arts and ideas,” they write.

Laird Hunt, Wikipedia will tell you, “is an American writer, translator and academic.”  True, as far as that goes. But readers of Hunt’s haunted, touched-by-the-fantastical fiction know it goes much deeper, and farther back.

At 48, Hunt’s beard has grayed, and he’s updated his stylish glasses since 2013, when he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his antebellum novel “Kind One.” Today he describes that work as the beginning of a triptych, which grew to include his mesmerizing Civil War story “Neverhome” and the newly minted “An Evening Road.” This third book unspools in 1930 over a single August day and night in a sweltering rural Indiana that became notorious for a double lynching.

Laird himself was a seventh-grade boy living in London who found himself abruptly transferred to his grandmother’s Indiana farm, about an hour from the spot where 40 years earlier the racist killings in small-town Marion were memorialized in souvenir postcards circulated around the world. Hunt said his family never spoke of these events within his earshot.

Indiana figures in all three novels in the triptych. “I am drawn to stories that are under-told, untold or under-represented in some way,” Hunt told a gathering at the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. “All the narrators of these novels are women – perhaps an audacious decision.”

And all these voices are informed by the inflection and character and humorous cast of his grandmother’s speech in her youth. “When she was angry or tired, her accent thickened and she dropped words,” Hunt said. No actual person spoke the way his characters do, “but they are meant to evoke what a 21st-century ear might expect from the past, not a slavish imitation.”

Bobbie Louise Hawkins, a short story writer who mentored Hunt, cautioned him against overdoing the vernacular. Indeed, one of the most dated aspects of “The Red Badge of Courage,” Hunt said, was Hart Crane’s thick hand with dialogue that wound up sounding as if he “stuck a big hayseed in his mouth.”

For “The Evening Road,” Hunt returned to Marion – which he calls Marvel in the novel – for extensive research. The jail from which the lynched men were dragged is still standing. “The jail looks like a medieval castle, with turrets and gargoyles,” he said. “In the ‘80s, it was turned into condos, if you can imagine.”

Hunt managed to enter a side door into the condominium building, now gone slightly to seed, to discover some of the jail’s original tilework and iron gating – “it is really haunting.”

Flannery O’Connor would feel at home here, and her fiction influences Hunt’s. “Strange things occur in all of our minds when we’re telling stories,” he said. In “Neverhome,” the narrator Ash Thompson suggests that she and an African-American woman might share the road for a spell, a preposterous notion in 1862 or 1863. Some sixty years later, the road is still preposterous for the two narrators of Hunt’s most recent novel – one anxious to get to the lynching, one anxious to flee.

Pigs loom in all three books, a creature young Laird smelled often in his rural adolescence. “They just keep appearing,” he mused. “Clearly, something has moved into my psyche. They stay present in my fiction—victimized, repulsed and yet desired.”

Hunt said his novel in progress, centered on witches in the 17th century, already contains a pair of pigs, unsettled and up on their hind legs.

The Evening Road returns Laird Hunt to Indiana, where the Anisfield-Wolf winner lived on his grandmother’s farm during his high school years, and where his feel for the rural Midwest and its uncelebrated people has few equals in American literature.

This seventh novel springs from one of the nation’s most troubled wells. Hunt tells it over a single summer night, anchored in the bloody lynching of two men – Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp — in Marion, Indiana August 7, 1930.  

“The events of that evening gave rise to the poem ‘Strange Fruit’ by Abel Meeropol, which was made famous as a song by Billie Holiday,” Hunt, now 48, writes about the source of his new novel. “At least 10,000 people (some put the number as high as 15k) flooded into the medium-sized town to attend the lynching, while the considerable African-American population of the town either stayed indoors or got out of town. While I don’t know if any of my family members attended the lynching that day/night, I found it strange and troubling that in all the years I lived with my grandmother on the farm, I never heard a whisper about what was an event of national significance and implication.”

Into that silence flowed The Evening Road, a haunting and disturbingly lyrical novel told in the voices of three women: a red-headed, big-chested secretary named Ottie Lee Henshaw trying to reach the lynching; Calla Destry, a light-skinned, intelligent and angry adolescent caught up in the mayhem, and, for the final 13 pages, the “touched” Sally Gunner, known for conversing with angels after she took a blow to her head.

Hunt is marvelous at characterization – Neverhome, his Civil War novel, rests on the mesmerizing authenticity of Ash Thompson, an Indiana farm woman who passes as a man to fight for the Union. And Kind One, his Anisfield-Wolf winner, gives readers two sisters who overthrow their 19th-century bondage on a remote Kentucky pig farm, then chain up and work the owner in return.

The Evening Road runs closer to home, chronologically, although Hunt is still liquid with his coordinates: an old crone recounts a version of Kind One almost as a spell while she is fixing Ottie Lee’s hair. Ottie Lee herself is a foul-mouthed, small town beauty with a lecherous boss and a quarrelsome husband. She falls in with three men trying to reach Marvel, as Hunt calls the town. She has wit and resourcefulness, as well as a cruelty that seems rooted in the grim past.

“The world can shut your mouth for you sometimes,” Ottie Lee reflects, having stumbled on a Quaker prayer vigil that mixed blacks and whites. “Get so big right there in front of you that it won’t fit in your eyes.” She also hears out a politician, firing up a picnic crowd he plans to lead to Marvel. He calls the lynchings “a torch of clarity to burn bright across the countryside during hard days. . . It is a difficult thing, a harsh thing, but it will burn things clear. Bring us back into balance. The hardest things always do.”

After 140 pages, Hunt leaves Ottie Lee. The second half of the book belongs to 16-year-old Calla, whose parents died in a laundry fire and who is boarding with a foster family in Marvel. She has stubbornly defied them to meet a beau, and winds up alone on the road trying to leave, but not before the crowd envelopes her: “Some were laughing like it was a true carnival, and others had on hard faces like they were marching to war. Some didn’t have on any expression at all, like they were killed folk had clawed themselves out of the cemetery just to walk into town and look glass-eyed up into the courthouse trees.”

Calla commits three brazen acts of defiance as she travels, and Hunt lets readers ponder how she and Ottie Lee run in parallel and diverge. Sudden blooms of violence pock the story, even as Hunt refrains from depicting the murders in Marvel. Instead, Calla wonders why whites “thought they needed to lift people up into the air to kill them. Their saints and sinners both. . . I hadn’t read the papers yet, hadn’t heard any accounts to turn the sky of my memories black and send me drifting forward through the dark. That would be during the days to come.”

The Evening Road may be a bucolic title, but its beckoning is urgent.  Once more, Hunt draws up sorrow and dark light from the murderous past. The politician’s mother says “place like this glues itself to your bones; you don’t scrape it off.” Rather like Hunt’s masterful new novel itself.

Editor’s note: Laird Hunt will read from “The Evening Road” Monday, February 13 at the Beachwood branch of the Cuyahoga County Library. Join us.

How does one structure a year in reading?

The New York Times published the answers of 47 writers and artists who reflected on the books they chose over the past year. Their responses create a fascinating skein of reading and thinking, and include essays from four Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients. The entire conversation, which weaves from basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to filmmaker Ava DuVernay to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to author Maxine Hong Kingston, is enlivening, a hopeful way to face into a new year.

Praise for “The Underground Railroad,” the stupendous fall novel from Anisfield-Wolf winner Colson Whitehead, threads through these reflections. Salman Rushdie read it; so did the YA-writer John Green, Anne Tyler and Judd Apatow.

Maxine Hong Kingston, who won a 1978 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Woman Warrior,” came up with the longest and the widest-ranging list. She sampled Charles Darwin and Nora Ephron and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas on Depression.”  He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Far from the Tree,” another landmark, luminous work of nonfiction.

Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust expended her entire essay praising “March,” the three-book graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis recounting his formation in the crucible of Civil Rights. These books in turn are based on “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis’ classic accounting of his life, which won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1999.

Another graphic work attracted the praise of Junot Diaz, who kicks off the New York Times compilation recommending “Ghetto Brother,” a history of a multiracial Bronx, drawn and created by Julian Voloy and Claudia Ahlering. Diaz, who won an Anisfield-Wolf for his novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also highlighted another nonfiction title: Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.”  Diaz writes that “Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America” in a book subtitled “Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”

James McBride, whose 1997 memoir “The Color of Water” is still taught widely in universities, strikes a bluesy note in an essay that divides books “into categories like saxophone players.” He read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and then — to shake off some of its disturbing currents – turned to the manuscript for “Two and Two,” a forthcoming memoir from Rafe Bartholomew. McBride highly recommends this portrait of New York’s oldest saloon.

Samantha Power, who won both a Pulitzer and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “A Problem of Hell,” read books last year that illuminated her work as the United States ambassador to the United Nations: Madeline Albright’s “Madame Secretary” and Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President.”

The list from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was flavored by two Anisfield-Wolf winning authors: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Charcoal Joe,” the latest detective novel from Walter Mosley. The basketball legend also read poetry, specifically “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet. Meanwhile sublime novelist Colm Toibin read 2013 Anisfield-Wolf honoree “My Promised Land.” Toibin described Ari Shavit’s nonfiction work as giving him “an increased sense of the complexity of Israeli heritage.”

Back in the United States, filmmaker Jill Soloway thought about making a pilot as she read “You Can’t Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson.  And Jacqueline Woodson recently held up her copy on PBS’s “News Hour” as a galvanizing book from 2016.

However one navigates a year, it is bettered by the company of a good book. The selections in this compilation are a bracing place to start.

Marilynne Robinson – she of the incandescent, Pulitzer-winning prose – wasn’t thinking about her celebrated fiction last month, even though she took clear pleasure recalling its pull in 2015 bringing President Barack Obama to Iowa to interview her. Instead, the winner of Lifetime Achievement from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize dwelt last month on her 1989 nonfiction Mother Country.

“I can report that I’ve been sued only once – and that for a book about nuclear waste disposal by the United Kingdom that makes the Irish Sea the most radioactive water in the world,” she told a Dayton audience about Mother Country. “If I wrote only one book — that would be the one.”

Observing that “my fiction and nonfiction come from different parts of my head,” Robinson smiled wryly, her cascade of white-gold hair giving her the aura of a prophet.  At 73, she wielded gravitas on a panel of literary stars. She asserted that war crimes and environmental assaults were evils that get buried in willful acts of not-knowing:

“There are things we choose not to know that are absolutely as dangerous and destructive as what we think we know,” she told some 300 listeners at Sinclair Community College in downtown Dayton.

The Dayton Literary Peace Prize – established to commemorate the accords that ended the Bosnian War – has honored 60 writers in its 11 years. “The secret to peace threads through all of them,” said Sharon Rab, founder and co-chair. “These books have fine-tuned my sense of what is acceptable, and, more importantly, what is not acceptable.”

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners have received the Dayton prize seven times, illustrating a convergence between equity and peace: Taylor Branch, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Louise Erdrich, Marlon James, Chang-Rae Lee and Andrew Solomon.

And the most recent lineup of authors gathered in November under a slate gray Dayton sky, exemplified some of the best work in contemporary letters.

“As a realist, I don’t believe in peace; as an idealist, I have to believe in it,” noted Viet Thanh Nguyen, honored for The Sympathizer, a political novel whose narrator spied for both sides in the Vietnam War. By squaring up to atrocity, Nguyen argues, “we can also imagine the best that humanity is capable of, and in that way provide a vision, a way to overcome the momentum of past conflicts and inherited bitterness, the inertia of accepting our brutality. A strong dose of unsentimental realism, mixed with a touch of wild idealism – that is one way to imagine what I attempted” in The Sympathizer.

Banned in Vietnam, the novel is being taken up by some U.S. military academies. “The significance of the Vietnam War is it is one more episode of perpetual war that the United States is engaged in,” Nguyen said. “This is something that Americans must confront.”

James Hannaham, runner-up for the Dayton fiction prize for Delicious Foods, told the audience that his uncle, an art professor “has a motto I’ve internalized: Fear No Art. I’m always gravitating to those things I’m afraid of.”

Indeed, crack cocaine has a major role in Delicious Foods. As Hannaham read literature “attempting to deal with the legacy of slavery,” he found “these books would set the story in the past. At some point I realized I didn’t have to do that, and it seemed to be a way to make a significant contribution to the genre.”

Although he gave a copy of his novel to filmmaker Ava DuVernay, Hannaham said he isn’t particularly drawn to Hollywood. “One of the miracles of fiction is the thing can get made,” he said. “It’s artisanal. You sit alone in a room with your thoughts. . . No one is telling you what they think 14-year-old white boys want to see.”

Rab, who works to bering peace prize books into classrooms and conversation, said the nonprofit is adding a new wrinkle this winter: a chance for stakeholders to help rebuilt the National Library at Sarajevo in Bosnia, which was firebombed during the war.  More than two million books were destroyed.  The peace prize’s “Fly With the Doves Book Circle” donates a new book to rebuilding Sarajevo’s collection for every $25 contributed on the website.

“We plan to send a complete set of DLPP award-winning books to Bosnia as our gift to them,” Rab said.

Wil Haygood, who thoughtfully guided the writers’ presentations, said his travels had given him a sense of the sacredness of books, including during the conflict in Somalia, where he witnessed boys and men risking their lives to hide and save them.

 “During our own Civil War,” Haygood said, “Abraham Lincoln gave instructions to his military leaders: Keep as many libraries open as you can. . . Not every place did, but even in the midst of war, many were.”



Cross the American criminal justice system, and – if you are unlucky — prepare for crushing debt.

Here are a smattering of the possible fees awaiting defendants: for court appearances, for room and board in jail or prison, for court-required drug testing, counseling or community service, for a public defender or for electronic monitoring.

In the two decades, tens of millions of Americans have been fined or billed as part of their punishment for a criminal offense. And this practice has spiked — in 1986, 12 percent of those incarcerated were also fined, by 2004 some 37 percent were slapped with fines, while 66 percent faced both fines and fees.

Late fees and collection penalties compound these debts into punitive amounts, especially for anyone living in poverty. In 2011, the city of Philadelphia sent bills on unpaid criminal justice debts to more than 20 percent of its residents, with a median debt of $4,500.

One notorious example surfaced in a Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in Missouri. It showed the town of Ferguson set more than $3 million in revenue targets for criminal justice fines and fees in 2015, meant to cover more than 20 percent of the town’s operating budget.

“It’s become painfully obvious after Ferguson — where the courts were an ATM for the municipality,” said Ohio Supreme Court Justice Maureen O’Connor, “and there is no justification for that.”

Yvette McGee Brown, a former Ohio Supreme Court justice, added, “People of color have been complaining about this for years. Poor people have been complaining about this for years.” She pointed out that “a $100 fine may be no big deal” to a judge sitting on the bench, but catastrophic to a citizen making $7 per hour. “Our orders have real impact on people.”

Both women spoke up in a roundtable discussion taped in Cleveland for the Tavis Smiley show, part of his “Courting Justice” series, which has included stops in Los Angeles and Little Rock. The segments recorded in Cleveland will broadcast nationally at 11:30 p.m. December 13 and 14 on PBS stations.

“We’ve created the equivalent of a modern-day debtor’s prison in fees, fines and bail that basically puts a price tag on freedom,” Smiley told the Cleveland audience.

Judge Ronald B. Adrine, presiding judge of Cleveland Municipal Court, is a national leader on combatting the scourge of fines, fees and bail falling most heavily on the poor. “Looked at from any objective standpoint, [defendants] who are low income, low risk, these people are being absolutely preyed upon,” he said. “We’ve allowed numerous people to fall into this crack and be piled on so that they can never climb out of this hole.”

One consequence: these debts prevent citizens from getting a driver’s license in many states. A year ago the White House convened a seminar on this topic, and Adrine described it as transformative. He returned to Cleveland and convened the city’s 14 municipal judges: “We changed nonviolent misdemeanors,” he said, “so that you are allowed to get out on your signature [instead of posting bail].”

Asked point-blank by Smiley if the U.S. criminal justice system is fundamentally fair, Adrine said, “I believe it is fundamentally fair but not always fair.” Judges, he stressed, “are not trying to let out vicious criminals on the street. But we want to make sure that people who are low risk are not destroyed by being kept in jail.”

McGee Brown said the role of poverty cannot be overestimated. “There is a reason O.J. [Simpson] got off,” she said. “There is a reason when you are wealthy you are more likely to get off, even if you’ve committed a horrific crime.” O’Connor added, “You cannot have justice in an underfunded system, such as we have, with overburdened public defenders, judges watching the clock moving cases along and prosecutors acting on a formula too often.”

Mansfield Frazier, Cleveland vintner and community activist, asked, “How can the courts escape the clutches of the bail bond industry? They have a strong lobby.”

McGee Brown retorted, “Their power isn’t as great as they think it is. I don’t make decisions based on what the bail bondsmen want . . . It’s really about the judges pushing back.”

The panelists spoke of the importance of judicial education, adequate funding and efforts to combat voter apathy in electing judges. “Judges have tremendous power and I don’t think the voter recognizes it,” said Lakewood Municipal Court Judge Patrick Carroll.

Adrine underscored Carroll’s point: “Politics is the art of who lives, who dies and who pays.”

“Courting Justice” will become a yearlong initiative involving Ideastream, the City Club of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association. The next convening will be January 19 at the bar association. Interested people can call 216-870-1203 for more information.

“It is our hope that we can get to the root of this challenge,” said Ronn Richard, president of the Cleveland Foundation. “We can reflect on the procedures and policies that can so deeply derail the lives of the disenfranchised.”

And then change them.

david-livingstone-smith-lecturing-at-cwruPhilosopher David Livingstone Smith gave a lively preview of “Making Monsters: The Uncanny Powers of Dehumanization,” his forthcoming book, for an avid circle of listeners gathered at the Inamori Center for Ethics and Excellence in Cleveland.  

The new work examines two cases of spectacle lynching – public events for which railroads put on extra excursion cars, tens of thousands assembled and crowds fought for human relics and nightmarish photos to commemorate the torture and killing of young black men.

Smith, 63, is keen to know “what is going on under the hood here, in these acts pursued by sane, ordinary people…the same sort of folk you’d meet at an average PTA meeting.”

The scholar, a professor at the University of New England, blends an examination of biology, philosophy, language and psychology. He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012 for “Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others.” Quite cheerfully, he called attention to critiques of this landmark book, ideas which have helped refine his current thinking.  Smith defines dehumanization as “conceiving of others – whole groups – as subhuman creatures.”

One critique came from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, another Anisfield-Wolf winner, who suggested that the lethal violence perpetrators direct at others is actually an acknowledgement of their target’s very humanity. Such fury is only directed against someone capable of agency — that is moral reasoning.

“Virtually every genocide that I know anything about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith has said. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.” He told his Cleveland audience that “racializing a group of people is halfway to dehumanization.”

A warm, casually dressed man who is rigorous about definitions, Smith was frequently wry and very comfortable telling questioners when he didn’t know. He participated in a thought-provoking panel on combating dehumanization with Shannon E. French, a military ethics expert who directs the Inamori Center at Case Western Reserve University, and Dalindyebo Shabalala, a specialist in environmental law and the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples. He is a visiting professor at the Case law school.

“The death penalty in the United States is fundamentally racialized – its roots are in slavery and violent law enforcement,” Shabalala said. “It comes from a story we tell about those getting the death penalty, one that is centered on the black male threat.”

French, whose book “The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present” was updated and reissued this fall, argued that Tamir Rice would not have died if Cleveland police had adhered to military standards. Fear for one’s own life is no justification for opening fire among soldiers, she said, particularly in an instance when the boy had no gun. “We need a warrior’s code in the police department,” she said.

Shabalala was skeptical that a code of honor could be restored to modern warfare, but French argued that some U.S. generals had insisted on respecting Iraqi culture and people when American forces invaded, and that an alertness to the code among chaplains and others has prevented some atrocities.

When pressed on how to combat dehumanization, Smith called for improved education on our delusions about race. He stressed that we must face “the full extent of our national crimes. I think that would free us in a lot of ways.”


The editors of the New York Times Style magazine invited four woman to write letters of appreciation to Michelle Obama for the October 23, 2016 issue. The first – and arguably the most powerful – letter came from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007. The following year she won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and her third novel, “Americanah,” was named one of the ten best books of 2013. Adichie’s TED talks, “We Should All be Feminist” and “The Danger of a Single Story,” have attracted more than 14 million viewers.  She splits her time between Nigeria, where she was born, and the United States.

Her letter to Michelle Obama already has the feel of a classic:

by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

She had rhythm, a flow and swerve, hands slicing air, body weight moving from foot to foot, a beautiful rhythm. In anything else but a black American body, it would have been contrived. The three-quarter sleeves of her teal dress announced its appropriateness, as did her matching brooch. But the cut of the dress scorned any “future first lady” stuffiness; it hung easy on her, as effortless as her animation. And a brooch, Old World style accessory, yes, but hers was big and ebulliently shaped and perched center on her chest. Michelle Obama was speaking. It was the 2008 Democratic National Convention. My anxiety rose and swirled, watching and willing her to be as close to perfection as possible, not for me, because I was already a believer, but for the swaths of America that would rather she stumbled.

She first appeared in the public consciousness, all common sense and mordant humor, at ease in her skin. She had the air of a woman who could balance a checkbook, and who knew a good deal when she saw it, and who would tell off whomever needed telling off. She was tall and sure and stylish. She was reluctant to be first lady, and did not hide her reluctance beneath platitudes. She seemed not so much unique as true. She sharpened her husband’s then-hazy form, made him solid, more than just a dream.

But she had to flatten herself to better fit the mold of first lady. At the law firm where they met before love felled them, she had been her husband’s mentor; they seemed to be truly friends, partners, equals in a modern marriage in a new American century. Yet voters and observers, wide strips of America, wanted her to conform and defer, to cleanse her tongue of wit and barb. When she spoke of his bad morning-breath, a quirky and humanizing detail, she was accused of emasculating him.

Because she said what she thought, and because she smiled only when she felt like smiling, and not constantly and vacuously, America’s cheapest caricature was cast on her: the Angry Black Woman. Women, in general, are not permitted anger — but from black American women, there is an added expectation of interminable gratitude, the closer to groveling the better, as though their citizenship is a phenomenon that they cannot take for granted.

“I love this country,” she said to applause. She needed to say it — her salve to the hostility of people who claimed she was unpatriotic because she had dared to suggest that, as an adult, she had not always been proud of her country.

Of course she loved her country. The story of her life as she told it was wholesomely American, drenched in nostalgia: a father who worked shifts and a mother who stayed home, an almost mythic account of self-reliance, of moderation, of working-class contentment. But she is also a descendant of slaves, those full human beings considered human fractions by the American state. And ambivalence should be her birthright. For me, a foreign-raised person who likes America, one of its greatest curiosities is this: that those who have the most reason for dissent are those least allowed dissent.

Michelle Obama was speaking. I felt protective of her because she was speaking to an America often too quick to read a black woman’s confidence as arrogance, her straightforwardness as entitlement.

She was informal, colloquial, her sentences bookended by the word “see,” a conversational fillip that also strangely felt like a mark of authenticity. She seemed genuine. She was genuine. All over America, black women were still, their eyes watching a form of God, because she represented their image writ large in the world.

Her speech was vibrant, a success. But there was, in her eyes and beneath her delivery and in her few small stumbles, a glimpse of something somber. A tight, dark ball of apprehension. As though she feared eight years of holding her breath, of living her life with a stone in her gut.

Eight years later, her blue dress was simpler but not as eager to be appropriate; its sheen, and her edgy hoop earrings, made clear that she was no longer auditioning.

Her daughters were grown. She had shielded them and celebrated them, and they appeared in public always picture perfect, as though their careful grooming was a kind of reproach. She had called herself mom-in-chief, and cloaked in that nonthreatening title, had done what she cared about.

She embraced veterans and military families, and became their listening advocate. She threw open the White House doors to people on the margins of America. She was working class, and she was Princeton, and so she could speak of opportunity as a tangible thing. Her program Reach Higher pushed high schoolers to go further, to want more. She jumped rope with children on the White House grounds as part of her initiative to combat childhood obesity. She grew a vegetable garden and campaigned for healthier food in schools. She reached across borders and cast her light on the education of girls all over the world. She danced on television shows. She hugged more people than any first lady ever has, and she made “first lady” mean a person warmly accessible, a person both normal and inspirational and a person many degrees of cool.

She had become an American style icon. Her dresses and workouts. Her carriage and curves. Toned arms and long slender fingers. Even her favored kitten heels, for women who cannot fathom wearing shoes in the halfway house between flats and high heels, have earned a certain respect because of her. No public figure better embodies that mantra of full female selfhood: Wear what you like.

It was the 2016 Democratic Convention. Michelle Obama was speaking. She said “black boy” and “slaves,” words she would not have said eight years ago because eight years ago any concrete gesturing to blackness would have had real consequences.

She was relaxed, emotional, sentimental. Her uncertainties laid to rest. Her rhythm was subtler, because she no longer needed it as her armor, because she had conquered.

The insults, those barefaced and those adorned as jokes, the acidic scrutiny, the manufactured scandals, the base questioning of legitimacy, the tone of disrespect, so ubiquitous, so casual. She had faced them and sometimes she hurt and sometimes she blinked but throughout she remained herself.
Michelle Obama was speaking. I realized then that she hadn’t been waiting to exhale these past eight years. She had been letting that breath out, in small movements, careful because she had to be, but exhaling still.

Orlando Patterson, the public intellectual and Harvard University sociologist, made a deep impression on his audiences in Cleveland in September. He received a rousing standing ovation, capping the awards ceremony in the Ohio Theatre of Playhouse Square.  A few listeners walked out – which is also in keeping with the tenor of the reception to his globally influential scholarship.

“At Harvard, neither personal comfort nor false harmony have ever been his goal; he has always challenged his fellow faculty with his outspoken and fearless ideas,” said Anisfield-Wolf Jurist Steven Pinker as he introduced Patterson. “As colleagues, we have all found him forthright and reliably engaged; however, his gracious manner, and the musical Jamaican lilt of his penetrating discourse, often mask the uncomfortable truth that we have just been served.”

Patterson, 76, commanded his Cleveland audiences in just such manner, both during his acceptance and his lecture the preceding afternoon at the Baker-Nord Center for Humanities’ Harkness Chapel. Both set of remarks, in turn, rest on “The Cultural Matrix,” a set of essays Patterson edited with his doctoral student, Ethan Posse. He also applied them to an essay after the response in Baltimore to Freddie Gray’s death in police custody in the New York Times.

At the awards ceremony, Patterson told Clevelanders, “Few other groups, with the possible exception of Jews in Europe, have contributed more to the culture of the group that dominated and excluded them than black Americans – in music, dance, theatre, literature, sports and more generally in the style and vibrancy of its dominant culture,  America is indelibly blackish. Trying to imagine America without blacks is like trying to imagine Lake Erie without oxygen.”

Here are Orlando Patterson’s full remarks at the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. If you’d like to watch his acceptance speech, click here:

Thank you very much for that generous introduction, Steve. I am deeply honored by this award, made all the more gratifying by the fact that one of my dearest and most esteemed friends and colleagues is the person chosen to introduce me, based on remarks prepared by another greatly admired colleague and friend, Henry Louis Gates.

Cleveland Foundation President Ronald Richard, organizers and jury members of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Ladies and Gentlemen, in the few minutes that I have your attention, I want to reflect aloud with you on two great paradoxes of “race” in American civilization.

The first is the fact that, going back to the earliest years of the Republic, we find that Black Americans, while being exploited as slaves and workers, and while being shunned socially into rural and urban ghettos, have nonetheless been embraced culturally. Few other groups, with the possible exception of the Jews of Europe, have contributed more to the culture of the group that dominated and excluded them, than black Americans—in music, dance, theatre, literature, sports and more generally in the style and vibrancy of its dominant culture, America is indelibly blackish. Trying to imagine America without blacks, is like trying to imagine Lake Erie without oxygen.

The second paradox of race in America came with our glorious civil rights revolution. And it was a revolution, let us not forget it, as we seem prone to do today in expressing our outrage at the brutality of our penal and security system. In righting the racial wrongs of its past America did what no other white majority society in the world has been able to do—it opened its public and civic space to its once shunned black minority. Today black Americans are major players in the nation’s political and civic life, the election of President Obama being the capstone– a monumental one to be sure–but the culmination, nonetheless, of this great struggle by our civil rights fathers to achieve what Martin Luther King called the beloved community. Let us give praise where praise is due: our great nation is the supreme model for the rest of the world of how the polity of a  great nation, the most powerful on earth, can integrate into the innermost corridors of power, the leaders of its once shunned minority.

Cultural integration and influence out of all proportion to their size, on the one hand,  and political and civic incorporation, on the other, are the two great achievements or American civilization with respect to its African-American minority.

And yet, and yet, at the same time that we have witnessed this magnificent political and cultural process, this nation continues to witness the incredible social isolation and economic disadvantage of the black minority as well as the unprecedented and outrageous incarceration of black youth, most for crimes that all other civilized nations would treat as minor offences  deserving rehabilitation rather than incarceration. It is truly amazing that, for all this progress black Americans remain today almost as socially segregated as they were in the late sixties; that for all this cultural and political progress, combined with striking changes in the racial attitudes of white Americans, black Americans are still twice as unemployed as white Americans, that they continue to earn 65% of the median income of white Americans, exactly the same proportion that they earned in 1970, that the typical white household has 16 times the wealth of a black one, that one in 3 black youth are certain to spend part of their lives in prison, that the police of this nation still enter and treat black neighborhoods as if they are an occupying army and still feel empowered to cut down our black youth with impunity.

Nowhere in America are these two great paradoxes more evident than in this great city of Cleveland and the state of which it is a part. Last night I witnessed the extraordinary cultural presence of black America in our cultural life as I sat with the largest and most integrated audience I have ever seen, listening in rapt attention and near reverence to Rita Dove reading her gloriously  American poems. And it is Cleveland and the state of Ohio, black and white, that twice voted for, and made possible the election of a black man to the nation’s and the world’s most powerful position.

And there was that amazing civic occasion several months ago when over a million persons turned out on the streets of your city to celebrate and worship the youthful, magically talented athletic gods that had brought glory and an unprecedented sense of civic pride to your city.

And yet, and yet, how many of those who came to cherish and give thanks to the young black heroes, on waking up next morning and seeing someone who looked like LeBron James moving in next door could resist the impulse to make a panic call to their real estate agent?

So this, ladies and gentlemen, in a nutshell is the great challenge that awaits us: to solve these two intertwined paradoxes of our national life. It can be done. Let us not be crippled by the miasma of pessimism that now stifles us. Let us not generalize our anger and outrage at the behavior of the nation’s police forces to chronic pessimism about the state and future of race relations in America. For if there is one thing that will ensure that the remaining work to be done in erasing racial bias and inequality in America will never be achieved, it is pessimism about it ever happening. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling malady.

What is needed is that same sense of racial justice and optimism about the future that animated the philanthropy of Edith Anisfield- Wolf. That same conviction about the possibility of America to change that inspired W.E.B DuBois and the other great political and cultural heroes of the Jim Crow era, and that motivated Martin Luther King to struggle and give his life for an America that fulfilled the rights enshrined in its Declaration and Constitution. With that conviction, with that optimism about the capacity of this great nation to change, this last most urgent challenge of social and economic integration can be met. In spite of all the obstacles and pessimism so much on display today, it will be done. Of that I am completely confident.

This Halloween, families can share a treat that lasts longer than candy corn: “Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.


Author and illustrator Duncan Tonatiuh – his mother is Mexican; his father is American – came to Cleveland in September to accept a Norman A. Sugarman honor award in children’s biography for the appealing, 40-page picture book.

It tells the story of Mexican artist and printer Guadalupe (Lupe) Posada, 1852-1913, who drew important political cartoons. The subject is best remembered for his whimsical drawings of skeletons – Calaveras – that have become synonymous with the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival.

“Skeletons riding bicycles . . . skeletons wearing fancy hats . . . skeletons dancing and strumming on guitars,” the book begins. “We call these festive bony figures calaveras. In Spanish, the world calavera [ca-la-VEY-rah] means “skull.”. . . The skeleton figures are not scary – in fact, they look as if they’re having fun.”

Tonatiuh – click here for the pronunciation and intricate backstory on his name – leaves open to his young readers how to interpret the art. A two-page spread takes pleasure in asking what Posada’s calaveras would look like nowadays.

Wearing jeans and a slate-colored shirt, Tonatiuh told his Cleveland audience that he hopes more people will learn about Posada. “He was very poor at the end of his life, so poor that he was buried in a mass grave,” the author said. “He drew the skeletons that are so famous but we don’t know exactly where his bones are.” 

Using both Posada’s drawings and his own to illustrate this sophisticated biography, Tonatiuh gears the book to children ages 6-10, but this work is absorbing at any age. The contemporary artist draws figures only in profile; his distinctive style is influenced by the pre-Columbian art and scripts known as Mixtec codex. This makes “Funny Bones” instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen Tonatiuh’s other books, “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote,” “Separate is Never Equal” and “The Princess and the Warrior: A Tale of Two Volcanos,” which came off the presses last month.

“Thousands of children’s books publish every year and very few deal with children of color, maybe three percent are Latino,” Tonatiuh said during the awards ceremony at the Cleveland Public Library. “I hope this book is one that children who celebrate the Day of the Dead are excited to share with their classmates.”

Tonatiuh told NBC News that “Pancho Rabbit and the Coyote,” an allegory for a dangerous border crossing, caused a group of fourth-graders in Texas to send him a video telling their own stories of migration.

“I think kids are extremely intelligent,” he told the broadcast outlet. “But I think that sometimes we don’t give them the credit they deserve.”

When Lillian Faderman spoke at the City Club of Cleveland this September, she ably distilled her ample Anisfield-Wolf winning history, “The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle,” into a half-hour presentation with 20 minutes of questions. Her audience was diverse, and several members expressed awe over a 76-year-old pioneer who came out as a lesbian in 1956.

Among the listeners were 14 young adults enrolled in a seminar on philanthropy in America — all first-year students at Case Western Reserve University.

“Lillian Faderman has long been a hero of mine and her work has informed my own research on early modern women,” said their professor, Barbara Burgess-Van Aken. She called her decision to bring the class “a shamelessly selfish choice which I justified by thinking that I would be giving students exposure to a different sort of nonprofit organization. Little did I realize that Lillian’s topic would spark so much passion among my students.”

Here are snippets of their responses:

One aspect of her talk that I was very interested in was the transition of the movement from being secretive and submissive to being loud and determined. It was very interesting to hear about the secret groups LGBT members would form. Prior to today, I had a vague knowledge of the history of the LGBT movement, but I did not know many of the actual details. It is pretty amazing to see how small acts of bravery here and there soon led to marches and riots.

It was surprising to hear, however, that people can be fired due to their sexual orientation. I most certainly could believe this to be true years ago, but I was not expecting it to still be true.    —Claire Nordt

Lillian Faderman’s speech felt more like having a conversation with a person than listening to a scripted talk. —David Kerrigan

One aspect that I enjoyed was that she went through the very early stages of the LGBT revolution. It surprised me that people back in the 1950s would rather be called communist than gay. I know this was during the McCarthy era where it was very, very dangerous to be communist, which made it even more surprising. I like how she did not just tell us this information, but she illustrated it with statistics, evidence, and anecdotes.  Karthik Ravichandran

My visit to the Cleveland City Club and Lillian Faderman’s talk was very enlightening. I actually was hesitant about the course that the talk would take; I didn’t know if it would be a boring speech that would go on a tangent rant, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was a very intellectual and heartfelt speech. —Hemen Aklilu

Ms. Faderman has obviously gone through a lot in her lifetime and it is amazing that she has had the courage and will to do all the work she has to help educate so many people on gay rights. Her presentation was very professional but at the same time very personable. Kyle Lewis

The City Club of Cleveland hosted an honest and ethical ceremony where the voices of many were summed up by one incredible woman who has done her best to engage, educate, and empower those who listen to her to recognize the hardships that this community has faced and to realize all that there is left to go to truly free these people. Jacqueline Abraham

Lillian Faderman’s speech was both informative and incredibly interesting. I personally did not know much about the history of gay rights and learned a lot from the experience. It really saddens me that United States history has so much bigotry ingrained in it. We are not really educated about the history of gay rights. In high school, I learned about African Americans’ struggle for equal rights, Native Americans’ plight involving the taking over of their land, and the racism Hispanics face. Never did I learn about the LBGTQ struggle. It is absolutely appalling to me that this demographic received so much hate.  Michael Rowland

Perhaps my favorite question that was asked was about what the proper terms to reference the gay community were. There are so many things out there and it’s hard to know as an outsider what the majority prefers. It can be extremely hard to follow and her response about both gay and LGBT being acceptable was very helpful. It was nice to see her take a light-hearted approach about the acronyms and how many there are to this day. — Anna Goff

I very much enjoyed Lillian Faderman’s idea that the black power movement of the 1960s inspired the gay rights movement to rise up and take action. I had never thought of this connection before, so it was interesting to hear her perspective on it and the influence she believes it has…. In general I was a little disappointed that she didn’t talk about the AIDS epidemic in more detail because personally I feel that it was a large part of the gay rights movement in the twentieth century. To her benefit however, someone did ask a question based on AIDS, which gave her a chance to say how important it was to the struggle for civil rights.  Claire Howard

The most interesting thing at this event was whether or not queer people should be considered a minority group. Some people think that gay people are not minorities because there is only one simple difference that divides them from the rest of this heteronormative society. But wouldn’t that be the case for all minority groups? We are humans with variations in race, nationality, ability, etc. These things are just simple differences like sexuality. People are not in a minority group because they feel like they are oppressed. They are in these groups because they are oppressed. Any minority group, whether it be queer or disabled people, has to try harder in order to succeed in a society that does not acknowledge their human rightsMya Cox

I have spoken at a Rotary Club event, and it was much more informal and simple. This event almost seemed like a small-scale TED talk to me. Upon looking at Ms. Faderman, I expected a serious, bland, but informative speech. Instead, Ms. Faderman was light-hearted, charismatic, and very informative in her speech. She started by saying, “I am going to recap my 800+ page book in a 30 minute talk.” Rather than spitting facts or quotes from her novel, she took the listeners on a trip through the history and important events of the LGBT fight.  Rohith Koneru

Faderman also mentioned that a lot of hate came from the religious side of things. Now I cannot deny that a lot of those against the LGBT community have association with religion but I was raised Catholic and believe in that faith. I went through Catholic schooling from preschool all the way through high school and not once was a taught to hate the LGBT community. Jeremy Hill

One other notable topic I liked was her discussion of the media portrayal of gay men as rapists and lesbians as killers. While those no longer exist in the media today, the stereotypes of gays being pedophiles and the like still exist, and TV shows and movies hardly portray LGBT characters at all, and those that do usually make a huge deal out of them. ..

A final note was that I loved the picture of Frank Kameny shaking hands with President Obama in the Oval Office because in that one picture and that one gesture, the viewer is able to see just how far the gay rights movement has come and the progress that has been made towards true equality.  Tom Schlechter

Everyone–both pro or anti LGBT–could feel the passion and struggle of the community and actually sympathize with them. I do feel like I have learned something new about the community’s struggle and the fracture it encountered on a whole another level. I respected her passion and dedication to something she truly believed in even though it has been a long hard brutal fight until this point. 

As a gay male, the whole presentation affected me on an emotional level. Also, I was pleased that she was not dismissive of other cultures and opinions, which a lot of people tend to do, but instead focused more on the story of the LGBT individuals. Generally, people have a tendency to make their group seem better than others, but Faberman was very respectful towards those of other groups.  Karthik Ravichandran

We have to work hard to make sure everyone has equal rights. The fact that people are still being discriminated against is terrible. We need to band together and change thisMichael Rowland


Five winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book award in fiction are standing up to publicly, “as a matter of conscience, oppose, unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.”

They join Anisfield-Wolf juror Rita Dove and more than 400 writers who list eight reasons to decry Trump’s candidacy, published as an open letter on LitHub.

The novelists include this year’s winner Mary Morris (The Jazz Palace), as well as Junot Diaz (The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), Maxine Hong Kingston (The Woman Warrior), Nicole Krauss (Great House) and Anthony Marra (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).

“Because American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them against one another,” states the open letter as grounds for resisting Trump’s candidacy.

Those signing include the classicist Daniel Mendelsohn, the “Dear Sugar” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed and Cleveland poet Philip Metres.

The letter’s final justification states “Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society, who encourages aggression among his followers, shouts down opponents, intimidates dissenters, and denigrates women and minorities, demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”

Lyz Lenz, an Iowa blogger about parenting and pregnancy, contributed an essay, posted on Lithub alongside the open letter, suggesting that William Faulkner was prescient in creating the corrupt character Flem Snopes. Her essay is subtitled “On William Faulkner, White Trash, and 400 Years of Class War.”

“America is burning,” she writes. “You might not see the flames, but you can smell the smoke. And we’ve been set on fire by one man – Donald Trump, a Flem Snopes of our modern-era.”