Watch Our New Jury Honor Our Class of 2024 In This Announcement Video


The fifth annual literary celebration returns this year from Sept. 29-Oct. 4, and will celebrate our 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners, while broadening our reach into film and podcasts. The week will be anchored by a one-hour documentary featuring a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell, replacing our annual awards ceremony.

Mark your calendar now for these engaging events and more as the calendar evolves with further details.

Tuesday, September 29-October 4
AW + CIFF Streams

Viewers will have the opportunity to stream free Cleveland International Film Festival documentaries, all with an Anisfield-Wolfian flavor. Coupled with each film will be an in-depth interview with the director, hosted by Cleveland State University professor Eric Siler.

Wednesday, September 30
Global Cleveland Sister Cities Conference

Our 2020 winner for poetry Ilya Kaminsky and Cuyahoga Community College Professor Alexandria Romanovich will bring “Deaf Republic” to this international gathering, discussing Kaminsky’s political poetry.

Thursday, October 1
Global Cleveland Sister Cities Conference
Our 2020 winner for fiction Namwali Serpell and Baldwin-Wallace Professor Chisomo Selemani will discuss “The Old Drift” and Zambia at this international gathering.

Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards 2020
Enjoy this reimagined ceremony turned documentary, at 8 p.m. on WVIZ/ideastream. Featuring Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and each of our 2020 winners in their hometowns.

Friday, October 2
The City Club of Cleveland Forum: Eric Foner

Our 2020 lifetime achievement award winner Eric Foner will speak in a virtual City Club of Cleveland Friday Forum. He will discuss his most recent book, “The Second Founding,” the Reconstruction Era, and the contemporary struggle for freedom and equality.

Saturday, October 3
Great Lakes African American Writers Conference

In this multi-day writers’ conference, now in its third year, literary creatives from Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, and throughout the Great Lakes will gather to learn from and network with influential publishing industry professionals from hubs including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout” took home the Man Booker Prize for 2016, making him the first U.S. author to win the British award. The satirical novel, whose plot kicks off from an absurd trial that puts resegregation and slavery before the Supreme Court, was a unanimous choice for the judges. Historian Amanda Foreman, jury chair of the prize, called Beatty’s work “a novel for our times.”

“The Sellout is one of those very rare books: which is able to take satire, which is a very difficult subject and not always done well, and plunges it into the heart of contemporary American society with a savage wit of the kind I haven’t seen since Swift or Twain,” Foreman said. “It manages to eviscerate every social taboo and politically correct nuance, every sacred cow. While making us laugh, it also makes us wince. It is both funny and painful at the same time.”

This marks the second major award for “The Sellout,” as it collected the National Book Critics Circle prize in March. Below, the review from our own Karen R. Long, a member of the NBCC jury:  

Try reading the first paragraph of The Sellout aloud. Better still, in public. It begins “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything” and it ends describing our narrator handcuffed and sitting on “a thickly padded chair that, much like this country, isn’t quite as comfortable as it looks.”

As the poet Kevin Young points out in The New York Times, this bit “takes the beginning of Ellison’s Invisible Man’(‘I am an invisible man. No, not some spook . . .’) and spoofs it beyond belief.” Indeed, the satire of Paul Beatty corkscrews its reader into one stunning contortion after another, until it feels as if every social construct is splayed and strangled, caught like a codfish in the reader’s own horrified throat.

“Horrifying” is one of my margin notes. So is “outrageous,” “incendiary” and “tour de force.” The vehicle delivering this is the dazzling voice of the narrator, raised in a neglected “agrarian ghetto” on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he grows prize watermelon and omnipotent marijuana. (After he passes a blunt to a group of surfers, “shaggy, aboriginal, blond-haired white boys, damn near as dark as you,” one says: “Incredible bud, dude. Where’d you get this shit?” Answer: “I know some Dutch coffee shop owners.”)

In this way Beatty serves cake and eats it: confirming and blowing up an expectation in the same sentence, pretty much sentence by sentence. The protagonist’s father treats his son as a life-long demented experiment; he is known as “The Sellout!” during roll call of the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, where our narrator scarfs down a “batch of Oreo cookies.”

California plays the bass line in this painful music; here is one passage I marked tour de force: “If places like Sedona, Arizona, have energy vortexes, mystical holy lands were visitors experience rejuvenation and spiritual awakenings, Los Angeles must have racism vortexes. Spots where visitors experience deep feelings of melancholy and ethnic worthlessness. Places like the breakdown lane on the Foothill Freeway, where Rodney King’s life, and in a sense America and its haughty notions of fair play, began their downward spirals. Racial vortices like the intersection of Florence and Normandie, where misbegotten trucker Reginald Denny caught a cinder block, a forty-ounce, and fucking centuries of frustration in the face. Chavez Ravine, where a generations-old Mexican American neighborhood was torn down, its residents forcibly removed, beaten, and left uncompensated to make room for a baseball stadium with ample parking and the Dodger Dog. Seventh Street, between Mesa and Centre, is the vortex where in 1942 a long line of buses idled as Japanese-Americans began the first step toward mass incarceration.”

Taking a page from Dave Chappelle, our narrator decides the solution lies in racially segregating the local middle school and reinstituting slavery on his own spread. The weird and terrible thing: it goes well.  The novelist Mat Johnson praised  The Sellout, telling the New York Times:  “Hordes on Twitter spend all day arguing and denouncing each other over perceived identity slights, racial or otherwise. Beatty’s work is a beautiful reminder that sometimes you can say more by laughing at yourself than by screaming at everyone else.”

Maybe so. But if a joke is “the truth that’s gone out and got drunk,” this brilliant novel makes a case for Carrie Nation, looking for an ax to sober the place up.

Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, walked to the lectern at the City Club of Cleveland and managed to distill two years of work on “The Case for Reparations” into an eight-word thesis: “What you have taken should be given back.” It’s time, he argues, for America’s moral reckoning with the legacy of slavery.

For Coates, 38, the spotlight has never been brighter. His 15,000-word article in The Atlantic, buttressed by original research, an extensive bibliography and film clips, broke the record for single-day traffic on the magazine’s website when it was published May 21.

Coates took comic Stephen Colbert’s jabs on “The Colbert Report.” At MSNBC, Melissa Harris-Perry invited Coates onto her eponymous show, while Bill Moyers provided an argument-expounding forum on PBS. But Coates, who brought to the City Club both father, William Paul Coates, and an iPad full of notes, was humble. He defined patriotism as “love of country” and pointed out that—just as his father loves him and his wife loves him—love rarely involves telling him what he wants to hear. Mature love, mature patriotism, means facing the things that do not credit the beloved.

Asked by an audience member what reparations would look like, Coates suggested that they could resemble the reparations the U.S. government provided the Japanese-Americans wrongly interned during World War II and the financial compensation made to Jews by the German nation after the same war. He stressed that housing and educational policies of discrimination and racism harm African-Americans to this day and that the same policies undergird white supremacy.

The Baltimore native arrived at the Atlantic in 2008 after stints at Time magazine and the Village Voice. Coates’ regular column at The Atlantic has become a hub of intellectual discourse on the web, where he has held court on everything from the NFL banning the N-word to President Obama’s reproach of young black men in a commencement speech at Morehouse College. Asked about the state of investigative journalism, Coates stressed that his magazine editors put substantial resources into richly documenting “The Case for Reparations” and creating a full multimedia narrative as well.

Coates insists on history. “You have to imagine a society where owning people is not just legal but our greatest intellectuals are arguing that it’s morally correct,” Coates told a silent crowd. “We have to learn to consider enslavement, in that time, as legit an institution as home-ownership is, in this time.” He called out Natchez, Miss., not New York City, as home to the largest concentration of multimillionaires in 1860’s America. This is because it was the major hub for slave trading.

One of Coates’ admirable traits is his quick acknowledgment of his limitations. He told the audience that he had dropped out of college; he demurred from answering a question that he didn’t feel well-read enough to take on. He said that in June he started a seven-week French immersion class at Vermont’s Middleburg College. “I just wanted to go someplace where I was the dumbest person there. I was just bumbling around; I was making mistakes. Because it’s good to be reminded that it’s not about you.”

The best thing to come out of writing the reparations article was that “now I know,” Coates said. “And I can’t be lied to.”

Briefly, he mentioned protests in Ferguson, Missouri, aching to use historical context to uncover an accurate picture. He asked what police—who have used toxic language and intimidating displays of force on protesters and journalists—might have done before the eyes of the nation were upon them. He suggested that those in the audience with white bodies need not worry about a day when they would be shot dead in the afternoon and left in the street for four hours, as happened August 9 when Ferguson Policeman Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager. “All I want to see is some history of the housing there. We can begin with Mike Brown laying on the ground and folks rioting. But there’s just a whole host of questions behind that. How did his family get to live there? What are the conditions like? What’s going on there?”

Twice during his talk, Coates spoke of the mental and spiritual strain that accompanies being black in America, and his wonder at the continuing optimism of African Americans. He prescribed international travel. “Because this thing will consume you,” he said. “It will eat you. It will eat your soul. It will make you forget you’re a human being with particular likes and dislikes and things that make you different…You are more than a problem that needs to be fixed. It’s important, for our own mental health, to get out every once in a while.”

Anthony Marra startled the literary world in 2013 with his stunner of a debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. His fresh, Chechnya-inspired book won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and will bring its author to Cleveland for the first time. He follows in the footsteps of Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers, who spoke last year about his own war novel, “The Yellow Birds” on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.

Marra, 30, will speak and read at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 10, in the intimate setting of the Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities at Case. “Wars shatter families, relationships, even stories,” Marra has said. “But Constellation is less a story about war than a story about ordinary people rebuilding their lives during and in the aftermath of war. It’s a story not about rebels and soldiers, but about surgeons, nurses, and teachers, each of whom tries to salvage and recreate what has been lost.”
The writer first found his way to the Caucuses as an undergraduate abroad. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and now lives in Oakland, Calif., and teaches at Stanford University. His novel, set over five days between the two modern Chechnya wars, has many sources in nonfiction and fiction. One is to the work of assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; another is the Anisfield-Wolf winner Edward P. Jones.

In crackling scenes flecked with notes of mordant humor, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena contains six central characters, and begins with an 8-year-old girl hiding in the forest as the Russian federals burn her home and “disappear” her father. A neighbor determines to hide the child in a mostly-destroyed hospital where one doctor and one nurse remains. “When I traveled to Chechnya,” Marra remarked, “I was repeatedly surprised by the jokes I heard people cracking. It was a brand of dark, fatalistic humor imprinted with the absurdity that has become normalized there over the past two decades.”

The novel won the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, and was long-listed for the National Book Award. Marra earned his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied with novelist Adam Johnson at Stanford. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, Narrative magazine, the 2011 Pushcart Prize anthology, and the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012.

The Baker-Nord event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Get more information and RSVP for the event HERE.

The melodic beckoning of Caribbean steel-pan drum greeted guests at the Midwestern premier of Dutch filmmaker Ida Does’ Derek Walcott documentary, “Poetry Is An Island.” The title, and inspiration for the film, came from Walcott’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. A dozen years later, Walcott won an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.

Jointly hosted by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards and Karamu House, the afternoon began with Karamu actors staging a powerful 15-minute excerpt from Walcott’s 1970 play, “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Karamu last produced the drama in 2006, when it was named Best Stage Production by Cleveland Scene.

The documentary begins with a handful of Walcott’s confidantes: his childhood friends, Arthur Jacobs and Sir Dunstan St. Omer; his domestic partner of 26 years, Sigrid Nama; his former personal assistant, Michelle Serieux among others. Despite their various roles in Walcott’s life, they all make similar observations: Walcott is a serious man, with a serious work ethic, who sees the world as few people do.

Born 84 years ago on the island of St. Lucia, Walcott came to see his early efforts to paint and write as an homage to his father, Warwick Walcott, a painter and a poet, who died at age 31 of an infection when his son was a toddler. By the time Walcott was 14, he had published his first poem in the local newspaper; at 18 he had written enough to compile his first book. “I asked my mother for $200, which was, I don’t even know how much that would be today, and she gave it to me. I sold my books for $1 a copy and I made the money back.” Walcott’s eyes twinkled. “But I don’t think I paid her back,” he added with a laugh.

Does’ film-making style is that of inconspicuous observer, but occasionally viewers get to sit across from Walcott and take in his words, one on one. In a moving scene, Walcott reads a poem about his parents and tears begin to pool in the corners of his eyes. “Oh, this is wicked,” he said as he paused to compose himself. His love is palpable.

Most of Walcott’s work centers on St. Lucia, and it is revelatory to see him in his element. Yet the artist expressed considerable frustration over a dream that has stalled: the creation of an artist’s colony on Rat Island, a small, unoccupied bit of land off the St. Lucian coast. After Walcott won the Nobel Prize, he built a home, and donated some prize money toward an international arts center.  But there has been no discernible progress; nor are there any museums or theater for live productions on the island. In the documentary, Walcott criticizes the government and wonders aloud if he would see St. Lucia embrace and encourage a thriving arts culture in his lifetime. “Poetry gives us…consolation,” Walcott says in the final scenes. “It provides spiritual strength. It is…the language of love.”

After the premier, filmmaker Ida Does took questions from the audience via Skype from her home in the Netherlands. Does said she first approached Walcott about making a documentary in 2008 and characterized the five-year journey to complete the film as a labor of love. “I was fascinated by him,” Does remarked. “It is amazing to see what a great thinker he is.”

On the cusp of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, join awards manager Karen R. Long for a personal introduction to the titles being honored this year. Long will offer a speed date with each book, and an introduction to the Lifetime Achievement winners on Wednesday, September 3 at noon. Her presentation will kick off this fall’s Brown Bag Book Club at the Cleveland Public Library downtown.

In subsequent weeks, the series will then break out to examine each of the 2014 award-winning books in turn. Beginning Wednesday, September 10, readers will gather at noon with expert librarians to consider the poetry, novel and nonfiction works in the spotlight this year:

 The Big Smoke

by Adrian Matejka

Wednesday, September 10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

by Anthony Marra
Wednesday, September 17

My Promised Land

by Ari Shavit
Wednesday, September 24

Tickets to the September 11 awards ceremony at the Ohio Theatre are available here. (Stand-by tickets are guaranteed due to no-shows.)

Karen R. Long served as book editor of The Plain Dealer for eight years before becoming the manager of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Long is a vice president for the National Book Critics Circle, where she is a judge for its six annual prizes, awarded each March in New York City.

Karen will give her talk on the 2nd Floor of the Main Library Building, in the Literature Department. Interested guests will be able to check out the featured books after the talk. Questions? Call the library at 216-623- 2881.

Poet Adrian Matejka mixed his love of boxing with his love of literature to produce “The Big Smoke,” 52 poems that center on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion. The collection won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

On September 10, Matejka will bring his words to the Cleveland canvas of the Old Angle Boxing Gym while boxer Roberto Cruz, 11, and Corey Gregory, 42, will each demonstrate the sweet science in separate demonstration bouts. We are proud to collaborate with Old Angle owner Gary Horvath and Dave Lucas of Brews + Prose to welcome the Clark Avenue neighborhood, the boxing community and local literati for a memorable night of sport and poetry.

The evening begins at 7 p.m. and is free. The public is welcome, with registration details available at the event’s Facebook page. Matejka, a professor at Indiana University, will also take audience questions and sign books.  He spent eight years researching the storied and much-mythologized life of Johnson before creating the poems—told in the voices of the boxer and the people around him.

“There is a wonderful recording of Johnson narrating part of his 1910 fight with Jim Jeffries,” Matejka told Shara Lessley of the National Book Awards. “As Johnson describes the action, his cadences emulate the fight action in a way that makes him sound like a ring announcer. I used the recording as one of the primary sources for Johnson’s ‘voice’ in the book.”

Matejka, 42, said some of his work, particularly the sonnets, reflect the physicality and cadences of the sport.  “The Big Smoke” ends in 1912, a full 34 years before Johnson died. Matejka plans a second volume of poems on the man who, he says, “managed to win the most coveted title in sports, but through the combination of his own hubris and the institutionalized racism of the time, he lost everything. That rise and fall naturally lends itself to the oral tradition of poetry.”

“Today I will be reciting my poem, ‘The Mind of a White Cop,'” said James LeVan, 16, as he introduced his work during the closing ceremony of the Teen Leadership Program at the Fatima Family Center in Cleveland. LeVan recited in a deep, law enforcement voice:

 Oh no! 6 black kids doing the same handshake

I should probably call for backup

No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”

I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually

It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away with anything

One by one, the remaining 32 participants walked to the front of the gym to recite poems and read essays they created over the summer. Fatima Center Director LaJean Ray smiled broadly from the sidelines.

The facility, nestled in Cleveland’s historic Hough neighborhood, has become an anchor institution over its 30 years. A new building, dedicated in 2000, was designed by renowned Cleveland architect Robert Madison. It contains gardens, kitchens, an early learning center, a youth summer camp, a game room, a library and a computer center. Fatima launches field trips and provides tutoring, parenting and GED classes. It also offers free clothing, health screenings and food.

This year, the summer teen leadership program added an Anisfield-Wolf component: a concentration on the work and life of poet Langston Hughes. The students, aged 14-18, followed a packed schedule: weekly trips to local colleges and visits to business and government offices, including a stop at the mayor’s and a chat with the chief of police.  This was the only summer program in Cleveland to pay teens a $350 stipend, thanks to Ray’s collaboration with Youth Opportunities Unlimited.

Starting last winter, Summer Institute Director Apryl Buchanan worked with Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, to present a roster of guest faculty. Current and former Plain Dealer columnists Philip Morris and Margaret Bernstein discussed their careers as journalists and community activists while author Afi Odelila-Scruggs introduced “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and led the students in composing beats for Hughes’ work “Dream Boogie.” Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, led a discussion of Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” and familiarized students with the common application used on many campuses..

I had the good fortune to serve as a speaker, discussing how I’ve used social media to build a career. As a writing exercise, I asked students to craft a few paragraphs on what they wanted their lives to look like in 10 years – in the voice of themselves a decade hence. Many described careers and families that inspired me. Students were curious, courteous and inviting, and it became clear that the Fatima summer institute was making headway. I felt right at home with these future leaders.

“They may not appreciate it yet,” Ray cautioned parents at the closing ceremony. “But they will. They’re good kids. They’ll understand later.”

Two months ago, NPR announced the cancellation of “Tell Me More,” the daily news show hosted by veteran journalist Michel Martin. It is the third show developed for an African-American audience to be axed by NPR in the past decade. (“News & Notes” went off the air in 2009 and the Tavis Smiley Show departed in 2004.) On Friday, Tell Me More will broadcast its last show. Martin will stay on with NPR as a producer, along with Tell Me More’s executive producer, Carline Watson.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Martin has worked for the Washington Post, ABC News and the Wall Street Journal as its White House correspondent. She won an Emmy for her Nightline reporting. In hosting “Tell Me More,” she focused on religion, race and spirituality. In an interview with NPR’s media reporter, David Folkenflik, Martin blamed top NPR leadership for failure to institutionalize support for the program, admitting she had “scar tissue” from the cancellation.  But in a recent essay for the National Journal, “What I’ve Left Unsaid,” Martin expressed gratitude for her NPR platform, which had given her “a place for women from all backgrounds to tell their own stories, and discuss what it really takes not just to survive but thrive.”

She also recognized that she still has something to say.

When the National Journal asked for a reflection piece on what “leaning in” to your career looks like as a woman of color, Martin culled from her own experiences. She considers the societal and economic pressures facing Black, Asian and Latina women. “This is really my letter to my colleagues who might be sitting right next to me, or down the hall from me, and don’t really think about the challenges that their peers face, and could,” she explains.

Here, an excerpt, from what Martin calls her own “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“:

“I am not a women’s-studies scholar, but my reading of history suggests there has always been a divide between white women activists who have seen a connection to the concerns and struggles of women of color, and others who don’t think about it or couldn’t care less, such as the organizers of the historic 1913 suffragist march on Washington who insisted that black women march separately at the back (which Ida B. Wells, a journalist and antilynching activist, refused to do, by the way).

“This is amazing to me because we cannot fully understand, let alone solve, the important issues around women, work, and family in America without acknowledging the important role that women of color have played in that history. From America’s earliest days, the story of women of color has been the story of working women: enslaved Africans who picked tobacco and cotton, indentured Japanese and Chinese women who cut sugarcane, Latina farmworkers who have gathered the food the nation eats, women of every race who have done domestic work. ”


“Poetry Is An Island,” the new film directed by Dutch filmmaker Ida Does, presents poet and playwright Derek Walcott in his element: his home island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Place has proved central to the Nobel Laureate in his writings about the island, colonialism and beauty.  He won a Lifetime Achievement Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2004.

“I wanted to feel and smell St. Lucia in the same palpable way that I experience Walcott’s poetry,” Does said in a recent interview. “When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it.” After an early screening, Walcott, 84, praised Does for doing a “beautiful and gentle job” with the film.

Now Northeast Ohioans can see for themselves. We are pleased to sponsor the Midwestern premiere of “Poetry Is An Island” at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 17.  The program is hosted by our partner, Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St, Cleveland. Guests will be greeted by St. Lucian steelpan music from islander Eustace Bobb and actors Cornell Calhoun III and Kenny Parker will stage an excerpt of Walcott’s play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Cleveland Scene named the Karamu production, directed by Terrence Spivey, its Best Drama in 2007.

Following the movie, audience members will be able to ask questions of the director in a Skype interview from her home in the Netherlands. “From an educational perspective, the Skype interview will add substance and interaction that will enrich the experience,” said Interim Director Patricia G. Egan. “Karamu is celebrating 99 years of nurturing artists. This is just one example.”

Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door. For more information on the screening, please call Karamu House at 216-795-7070.

The magisterial Wole Soyinka turned 80 this week, and—once again—the world is listening.

In London, the Royal African Society hosted “Wole Soyinka at 80,” a retrospective on the life of the Nobel laureate and Anisfield-Wolf winner, exploring his influence in politics and letters.  As a young man, the Nigerian playwright and poet attempted to broker peace during the 1967 Biafran War, becoming a political prisoner and spending 22 months in solitary confinement.  He wrote “The Man Died” out of that experience.

For the retrospective, Soyinka joined editor and critic Margaret Busby to reflect on his upbringing and the relationship between politics and culture. He has spent more than 50 fierce years campaigning against Nigerian despotism, often with a price on his head. Soyinka’s critique of Western smugness and corruption has been just as withering.

For those engaged by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist Boko Haram, Soyinka also places the splinter group’s recent killings and kidnappings in historical context (34:20 mark). 

A quiet crisis in literacy has hold of Cleveland, Ohio. A staggering 80 percent of incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school. Twenty-five percent of residents over 25 lack a high school diploma. A full 40 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level.

“When we’re out and we’re talking about these numbers, people’s jaws drop,” said Robert Paponetti, executive director of the Literacy Cooperative, a small Cleveland nonprofit working to improve literacy.  “We really needed to have an answer when people asked, ‘What can I do to help?'”

The Cooperative’s top 10 list is a start. Released last month, it is an accessible call to action for Northeast Ohioans to commit to improving literacy in their own backyard, whether as a volunteer tutor (#2) or by joining the Little Free Library movement (#8).

 “People throw the ‘call to action’ around frivolously,” Paponetti said. “It’s heavy on the call but light on the action. Here, we tried to be very explicit about how people could get involved.”

Former Plain Dealer newspaper columnist Margaret Bernstein, who helped develop the top 10 list, is actively promoting the list – online and on the pavement. Take, for instance, option #3: the 20 minutes a day reading challenge. Using the hashtag #CLELiteracy, Bernstein is encouraging parents to tweet photos or Instagram themselves reading to their children.

The goal, she said, is to make good reading habits popular, “replacing some of the nonsense [on social media] with something of substance.”

The social media campaign is heating up, with the hashtag reaching more than 20,000 people in the past week. Other organizations are also using the #CLELiteracy hashtag to share videos, photos and tips, all promoting literacy.

Bernstein said the momentum makes her optimistic that the community is attacking its literacy crisis. “That is my hope – that young parents see so many of their peers reading to their kids and they think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s something I need to be doing.’ It’s positive peer pressure.”

One word captures what motivates immigrants to venture to a new country: Better.

Indeed, “better” is the catch-all for the immigrant families at the center of Cristina Henriquez’ second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. Gathered from various corners of Central America — Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay – her characters all make their home in a small, dank apartment building in a sleepy Delaware town.

In an interview with, the Chicago-based Henriquez said that she wasn’t writing a political statement, but hoping to fictionalize the contemporary immigration debate. “The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live,” she recalls. “She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.”

The novel opens with the arrival of the Riveras, a family fresh off a 30-plus hour trip in the back of a pickup truck with a driver  who chain smoked cigarettes in lieu of conversation. They arrive in the middle of the night, with little to their name beyond a mattress they found on the side of the road, dishes, and garbage bags full of clothes and towels.

Arturo and Alma come to the U.S. for “better” for  their daughter Maribel, a teenager who sustained a traumatic brain injury and needed more specialized schooling than they could secure in Mexico. The couple finds a reputable school in Delaware and depart.

One by one, they meet the other tenants, who show them where to buy food, clean their laundry, and take English classes. Maribel instantly finds a friend in Mayor Toro, whose parents quickly bond with the Riveras. A brief love affair between the teenagers sets the story in motion.

In a brisk 300 pages, Henriquez deftly depicts the immigrant experience, fraught with anxiety and hopefulness. It makes urgent both the heart-wrenching decision to leave a home and the unrelenting grit required to stay in a strange place. “I felt the way I often felt in this country—simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore,” Alma says. (To celebrate their anniversary, she and her husband go out for ice water at a local pizza place.)

While the Riveras and the Toros anchor the novel, Henriquez weaves in the neighbors, as the secondary characters share how they ended up in Delaware. One, Micho Alvarez, is brusque:

“I came from Mexico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? … You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico. And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some f*****-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans.”

Henriquez, whose father emigrated from Panama in the 1970s, has built a story that’s less about immigration as a buzzword, and more about how families cling to each other amidst uncertainty—buying groceries when the labels are in another languages; attempting to file a police report without knowing the English word for “assault”; trying to call a child’s school and not being able to reach anyone who can hold a conversation. Henriquez’ characters navigate the obstacles and become more nimble, picking paths of least resistance as the novel strengthens its grip on the reader.

I read The Book of Unknown Americans in a blistering four hours over the July 4 weekend, gasping numerous times in the last few pages, prompting my husband to ask me if I was okay. I nodded but did not answer. Something resembling heartbreak told hold of me. Henriquez moved me to (patriotic) tears, reminding me no matter how varied our paths, we all want better.

Not enough, says a group of concerned women and girls, who have signed a letter to the president, calling for inclusion in his private-public initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” 


The initiative, which the Obama Administration announced in February, brings together foundations, nonprofits, and businesses to address the social, economic, and judicial challenges facing young men of color. Inequalities within schools and the criminal justice system are its urgent focus, alongside increasing mentoring and strengthening families in minority communities. 

But for the 1,200 women who signed the letter—including activists Angela Davis, Rosie Perez, Alice Walker, and Janet Mock—this approach leaves young women of color “waiting for the next train.”  Some 200 black men signed a similar letter last month asking the president to include their sisters in the initiative.

“We simply cannot agree that the effects of these conditions on women and girls should pale to the point of invisibility, and are of such little significance that they warrant zero attention in the messaging, research and resourcing of this unprecedented Initiative,” the petitioners write in a statement posted by the African American Policy Forum. “When we acknowledge that both our boys and girls struggle against the odds to succeed, and we dream about how, working together, we can develop transformative measures to help them realize their highest aspirations, we cannot rest easy on the notion that the girls must wait until another train comes for them.” 

Some of the critical policy issues of President Obama’s second term, such as LGBT rights, education and health care reform, will affect women of color, but signers of the letter are looking for specific, intentional efforts to improve the lives of Black and Latina women and girls. 

It’s worth noting that in 2009, the Obama Administration created the White House Council on Women and Girls, chaired by adviser Valerie Jarrett, “to ensure that federal programs and policies address and take into account the distinctive concerns of women and girls, including women of color and those with disabilities.” 

Since its creation, the council has championed equal pay, higher representation of women in STEM careers, and broader steps to prevent violence against women. It is a continuation of the Clinton Administration’s White House Office for Women’s Initiatives and Outreach, which the George W. Bush Administration quietly closed in 2001. 

“Our youth do need help, they need to be shown that they matter and all of them need a targeted initiative, and that doesn’t mean reducing it to boys of color.  That is the move we are asking them not to make,” Kristie Dotson, a philosophy professor at Michigan State University, told the Washington Post. “We applaud the initiative, now let’s talk about who needs to be included in it and targeted. Black boys can’t afford to have black girls not be a central part of this discussion.”

Actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis met in 1946 in New York City when they were both cast in “Jeb,” a play by Herman Shumlin about racial intolerance.

Davis stopped to fix his tie during rehearsal and in an instant, Dee was captivated. “My attraction to him was the one miracle of my life,” Dee would say later.

Their love for one another is the basis of the upcoming documentary, “Life’s Essentials with Ruby Dee,” produced and directed by their grandson, filmmaker Muta’Ali Muhammad. Dee died June 11, mere days before its world premiere June 22 at the American Black Film Festival in Manhattan.

Born Ruby Ann Wallace in 1924, Dee moved with her parents from Cleveland to Harlem as an infant. There she grew up amongst the lush backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and pleaded with her father, at age 16, to allow her pursue acting.  She married Davis in 1948 and remained his partner onstage and off for more than 50 years.

Dee came back to Northeast Ohio for stints at Playhouse Square, and the actress taught up-and-coming actors at the historic Karamu Theatre, which bears her likeness in a 40-foot-tall mural facing East 89th Street. “She’s a national treasure of American theater—period,” Terrence Spivey, artistic director at Karamu, told the Plain Dealer.

Indeed – and in other contexts, too. Dee emceed the 1963 March on Washington with Davis. Davis delivered the eulogy at Malcolm X’s funeral. Together they raised bail money for arrested civil rights workers. At every turn, the duo used their platform to bring greater awareness and pressure to advance their message of equality.

After Davis died in 2005, Muhammad realized he had questions about the life of his legendary grandparents—and only one of them remained.

Muhammad began production on a documentary with the hopes of completing it by his grandmother’s 90th birthday. After a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012, which raised $53,000, he began, capitalizing on time with Dee, who shared valuable insights into a life filled with art, love, and activism.

“Our marriage was a whole lot of learning, and talking and discussion and a little fighting in there too,” Dee said in a teaser for the film. “It was the most magical experience of my life.”

Watch the trailer below:

Anisfield-Wolf winner Toni Morrison found herself on stage at the Hay Festival in Wales May 28, the same day her friend Maya Angelou died in North Carolina at the age of 86. The obvious question—”Do you have any words to say about her life and legacy?”—was coming.

“She launched African-American women writing in the United States,” Morrison said, choosing her words carefully. “She was generous to a fault. She had 19 talents…used 10. She was a real original. There’s no duplicate.”

The friendship between Morrison and Angelou spanned more than 40 years. In 1973, Angelou wrote to Morrison after she finished reading Sula, telling her, “This is one of the most important books I’ve ever read.” Their friendship deepened as they continued to cross paths and support one another’s work over the decades. When Morrison won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, Angelou threw a party at her Winston-Salem home.

In 2012, Angelou traveled to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University to toast Morrison’s contributions to literature. Poet Nikki Giovanni organized “Sheer Good Fortune,” a two-day celebration on the Blacksburg campus where she has taught since 1987. The guest list was historic, with Rita Dove, Edwidge Danticat, Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis in attendance.

The writers assembled at Giovanni’s request, as a show of solidarity after the quick death of Morrison’s son Slade from pancreatic cancer in 2010. The gathering took its name from the dedication for Morrison’s 1973 novel, Sula :“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

Former poet laureate Rita Dove read from Song of Solomon. Poet Toi Derricotte selected a portion of Sula. Members of the Toni Morrison Society, now relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, performed a stirring passage from Beloved.

On stage, Maya Angelou smiled at the crowd and praised her friend for liberating her as a younger woman. “That is what this woman has done through 10 books: loving, respecting, and appreciating the African-American woman and all the things she goes through.”

Later, Morrison said, “This is as good as it gets.”

She gave credit to Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings for helping her discover the meaning in her work. “I had not seen that kind of contemporary clarity, honesty…sentences that were more than what happened, but how….I took sustenance from that. The door was open, so black women writers stepped through.”

Sheer Good Fortune – A Documentary from virginiatech on Vimeo.

The world almost lost Lorraine Hansberry’s most famous work, A Raisin in the Sun, before it ripened. 

In a moment of frustration, Hansberry threw the script in the trash. Luckily for us, her husband retrieved it from the wastebasket in their New York City apartment and set it aside for her to complete. She did. 

Two years later, on March 11, 1959, it debuted on Broadway, earning Hansberry the distinction of being the youngest dramatist and the first African-American to win the Best Play award from the New York Drama Critics Circle. The story focuses on the Younger clan, a hard-working Black family in Chicago dreaming of moving up in the world after their patriarch’s passing. 

After several revivals, the play continues to speak to the nation’s racial turmoil and inequality. The current iteration, starring Denzel Washington as the dreaming and scheming Walter Lee Younger, wraps its run on Broadway this month. 

Co-director Tracy Heather Strain has been working nine years to produce the first full-length documentary on the artist, with the hopes of releasing the film in time for the 50th anniversary of her death. (Hansberry was only 34 in 1965 when she died of pancreatic cancer.) Strain’s previous work includes the six-part PBS series I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, which included a short segment on Hansberry. Strain has completed interviews with some of Hansberry’s close friends and family, as well as several of the actors who starred in her plays—Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Gossett Jr.

The documentary has reached 75% of its $100,000 goal, poised to hit its target in the final two weeks. The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the producers a $500,000 production grant, but the money is contingent on making the $100,000 goal.

Watch the Kickstarter video below. Tell us: would you be interested in supporting this film? 

When writer Ta-Nehisi Coates visited Cleveland on a frigid February morning earlier this year, he was blunt when asked about America’s trouble acknowledging race. “You can’t have America without black people,” he said. “Once you understand that, you understand that the black experience is at the core of what it means to be free.”

His latest treatise for The Atlantic magazine, “The Case for Reparations,” throws down the gauntlet on one of the most contentious subjects our nation has grappled with: how to make amends for 250 years of U.S. slavery. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans than the wealth gap,” he writes. “Reparations would seek to close this chasm.”

But more than simply attaching a monetary figure to the sacrifices African-Americans have made during their tenure in America, Coates, 38, is asking for a moral reckoning: “Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history.”

Coates draws from the work of several Anisfield-Wolf winners in crafting his argument (he said that reading Isabel Wilkerson‘s The Warmth of Other Suns was a defining moment for him). Coates’ strategically appeals to our patriotism: We are Americans and we deserve better from our public policy—and each other. His calls for a more just society are strengthened by noting (in great detail) the injustices of the past, incidents unlikely to be found in textbooks. 

Coates appeared recently on PBS’ Moyers & Company to discuss his thesis. The entire segment is worth watching and sharing. Let us know your views. 



When screenwriter Misan Sagay visited the storied Scone Palace in Scotland, an 18th century painting of a pair of aristocratic women — one a woman of color, the other white — caught her eye.

Despite the antiquity of the painting, the women were positioned and clothed in equal fashions — an arrangement that intrigued the screenwriter. It started her hunt — years combing through archives — to piece together the history of those two women. Her research informed the screenplay for “Belle,” the film based on the darker-skinned woman in the portrait, opening in theaters today.

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw portrays the title character, Dido Elizabeth Belle, born the biracial daughter of an Navy Admiral and African woman in 1761. Sent to live with her aristocratic uncle, Dido straddles two disparate worlds, struggling to find her place in a British high society that both beckons and snubs her.

Directed by Amma Asante, “Belle” attracted strong notices during its run at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, where another historical drama (“12 Years a Slave”) stunned crowds and went on to nab the top prize at the Oscars.

Might “Belle” be the next historical film starring people of color to generate Hollywood buzz?

Two weeks after Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet at the Lagos premiere of “Half Of A Yellow Sun,” the Nigerian Film and Video Censors Board has halted its theatrical release in Nigeria.

The screen adaptation of Adichie‘s 2006 novel premiered in September 2013 at the Toronto Film Festival. The film stars Thandie Newton (Crash) and Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) as two sisters caught in the middle of the Nigerian-Biafran War. One million people died as a result of the conflict.

Hear from the director Biyi Bandele in this brief interview from BBC Africa on why he believes the board has blocked the release of the film:

The film will be available in limited release for selected U.S. cities. Get the schedule here.