Two girls, African American eighth graders, separated by geography and time, made a splash at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
One is Zaila Avant-garde, who captivated the nation this year winning on the word “murraya,” a genus of tropical tree. She had watched the bee on television four years earlier in her Harvey, La., home with her father. Jawara Avant-garde noted his daughter’s aptitude then and encouraged her toward her $50,000 win.
Still, MacNolia rose to become a national finalist. The judges then gave her a word – “nemesis” – missing from the official list. A reporter from the Beacon Journal newspaper protested immediately, but the officials overruled her objection.
MacNolia placed fifth and the citizens of Akron threw her a parade upon her return home.
“My spelling has cast a spell on my country,” MacNolia says in “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A,” the poetry collection that won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2005. The author, A. Van Jordan, might have been writing about either girl.
In the poem “Scenes from my Scrapbook,” Jordan gives voice to a girl he imagines from his hometown.
“I’m 13 years old. I can spell and I’m black.
All odds are against me but my people are for me. . .
I keep spelling and I am twice as good
As a Negro girl has any right to claim.”
Jordon believes that the underhanded judges in Washington, D.C., all white Southerners, shook MacNolia’s confidence. She married, had a son and put aside her aspiration to go to college and become a surgeon. She found work as a maid. Jordon writes of her: “The almost national spelling bee champion, almost a doctor, wife, mother, grandmother and the best maid in town.”
Jordan, the Robert Hayden Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan, delighted in this year’s spelling bee champ.
“Zaila Avant-garde is a shining example of what happens when a young person is given the space fully to follow their curiosities,” he said. “She’s not only a genius at spelling but she also seems to have a high emotional IQ, which is beautiful to see.”
“When I look at Zaila, she reminds me of what MacNolia might have been had she been given a chance to embrace her full potential,” Jordan said. “I felt emotional watching her win, and I was mad that a part of me braced for it not to happen; I’ve been conditioned for it not to happen. Zaila re-programmed me for the better!”
You can hear Jordan reading from “M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A*,” and discussing its historic roots in this 2004 radio interview.
The holiday of Juneteenth is deepening its mark on American history.
The day marks the moment in Galveston, Tex., when people in bondage learned that slavery was finished, two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.
African Americans, particularly in Texas, have honored June 19, 1865, shortened to “Juneteenth,” with picnics, parades and pilgrimages to Galveston since enslaved men on the wharfs whooped at the news (and some were beaten for it). The halting story of how the rest of the nation caught up is worth telling.
And so, when the coronavirus pandemic sealed many New Yorkers into their apartments, historian Annette Gordon-Reed turned to the task. Bob Weil, her editor at W.W. Norton, had long encouraged her to write about Texas, where she had grown up.
The result is “On Juneteenth,” a nuanced, concise 148-page reflection in six chapters that twines some of her own family story with her home state, “this most American place,” as she puts it.
She writes that the “Cowboy, the Rancher, the Oilman – all wearing ten-gallon hats or Stetson – dominate as the embodiments of Texas. Of greater importance, as I have said in another context, the image of Texas has a gender and a race: ‘Texas is a White man.’ What that means for everyone who lives in Texas and is not a White man is part of what I hope to explore in the essays of this book.”
Indeed, such a potent reductive stew in the popular imagination makes Texas ripe for misunderstanding. At the taproot of Texas is Stephen F. Austin, who recruited white people to the Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas, now East Texas, not to wrangle or drill but to clear the land for cotton. And Austin, a Missouri scion of slaveholders, discouraged the new arrivals from doing that work themselves.
Yet, Austin, whose name now graces a state capitol and the site of a hip music festival, is just one strand in a more complex origin story.
“No other state brings together so many disparate and defining characteristics all in one,” Gordon-Reed writes, “a state that shares a border with a foreign nation, a state with a long history of disputes between Europeans and an Indigenous population and between Anglo-Europeans and people of Spanish origin, a state that had existed as an independent nation, that had plantation-based slavery and legalized Jim Crow.”
This slim book is a testament to the reading pleasure to be had in the hands of an accomplished, lucid and to-the-point scholar. “On Juneteenth” is an excellent primer for a traveler wanting their bearings before visiting Texas.
Gordon-Reed’s own family tree is fascinating; her maternal side traces to the 1820s in Texas; her paternal to at least the 1860s. Juneteenth was no abstraction in her household.
“Juneteenth was different,” she writes of the day’s contrast to July 4. “For my great-grandmother, my grandparents and relatives of their generation, this was the celebration of the freedom of people they had actually known. My great-grandmother’s mother had been married three times, outliving all her husbands. Her last one had been enslaved until the end of the Civil War.”
Gordon-Reed played her own role in local history in East Texas, where she was the first Black child enrolled in the white elementary school in Conroe. “I integrated my town’s schools, a la Ruby Bridges, with the chief difference being that I was not escorted to my first day of school by federal marshals.”
The little girl proved an excellent student and recalls kind teachers and making friends. Still, she acknowledges and explores the tensions. Her mother remembers Annette breaking out in hives, “a thing I don’t recall.”
She does remember and relish the hours, seemingly endless at the time, making tamales with her female kinfolk for Juneteenth.
“This ritual was fitting, and so very Texan,” Gordon-Reed writes. “People of African descent, and to be honest, of some European descent, celebrating the end of slavery in Texas with dishes learned in slavery and a dish favored by ancient Mesoamerican Indians that connected Texas to its Mexican past; so much Texas history brought together for this one special day.”
By Lisa Nielson
Almost 90 years ago, two women quietly cooked up what is to this day the only juried literary prize addressing racism in the United States.
Edith Anisfield Wolf was born to privilege in 1889, but rather than living the comfortable life of a wealthy, educated woman, she dedicated her life to philanthropy and books. That choice stems from her family legacy.
When Edith was 12, her father called her into his office to ask her to help him best decide how to use the family wealth to help the community. Together, that’s exactly what they did. Her father, John Anisfield (1860-1929), immigrated from what is now Krakow, Poland, in 1876 at age 16. With the help of family and friends, he began working in Cleveland’s textile industry, eventually owning his own company, and later expanding into real estate.
A philanthropist and bridge builder, he quietly and effectively helped found Mt. Sinai Hospital and started Camp Anisfield. Edith and her father also faced tragedy. In 1901, Edith’s 9-year-old sister, Lizzie, died of pneumonia, followed by her mother, Daniella, a year later.
Edith graduated from East High and attended Mather College briefly but never finished. She married Cleveland lawyer Eugene Wolf (1884-1944) in 1918, and together they ran the family businesses after her father’s death. Edith was a poet, self-publishing five chapbooks and contributing poems to the Plain Dealer, a member of the Cleveland branch of the Pen Women Society and was unanimously elected to serve on the board of the Cleveland Public Library in 1943.
After talking with her friend, Amy Loveman, about how best to honor the legacy and memory of her father, Mrs. Wolf started the John Anisfield Prize in 1935, later the Anisfield-Wolf prize in honor of her husband Eugene.
She endowed the Anisfield-Wolf Community Prize, which has been administered by the Cleveland Welfare Federation (now the Center for Community Solutions) each year since her death in 1963. Edith left her books to the Cleveland Public Library, three paintings and other art pieces to the Cleveland Museum of Art, and her house on East Boulevard to the Welfare Federation.
In 1964, the Edith Anisfield Wolf Fund at the Cleveland Foundation provided a third of the funding to endow the Abba Hillel Silver Professorship in Judaic Studies at what is now Case Western Reserve University. It also awarded $30,000 to the Western Reserve Historical Society in 1970 to start an archive dedicated to Black history in Cleveland, the first such archive in the country.
Mrs. Wolf loved to garden, experiment with unusual recipes, and apparently was a fine pianist. Given that her father was fluent in German and Yiddish, she herself likely spoke both languages, in addition to French and Spanish. The list of books she donated to the Cleveland Public library indicates she (and her father) had wide ranging interests in history, philosophy, and languages.
From what thin correspondence remains from her, it seems she was an intensely private person and a woman of few words. Her handwritten notes are succinct, to the point, and written on the old-fashioned, thick-stocked note cards. Mrs. Wolf even refused to be involved in the prize she founded: “Mrs. Wolf made a great point of disassociating herself from the actual judging of the awards. She even refused to attend the annual awards ceremonies, on the grounds that she might seem to be putting herself forward too much.”
For all her reticence, however, her presence is felt. The Plain Dealer described her as a shrewd businesswoman who can spot a “phony” from a distance. References to her are invariably respectful, calling her “Mrs. Wolf” – a designation she herself preferred. On her election to the board of the library, the July 14, 1943 announcement in the Plain Dealer reported, “Mrs. Wolf is by nature conciliatory and soft spoken, but she manages to have her way.”
If you want to visit her remains, go to Knollwood Mausoleum in Mayfield Village, Ohio. She is in crypt #321. To visit the Anisfield and Wolf families, go to the Mayfield Cemetery in Cleveland Heights. You’ll find the Anisfields in the Mayfield Mausoleum and the Wolf family is close by.
Traces of Amy Loveman’s friendship with Edith can be glimpsed through random articles and off-the-cuff references. Given their mutual love of books, and Loveman’s importance as an editor and reviewer, their bond makes perfect sense.
Born in 1881, Loveman came from a literary family in New York City. Her maternal grandfather was the son of a rabbi. A linguist, encyclopedist and outspoken anti-slavery advocate, he wrote for The Nation. Her father emigrated from Hungary in 1850 and was a cotton broker who spoke six languages. Perhaps that is how the Anisfields and Lovemans became acquainted?
Loveman received her BA from Barnard in 1901; interestingly, she took no literature classes because she knew her love of reading would never end. In her first job, she worked for an uncle who was revising The New International Encyclopedia. She went to New York Evening Post, and became first a book reviewer, then later associate editor of the Post’s Literary Supplement, which she helped found in 1920.
In 1924, Loveman left with several colleagues to found a literary magazine, The Saturday Review, where she worked for the next 30 years. The masthead listed her as an associate editor and she wrote nearly 800 book reviews, editorials, and answers to questions from readers. In 1950, she became the poetry editor.
Despite being a poetry critic, (and culling 98% of submissions) she never wrote poetry herself: “I wouldn’t dare to,” she said, “knowing how well supplied the world already is with bad verse.”
Loveman edited, proofed, and mocked up Saturday Review editions, answered correspondence, and kept her male colleagues organized. She even rescued the paper on several occasions by locating missing items. Once she traveled to the dump to rummage in the trash to locate a missing photo. On another occasion, she and editor Norman Cousins spent hours frantically searching the warehouse for a missing manuscript to avoid legal repercussions. They found it behind a desk in the offices and the threatened lawsuit was dropped.
Along with the Saturday Review, Loveman was vital to the Book-of-the-Month club. She joined the reading committee in 1926 shortly after it was founded, then later became head of the editorial department in 1938, eventually joining the board of judges in 1951. Colleagues describe her as an optimist, kind, an elegant writer who adored Jane Austen, and corresponded with every great writer at the time. She was widely respected, to the degree that when her colleagues tried to throw a small surprise party to recognize her contributions to literary endeavors in June 1942, so many people wanted to attend, they had to rent a ballroom.
Loveman received the Columbia University Medal for Excellence and the Constance Lindsay Skinner Achievement Award of the Women’s National Book Association in 1946. Wheaton and Wilson colleges awarded her honorary Litt.D degrees in 1950. Amy served on the Anisfield Wolf jury in the 1940s.
On her death in 1955, Norman Cousins penned a lengthy obituary for the Saturday Review, and in 1956, published a 21-page eulogy with Overbrook Press. In his magazine obituary, Cousins wrote, “Amy Loveman was less cluttered emotionally than any person I have ever known. Her nobility was a universe: and to know it was to soar inside it.”
Lisa Nielson is an Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studies, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
Hurricane Maria scythed more than 3,000 souls on Puerto Rico, according to the official death toll. Among that number was “Landfall” director Cecilia Aldarondo’s grandmother, who died in the aftermath of the 2017 storm.
The assessment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency found nearly every building in Puerto Rico damaged, and parts of the island stayed dark for almost two years without power.
Aldrarondo bristled at the “unsatisfying” media coverage, glib reports that she believes glossed over the anemic government response and Puerto Rico’s longstanding economic woes.
She got to work on a film that would concentrate on what residents did to save themselves.
“This is a film that’s not so much about a hurricane as it is about aftermath,” Aldarondo told Deadline. “It’s about how we pick up the pieces in the wake of these kinds of seismic watershed events.”
Aldarondo’s documentary focuses on citizens who banded together to create their own recovery plan. In one scene, locals explain how they broke the lock on a damaged school building and turned it into a community center and emergency housing.
“The hurricane has brought us toward a system where the common denominator is the common good,” one resident said.
The 90-minute film also tells history through archival footage, pulling back the curtain on years of economic destabilization and exploitation from hungry U.S. investors.
“Landfall” has made a splash on the festival circuit, winning the Grand Jury Prize at DOC NYC’s Viewfinders competition, and nabbing Best Documentary at four others.
“People in Puerto Rico have been engaged in really extraordinary acts of solidarity and recovery precisely in the wake of that kind of abandonment by the federal and local governments,” Aldarondo noted in the Deadline interview. “There’s a really quite instructive case study of communities caring for one another when their institutions fail them. I wanted people in Puerto Rico to not be seen as victims but as leaders, as global leaders, in a way that I think colonized people very rarely get to be.”
Watch the trailer below:
Watch “Landfall” during Cleveland International Film Festival’s CIFF45 Streams, where you can view the documentary from the comfort of your home for $9 with discount code AWBA. CIFF45 Streams ends April 20. This film is the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2021.
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 86th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2021 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
All five members of the Anisfield-Wolf jury — chair Henry Louis Gates Jr, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker — salute the new class in the video above.
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and the human condition,” said Gates Jr. “This year, we honor a brilliant military history, a breakout poetry collection that wrestles with mortality, a novel bursting with love and trouble centered around a Brooklyn church, and a memoir by a daughter reclaiming her mother’s story. All of which is capped by the lifetime achievement of Samuel R. Delany, who has broadened our humanity and sharpened our minds through his groundbreaking science fiction.”
About Our Winners
Vincent Brown is an innovative scholar who combines impeccable historical research with innovative mapping and visual tools. He is the Charles Warren Professor of American History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. “Tacky’s Revolt” is a groundbreaking investigation into the roots, combatants, cartography and reverberations of the largest slave revolt in the 18th Century British Atlantic world. Read more…
Victoria Chang is a celebrated poet, children’s book author and professor who grew up in Detroit and now lives with her family in Los Angeles. Her first two degrees, from the University of Michigan and Harvard University, are in Asian Studies, then she earned an MBA at Stanford University. Restless in the financial sector, Chang earned an MFA at Warren Wilson College and now serves on Antioch University’s faculty. In “Obit,” she distilled her grief after her mother died into a series of prose poems, structured like obituaries, for all she had lost in the world. Read more…
Samuel R. Delany is a pioneer of gay literature and a science fiction icon, as comfortable at academic conferences as he is at comic book conventions. His gifts as a novelist and critic put him on the creative writing faculties of the University of Massachusetts and Temple University. Born in New York City, Delany had won four Nebula Awards and a Hugo prize by the time he was 27. The Lambda Literary Report named him one of the 50 most important people in changing the culture’s view of gayness over a half century. His books include the novels “Babel-17,” “The Einstein Intersection,” “Dhalgren” and the memoir “The Motion of Light in Water. Read more…
James McBride is the first Anisfield-Wolf winner in nonfiction, for “The Color of Water,” to be honored in fiction. A celebrated novelist, musician, composer, Spike Lee collaborator and a National Humanities Medalist, McBride was praised by Barack Obama for “displaying the character of the American family.” A fictionalized version of his parents’ Baptist church in Brooklyn, N.Y., anchors and animates “Deacon King Kong,” a rollicking tale set spinning in 1969 when an elderly, alcoholic deacon shoots off the ear of a notorious drug dealer. Read more…
Natasha Trethewey is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and a 2007 Pulitzer winner for “Native Guard,” who wrote “Memorial Drive” to reclaim her mother, born Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, from becoming a footnote to her daughter’s more prominent story. Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day to a Black mother and a white father, the poet explores how she embodies some of the Civil War’s persistent contradictions. “Memorial Drive” investigates the life and death of Turnbough, killed when her daughter was 19 by a man she had divorced. Read more…
Look for interviews with the class of 2021 in the upcoming season of The Asterisk*, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards podcast.
The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is proud to present The Asterisk*, a new podcast hosted by Karen R. Long, manager of the awards. An asterisk is a reference mark, indicating an omission. Each episode will delve into some of the holes in our knowledge about an esteemed AWBA winner.
“There is always more to learn from the individuals who win an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award,” Long said. “They continue to grow as artists and thinkers even as their reflections on our shared civic life are urgent and intriguing. Plus they are just cool people.”
Season 1 of The Asterisk* opens with Eric Foner, the 2020 lifetime achievement winner. In this episode, recorded January 7, Foner discusses the January 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol, his marriage to a fellow historian and his place among the most influential American historians of the last half-century.
“When somebody told me that they had just seen the Confederate flag on TV being carried around the Capitol, my first reaction was ‘good,’” Foner told The Asterisk*. “These people are telling us exactly what they believe. You cannot beat around the bush. You cannot claim to be a patriot and display the Confederate flag. You cannot claim to believe in racial equality and display the Confederate flag.”
“Quiet as it is kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941 . . . Not even the gardens fronting the lake showed marigolds that year.”
These lines from the beginning of “The Bluest Eye” helped cast a spell and launch the writing career of Toni Morrison. The lake is Lake Erie, the gardens are in Lorain, Ohio, the hometown of a woman who elevated and altered the course of world literature.
Born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931, Morrison remade English literature as an editor, novelist, professor, essayist and cultural critic. Her 11 novels include “Beloved,” which won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction and the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. From the beginning, Morrison shrugged off the white gaze, creating worlds in which Black characters shone in their particular and universal complexity, beauty and pain.
In February, Bill 325 passed the Ohio House, then moved to the Senate for a subcommittee hearing.
“Seeing someone from our neighborhood rise to worldwide renown and recognition, including being the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, is a continual source of pride for all of us in the Lorain area,” testified Miller, whose district encompasses Lorain.
Howse also testified. “Her work stirred our souls, challenged our conscience to confront injustices, and encouraged the rest of the world to do the same,” she said. “She set the stage for an entire generation of authors to tell their untold stories and celebrate the beautiful diversity of humankind.”
More context came from Cheri Campbell, whose 30-year tenure at the Lorain County Public Library coincided with the dedication of the Toni Morrison Reading Room in 1995. She recounted the story in her House testimony:
“Upon her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1993, many in the community wanted to rename streets, rename the library system, among other ideas,” Campbell wrote. “When the community discussion reached Toni’s ears, she asked us to establish a reading room in her name that would – in her words – ‘be the one place available in the neighborhood with a quiet room and comfortable chairs.’ Our library had been where she spent many hours reading books, so that is what she wanted from us. And we gave it to her.”
Campbell said the Reading Room drew many visitors and scholars, curious about Morrison’s origins. “In my work, no matter where it’s set,’ “she once told an audience at Oberlin College, “‘the imaginative process always starts right here on the lip of Lake Erie.’”
Dr. Marilyn Mobley, a founder of the Toni Morrison Society and professor of English and African American Studies at Case Western Reserve University, also wrote in favor of the bill. “It is only fitting,” she said, “that the state of Ohio recognizes all that Toni Morrison has given us through the power of her words, the persistence of her commitment to truth, and the unwavering passion she shared for the sanctity of the human spirit.”
House Bill No. 325 will have a second hearing in the Ohio Senate in December. If the bill passes the subcommittee, it will head to the full Ohio Senate for a vote.
Ohio residents wishing to send along letters of support for the bill can email Rep. Miller at Rep56@ohio.house.gov.
Fans of Rita Dove’s 2009 poetry collection “Sonata Mulattica”can dive into the story behind the poems in a new podcast produced by the Akron Symphony Orchestra, Unorchestrated.
Hosted by music director Christopher Wilkins and marketing director Tom Moore, the podcast premiered this month with a 14-episode deep dive into Dove’s collection. It explores the little-known history of George Bridgetower, a 19th century African-European violinist and his turbulent friendship with Ludwig van Beethoven.
Dove, who grew up in Akron and serves as an Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards juror, plays the cello and viola da gamba. She drafted the poems after spotting Bridgewater in a background scene of “Immortal Beloved,” a 2003 Beethoven biopic. Dove paused the movie in her Virginia home, googled “black violinist Beethoven,” and let the brief paragraph of search results simmer in her mind.
“I couldn’t get rid of him,” Dove says in the first podcast episode. “I kept thinking of him. I kept doing as much research as I could. That curiosity led to me to write about him.”
In a 2009 New York Times interview, she mused on Bridgewater’s impact. “Here was the case of a man who made it into the history books, but barely,” she said. “And who would have been, if not a household word, a household word in the musical world. That flame was snuffed out.”
Dove recorded the episodes from her home in Charlottesville, where she is the Commonwealth Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
The first two episodes — roughly 20 minutes each — are available now on most major podcast platforms.
Enjoy this reimagined ceremony turned documentary, streaming now. It is hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and features a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell. (Runtime: 56 minutes)
Our slate of virtual programming during this year’s Cleveland Book Week means you have continued access, including our collaborations with the Cleveland International Film Festival, Western Reserve Historical Society, Global Cleveland, the City Club of Cleveland, and the Great Lakes African American Writers Conference. Dive into any programs you missed or rewatch your favorite sessions below.
2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Documentary
Hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr., this documentary features a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell.
CIFF Streams + ABWA
Viewers had the opportunity to stream free Cleveland International Film Festival documentaries, all with an Anisfield-Wolfian flavor. While the selections are no longer available to stream, the post-film conversations with the director and documentary subjects are. These conversations are hosted by Cleveland State University professor Eric Siler and feature captions and sign language interpreters.
Global Cleveland Sister Cities Conference
2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for fiction Namwali Serpell and Baldwin-Wallace University Professor Chisomo Selemani discussed “The Old Drift” and Zambia at this international gathering.
Ilya Kaminsky, winner of the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in poetry, discussed his art, his heritage, and his insight that disabilities can be “a political position for advocacy for us all,” in conversation with Alexandria M. Romanovich of Cuyahoga Community College.
Charles King in Conversation with Steven Pinker
A virtual conversation between Charles King, 2020 winner for nonfiction for “Gods of the Upper Air” and Anisfield-Wolf juror Steven Pinker, hosted by the Western Reserve Historical Society. Their discussion is preceded by a shorter one between Cleveland historians John Grabowski and Regennia Williams, who bring local context to King’s story of “how a circle of renegade anthropologists reinvented race, sex, and gender in the twentieth century.”
City Club of Cleveland: Eric Foner
2020 lifetime achievement award winner Eric Foner discussed his most recent book, “The Second Founding,” the Reconstruction Era, and the contemporary struggle for freedom and equality.
Great Lakes African American Writers Conference (GLAAW-C)
Award-winning novelist and playwright Pearl Cleage delivered the literary keynote for this writers’ conference, while noted agent Kima Jones from Los Angeles preceded with the professional keynote. Brandi Larsen, a former Penguin Random House executive, discussed engaging the big five publishers.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of the most surprising things about “Good Trouble,” a new documentary on Georgia Congressman John Lewis’ six decades in the public spotlight, is how many jokes appear during the 96-minute runtime.
The levity that imbues Lewis, 80, as he gathers with staffers, chats with relatives and booms from a podium persists in someone who has endured some of the worst America has to offer.
The film makes his sacrifices clear — the civil rights movement was a brutal affair as Lewis put his body on the line time after time in nonviolent demonstrations from “Bloody Sunday” to the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. The documentary’s title itself comes from Lewis’ belief that “good trouble, necessary trouble” is necessary to change the world.
Director Dawn Porter, whose film credits include “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “Spies of Mississippi,” yearned to hear more from the civil rights icon. She was intrigued by the breadth of his work, she said, and wondered: “How do you do justice to such a magnificent life?”
“We came to him…at a time when he was ready to tell his story,” she told NPR. “You know, I think he is – as he was approaching his 80th birthday, he’s always reflective, but I think he was particularly reflective. So it was a wonderful time for both of us to engage on this adventure together.”
A dizzying montage of Lewis stumping for a slew of progressive candidates in 2018’s midterm elections shows the stamina and grit of a man determined to help the country moves forward. “My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” he says quietly in one scene. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.”
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr makes an appearance, remarking that Lewis wept on his show, “Finding Your Roots,” as his team was able to uncover the activist’s great-great grandfather’s voting registration card from 1867.
“And by my calculation,” Gates told him, “no one in your family between him and you — because of what you did at Pettus Bridge and the Voting Rights Act — no one in your family line voted between him and you.”
Gates recalled that after Lewis composed himself, he simply replied: “I guess it’s in my DNA.”
Viewers witness the multi generational impact of Lewis in scenes of eager readers thrusting copies of “March,” his young adult graphic novel chronicling the movement, asking for autographs. (Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999 for “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” the precursor to “March.”)
Mostly, the film portrays Lewis as a gentle leader who has seen the country through some unbelievable lows. But it also reminds viewers that Lewis has moments of ferocity. The contentious 1986 Congressional election saw him face off with friend and fellow activist Julian Bond for a seat in Atlanta’s fifth district, a battle Lewis ultimately won.
Soundbites from those who know him best — his chief of staff, his siblings, fellow Congressional Black Caucus members — fill in the portrait, alongside the man himself. One voice is missing — Lillian Miles, Lewis’ wife of 44 years, who died in 2012. It is clear from those around him that Lewis is still working through his grief. As his sister noted, after her death, “He got quieter.”
The film wrapped in December, right before the news that the congressman had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. An erroneous tweet from Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina on July 11 reported on the congressman’s passing, leading to an outpouring of relief as his team refuted the rumors.
“Grateful that the great @repjohnlewis is still with us,” former national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted. “We need the wisdom and strength of this American hero and civil rights icon now more than ever.”
Indeed, the film elevates Lewis at a critical time — it was released July 3, in the midst of a national reckoning with race after the police killing of George Floyd. In a virtual townhall June 15 on the mental health impact of the uprisings on Black America, Lewis was delighted at the action he saw in the streets nationwide: “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”
Join us October 1 to toast the 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards authors and their brilliant books.
WVIZ/PBS ideastream will produce, distribute and broadcast an original one hour of television highlighting the 85th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. It will be hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and feature a visit to the hometowns of historian Eric Foner, poet Ilya Kaminsky, scholar Charles King and novelist Namwali Serpell.
This destination viewing will let the Anisfield-Wolf community gather without fear of the pandemic. “We are grateful that the 85-year-old chain of celebrating Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients will remain unbroken,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the awards. “Thanks to our longtime partners at ideastream, we are able to showcase the four new honorees for viewers everywhere, alongside the inimitable Henry Louis Gates Jr. And this television special will sit on the right side of the digital divide — accessible to the greatest number of people.”
Mark Rosenberger, chief content officer at ideastream, said the book awards “couldn’t be more relevant and important than they are now and it’s truly an honor to partner with them to share this program with an expanded audience. The environment has changed in so many ways and the awards and the conversations around them are more relevant than ever.”
More details will follow on the full schedule for Cleveland Book Week, arranged to keep all participants safe. In the meantime, dive into our 2020 award-winning books.
Four Anisfield-Wolf Book Award-winning authors — including two from our 2020 class — took home hardware from this year’s Los Angeles Times Book Prize. The annual springtime awards ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so winners took to their cameras to deliver acceptance speeches, now posted on YouTube.
Namwali Serpell won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, for her sprawling Zambian novel, “The Old Drift.” Hunkered down in her home, Serpell spoke on the need to continue to create. “These are dark times, yes, but that darkness, that void is a break from business as usual,” she remarked in her video. “A crack out of which maybe a revolution will emerge. It feels impossible to do anything except survive right now, but I say art is survival too. So I say, make art, paint it, record it, dance it, write it down.”
Ilya Kaminsky accepted the poetry prize for “Deaf Republic,” noting that poetry can offer comfort during turbulent times: “Poetry casts its spell on us, makes us want to return to its pages, to leave with its images, to memorize its lines, to whisper them to ourselves in the middle of the night, the last words we cling to when nothing suffices. In the middle of crisis I feel this more than ever.” Walter Mosley dedicated his prize, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement, to the memory of his father, Leroy Mosley. Mosley, the author of more than 43 books, won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction in 1998 for “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.” Marlon James, a 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner for “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” was honored with the Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction for his follow-up, “Black Leopard, Red Wolf.” Serpell and Kaminsky, both 2020 Anisfield-Wolf honorees, will be honored October 1 in a one-hour PBS television special, alongside Eric Foner (lifetime achievement) and Charles King (nonfiction). It will be hosted by Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. and feature a visit to the hometowns of each of this year’s winners.
“I was meant to be here,” 11-year-old Amia said as she twirled around the state capitol building in Sacramento, California.
On a field trip with roughly a dozen other members of the Radical Monarchs, a social justice troop based out of Oakland, California, Amia’s enthusiasm was captured in the riveting 2019 documentary, “We Are the Radical Monarchs.”
Directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Linda Goldstein Knowlton, it follows the troop’s co-founders Anayvette Martinez and Marilyn Hollinquest over the first three years as they work to build curriculum, raise funds and add additional chapters.
The troop’s origin was personal to Martinez, whose 10-year-old daughter Lupita came to her in fifth grade with a desire to join Girl Scouts. A community organizer and activist, Martinez hesitated.
“I wanted her to have an experience where she was a part of a troop that centered her identity as a girl of color,” Martinez said in the film. “It wasn’t a week of specialization but ‘you are at the center of this conversation.’”
Martinez approached her friend Hollinquest, an Oakland-based teacher and activist, about creating their own group. Launched in December 2014, the Radical Monarchs are geared toward young girls in third through fifth grades.
Goldstein Knowlton, 55, stumbled upon the Monarchs in January 2015 after reading about the founders’ efforts in The Guardian. The Chicago-born filmmaker had directed and produced other features about young girls and sisterhood, mostly notably 2005’s “Somewhere Between,” and the genesis of the Radical Monarchs struck a chord.
“‘Radical’ and ‘girl groups’ — those words usually aren’t together,” she said. “Just from [Martinez and Hollinquest’s] quotes they sounded like the most intentional people I’ve ever heard from…I’m always drawn to people who have a vision, who are striving, not knowing what the outcome is going to be.”
The director and her team spent the next three years capturing the Monarchs take flight — at monthly troop meetings where they discussed female movement leaders like Dolores Huerta and Yuri Kochiyama and at political protests such as the local Women’s March in 2017.
Their curriculum units are all “radical” and take a youth-centered, age-appropriate approach. The girls learn about the Black Lives Matter movement, parse and challenge societal beauty standards and discuss what it means to be an LGBT+ ally.
One particularly moving scene involves Monarchs learning at the feet of former Black Panther leader Cheryl Dawson. “It’s my desire to plant seeds in the hearts of those who will take them. So you will know as you grow up that part of your responsibility is to the people…You have big work ahead of you.” Later, during a group photo, Dawson needed a moment to compose herself, wiping tears away before take two.
“Making this movie through the cycle of the 2016 election and finishing the movie during this administration has felt like a consistent gift of hope,” Goldstein Knowlton said. “Marilyn always says, ‘We’re radical hope peddlers.’ I have massive gratitude for that. I feel like I can take a big deep breath.”
Watch “We Are the Radical Monarchs” during Cleveland International Film Festival’s reimagined CIFF Streams, where for $8 per film you can view the documentary from the comfort of your home. Tickets are $8 for a single film or $75 for an all-access pass. CIFF Streams ends April 28. This film was the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards community match for 2020.
An innovative virtual exhibition at Case Western Reserve University selects and showcases new local responses to Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards writing. Sponsored by the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative, the exhibition features 10 new poems and essays responding to prompts from the Anisfield-Wolf award-winning canon.
Students and faculty from area universities created their own work based in Tracy K. Smith (“Wade in the Water”), Jesmyn Ward (“Sing, Unburied, Sing”), Tommy Orange (“There There”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“Stride Toward Freedom”). Three students from Tri-C reflected on two pieces from the public art Inter|Urban project, influenced by Isabel Wilkerson (“The Warmth of Other Suns”) and Junot Diaz (“The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”).
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards have been a part of Cleveland’s literary culture for over 80 years,” said Kurt Koenigsberger, director for the collaborative. “It’s really been within the last decade that local colleges and universities, largely with support from the Cleveland Foundation, have begun to take up the challenge that the Anisfield-Wolf Award-winners pose for the work we do in our institutions.”
For the past two summers, the collaborative has sponsored seminars to help Northeast Ohio faculty, artists and activists integrate Anisfield-Wolf books into their classrooms and community projects. The idea for an exhibition that engaged students directly was an easy next step, Koenigsberger said: “Creating a space that broadened our institutions’ understanding, appreciation, and celebration of work on race and racism seemed important to the work of our Collaborative, and to our Northeast Ohio community more generally.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, plans for a physical exhibition in March quickly transitioned to a virtual presentation. Switching to an online format had at least one benefit — most of the participants provided audio of their work, adding flavor and personality to the written word.
“The move to invite participants to record their work was a result of our students’ deliberations,” Koenigsberger said. “They were very eager that the public could hear how the poems and essays sounded in the authors’ own voices.”
The Cleveland Foundation today unveiled the winners of its 85th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. The 2020 recipients of the only national juried prize for literature that confronts racism and explores diversity are:
“The new Anisfield-Wolf winners bring us fresh insights on race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr. who chairs the jury. “This year, we honor a brilliant, breakout novel that centers Zambia, a book of political poetry 15 years in the making and a riveting history documenting a revolution in Western thought. All is capped by the lifetime achievement of Eric Foner, who has remade our understanding of the Civil War and especially its aftermath.”
Dr. Gates directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. Joining him in selecting the winners each year are poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama.
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored October 1 in the Connor Palace Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. The ceremony will be part of the fifth annual Cleveland Book Week slated for Sept. 27-Oct. 4.
Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards at the Cleveland Foundation, noted the prescience of philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf in founding the prize in 1935. “She understood that the best books are fuel to civic justice, as true now as it was during the Great Depression,” Long said. “We are proud to add the 2020 winners to this vital canon. These new books explore human diversity in riveting style, putting the lie to racism and ableism. Reading them knits us closer together in time when we must be apart.”
About the 2020 Winners
Eric Foner is a public intellectual who stands among the most important American historians of the past half century. He is the DeWitt Clinton Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University and only the second person to lead all three major professional organizations in his field: the Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association and the Society of American Historians. “Eric Foner is the dean of Reconstruction historians, and is one of the most generous, and genuinely passionate, professors of his generation,” said Dr. Gates. “As a scholar and writer, his footprint is vast.” Three of his books are considered canonical: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men;” “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877″ and “The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery.” This last book won a Pulitzer, a Bancroft and a Lincoln prize; Foner is equally proud of his numerous teaching awards. He retired from the classroom in 2018, continuing to write and lecture. Foner, 77, lives in New York City and in Connecticut with his wife, Lynn Garafola, a dance historian.
Ilya Kaminsky is a celebrated poet, editor and translator whose first book, “Dancing in Odessa,” was published in more than 20 languages. He holds the Bourne Chair in Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Born in Odessa in 1977, Ilya’s mumps were misdiagnosed by a Soviet doctor who thought the four-year-old had a cold. The mistake left the poet hard-of-hearing. Amid rising antisemitism, Kaminsky’s family won political asylum from the United States in 1993 and resettled in Rochester, N.Y., where he was fitted with hearing aids. Kaminsky, adept in Russian, Ukranian and English poetry, became a lawyer first. When “Deaf Republic” arrived, the BBC named Kaminsky “one of the 12 artists that changed the world in 2019.” Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove said the book haunted her, “a parable that comes to life and refuses to die.” It describes an unnamed country whose citizens can no longer hear one another, set amid political unrest. The book, which contains pictograms of sign language words, became a finalist for the National Book Award. Kaminsky lives with his wife, the poet Katie Farris, in Atlanta.
Charles King is the author of seven nonfiction books, including “Midnight at the Pera Palace” and “Odessa,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2011. A professor of international affairs and government relations at Georgetown University, King focuses on nationalism, ethnic politics, the transition from authoritarianism and the relationship between history and the social sciences. It is this last category that animates “Gods of the Upper Air,” a history of five anthropologists who upended many of the racist and sexist verities commonplace a century ago. The title derives from a Zora Neale Hurston phrase. She was among the circle of pioneering social scientists. Under the leadership of Franz Boas they fomented, Anisfield-Wolf Juror Steven Pinker said, “nothing less than one of the epochal changes in the history of Western thought.” He praised the book, also a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle award, as “gripping and beautifully written.” King, 52, lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, the anthropologist and author Maggie Paxson.
Namwali Serpell is a literary critic and fiction writer who spent 18 years working, episodically, on her debut novel, “The Old Drift.” She is a professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Born in the Zambian capital Lukasa in 1980, she grew up near its university and in Hull, England and Baltimore. Serpell wrote the opening of “The Old Drift” while a senior at Yale University, and the section about the title settlement along the Zambezi River after she visited the site in 2013. The novel spools out from a fateful collision there in 1904 among a local busboy, an Italian hotelier and a British photographer that Serpell sets reverberating through three generations. The novel romps through Zambian language, politics, history, science and speculative fiction. The novel is “a phenomenal accomplishment, nothing less than a retelling/reimagining of the creation and ‘history’ of Zambia,” observed Anisfield-Wolf Juror Rita Dove. Historian Simon Schama, also a juror, called praised call the book “brave and extraordinarily well done.” Serpell lives in San Francisco, where she is working on a book about her love/hate relationship with the novel “American Psycho.”
We have cancelled the March 30 reading by Peter Ho Davies and announcement of our 2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winners, in keeping with the precautions at all Ohio libraries due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Please stay tuned for an online announcement March 30 of the new class of recipients.
We thank our partner, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, and all those who made plans to join us in person. We encourage you to mark your calendars for 6 p.m. Thursday October 1 at the Connor Palace Theater of Playhouse Square for the awards ceremony, which will anchor the fifth annual Cleveland Book Week, beginning September 27 and running through October 3.
Novelist Peter Ho Davies, who won the 2017 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction, returns to Cleveland March 30 to announce our class of 2020 winners.
Davies will speak at the Parma-Snow branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library at 7 p.m. to read from “The Fortunes,” his sprawling novel exploring American history through a Chinese American lens.
In four linked sections, Davies explores the California Gold Rush, actress Anna May Wong, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin by a disgruntled Detroit autoworker and the contemporary adoption of a Chinese daughter by American parents. Anisfield-Wolf juror Joyce Carol Oates called it a “prophetic work, with passages here of surpassing beauty.”
Davies will end the program with the announcement of our 2020 winners, followed by a book signing. Books will be available to purchase on site.
The University of Michigan professor follows former winners Jericho Brown (2015, poetry) and Marlon James (2015, fiction), who returned to Cleveland in 2019 and 2018, respectively, to make the new winner announcement.
The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.
A mere dozen miles from the site where Toni Morrison was born Chloe Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, a day-long gathering will mark what would have been the novelist’s 89th birthday.
“This warrior artist had such a giant global impact and such an individual impact,” he said. “I think there are individuals dispersed all over this planet who have very direct relationships with the images that Ms. Morrison conjured on the page and with the narratives she called up.”
Organizers hope citizens will stop by the Irene and Alan Wurtzel Theater to give an excerpt reading, or record an audio tribute to underscore how Morrison’s work influenced their lives.
In September, Cleveland Book Week featured reflections from writers who followed Morrison into the Anisfield-Wolf canon — Walter Mosley, ’98; Marilyn Chin, ’15; Kevin Young, ’18; Brent Staples, ’95; and Jesmyn Ward, ’18.
“Morrison centered blackness, in ways unparalleled, though she was not alone in doing so,” Young stated. “She helped us see ourselves and free ourselves and remind us that as she put it, the function of freedom is to free someone else.”
Walter Mosley, who also praised Morrison in 2019’s “The Pieces I Am” documentary, spoke on his friend of more than 20 years: “Of all her acts in the world of literature, Morrison almost single-handedly raised Black America to an international platform without us losing our identity.”
Marilyn Chin recited her new poem, “Praise (For Toni Morrison),” ending with “Praise holy, holy Chloe/Who shall finally reclaim her name.” A framed copy of the poem will be installed in the newly remodeled Morrison room at the Lorain Public Library. It will mark her birthday by hosting a rededication ceremony at 2 p.m. featuring members of the Morrison/Wofford family.
Praise Sula, Praise Nell, Praise Sethe
Praise Bride and her blue-black beauty
Praise Valerian, Praise Sweetness, Praise Rain
Praise Pecola, forgive Cholly
May Milkman Dead find his wings
Praise Medallion, Praise Shalimar, Praise Mercy
Praise the blessed earth Lorraine
Praise the gateless gate of eternity
Praise the Great Mother’s legacy
Praise holy, holy Chloe
Who shall finally reclaim her name
Henry Louis Gates Jr. rarely speaks about one of his most publicized moments — the July 2009 arrest by Sgt. James Crowley at his Cambridge home, leading to the infamous “beer summit” at the Obama White House.
Now the multi-hyphenate — historian, TV host, executive producer, editor, Harvard professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury chair — reflects on that incident, some 11 years later, in a new interview with New York Times magazine.
“President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was,” he told the publication. Then all of a sudden all these racists are beating up on him. My whole attitude was channeled through the desire to protect our first black president.”
Throughout the interview, Gates toggles from subject to subject, from myths of the slave trade to his thoughts on the remaining Democratic presidential candidates. (No official endorsement yet but he’s got his eye on Michael Bloomberg.)
A few highlights:
On his perspective of the beer summit” incident:
I thought that it would be hubristic and dishonest if I compared what happened to me to what happens to black people in the inner city….Well, that might be related to police excesses and abuses, but it’s a far end of the scale, and I was able to reverse what happened to me, unlike an Eric Garner.
On America’s responsibility for reparations:
I do believe that it’s impossible for any rational person not to understand the cost of 400 years of slavery and then another century of Jim Crow. We have to find ways to compensate for that cost. Affirmative action, to me, is a form of reparations. So is health care — Obamacare or a variant. And there’s reform of public education. One of the most radical things we could do to reform public-school education would be to equalize the amount of money spent per student in every school. That is never going to happen, but that would constitute a radical shift.
On the quiet objective of his PBS show, “Finding Your Roots”:
I’m trying to use the popularity of “Finding Your Roots” to get these political messages in there without being a scold. I am trying to deconstruct notions of racial purity. There is no racial purity. We are all diverse. Showing diversity is important to me politically and insofar as we can achieve that, our series has an educational value for the larger country, particularly at a time when we’re at Redemption [the period of white rollback of black progress following Reconstruction] redux.