Longtime biographer Arnold Rampersad said his new volume, The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, reveals a “deeper, more complicated” man than the public has ever known. Sitting comfortably on stage at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, co-editors Rampersad and David Roessel, professor at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, spoke on the complexities of the man called the voice of “Negro America.”
Rampersad, who has twice beenhonored with an Anisfield-Wolf award for his work on Langston Hughes, said that the writer’s calling came to him early in life. “He was going to take on one of the most extraordinary challenges that anyone could take on—that is to be an African-American in the 1920s and decide, ‘I want to be a writer. And oh, by the way, I want to write about African-American culture,'” Rampersad said. “Not the number one topic in literature by any stretch of the imagination.”
Roessel praises Hughes’ prescience: “From this early age, he knew that people would be interested in his letters. They understood that they were doing something that had not been done before and the world was going to take notice. And it’s nice that the world had.”
Watch their conversation in the video below.
This spring, as Rwanda commemorates the 1994 genocide that extinguished more than a million of its citizens, a nation assesses its reconstruction while the wider world wrestles with the fact that it stood by. Several important books illuminate these tasks.
“Twenty years ago today our country fell into deep ditches of darkness,” said Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda’s current minister of foreign affairs. “Twenty years later, today, we are a country united and a nation elevated.”
Economic progress and a fragile peace characterize Rwanda now, under a new Constitution and a marked ascendancy of women into leadership. A moving photographic portrait of the hard work of reconciliation is newly published in the New York Times.
“The story of U.S. policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil,” wrote Samantha Power in 2001, in her now-landmark essay, Bystanders to Genocide. “U.S. officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about ‘never again,’ many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen.”
The book is a meticulously researched portrait of U.S. inaction throughout the 20thcentury – despite the growth of human rights groups, the advent of instant communications and the erection of the Holocaust Museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. “Rwandan Hutus in 1994 could freely, joyfully and systematically slaughter 8,000 Tutsis a day for 100 days without any foreign interference,” Power writes.
All the while, the Clinton Administration blocked deployment of U.N. peacekeepers, worked actively in diplomatic circles to suppress the “G-word” (genocide) and “refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide,” Power writes.
In “Less than Human,” David Livingstone Smith picks up on these radio broadcasts as essential fodder to the dehumanization that made the Rwandan genocide possible. His book won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2012, and is the basic text for the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University: Reading Social Justice.
As the world remembers the antithesis of social justice – wholesale butchery of a people – both Power and Smith exemplify how sober scholarship can illustrate the circumstances that unleash new killing fields. Smith is a professor of philosophy at the University of New England; Power has become the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
Philosophy Professor David Livingstone Smith kicked off the University of New England’s 2014 diversity lecture series with a talk on why “race” is a destructive concept.
The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf nonfiction award winner for “Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others” stated his mission at the top: “I wish to liberate you. I do not think I will succeed, but I hope I will raise questions about certain beliefs you take for granted.”
Smith presented his audience with a slide of four individuals with light skin and typical European facial features. He then asked the audience if they could determine which two were, in fact, African-American. It proved puzzling for those assembled. (See the slide here.)
“Virtually every genocide that I know enough about has been a racialized genocide,” Smith told his listeners on the Maine campus. “The notion of race gets us into a lot of trouble.”
Smith, who has taught philosophy at the university since 2000, is also the co-founder of The Human Nature Project, which explores evolutionary biology and human nature. He is the author of seven books, including Less Than Human, a centerpiece text in several college classes, including the Anisfield-Wolf course at Case Western Reserve University.
Watch his entire talk below on the “race delusion” and share your thoughts:
We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Today we’re recognizing Wole Soyinka, this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner.
The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism. ~Wole Soyinka
A playwright/poet/essayist, Soyinka is one of Nigeria’s most beloved figures. Repeatedly, he has risked his life to protest the corrupt governmental regimes. In 1967, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 22 months for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring Nigerian and Biafran parties warmongering in his homeland. He kept writing during this time, creating ink in his cell and using scraps of paper to collect his poetry.
Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhoodwon an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983. Three years later, he went on to become the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
At 78, he splits his time between the United States, where he teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and his home outside of Lagos in Nigeria. He narrates the introduction of the new documentary, “Fuelling Poverty,” which protests the Nigerian government’s oil subsidy scandal of 2011.
“[Nigeria] is one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world,” he says in the introduction. “This film, made by the younger generation, is about the oil subsidy scheme. It is about a culture of greed and corruption and its effects on the people. But it is also about a people of great resilience, of people who are finding their voice, who care deeply about their country and dare to ask for a better world for themselves.”
Watch the full documentary below (22 minutes):
Soyinka is acutely attuned to global perceptions of Nigeria. He criticized “Welcome to Lagos,” a 2010 three-part documentary made by the BBC, for being colonialist and exploitative. He told the Guardian newspaper, “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is – a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronizing. It was saying, ‘Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation.'”
Soyinka added: “It is a pulsing city – in many ways too pulsing for me, which is why I live a little way out of it. But it is such a rich city, and it is deeply frustrating to see it given such a negative and reductionist overview.”
By Lisa Nielson, Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow
Lisa Nielson is the Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow at Case Western Reserve University. She has a PhD in historical musicology, with a specialization in Women’s Studes, and teaches seminars on the harem, slavery and courtesans.
I was introduced to “Less than Human” last fall when I had the pleasure of hearing David Livingstone Smith speak at the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony and at Case Western Reserve University the next day. His presentation was riveting, and I felt myself vacillating between awe at the breadth of his work and shock at the horror of what humanity has done through dehumanization.
Judging from the taut silence as the awards audience of 800 heard Smith speak, they had a similar reaction. Listeners occasionally gasped as Smith told the story of Ota Benga, a Batwa (“pygmy”) tribesman, who was bought from a slave merchant in what was then called the Congo Free State and put on exhibit at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904.
Eventually, Benga was put on display at the newly opened Bronx Zoo, sharing a cage with an orangutan. Black clergy protested, and, “buckling under the pressure of controversy, zoo authorities released Ota Benga from his cage, and allowed him to wander freely around the zoo, where jeering crowds pursued him,” Smith said.
The story ends with Benga succumbing to madness, and putting a bullet through his own heart.
In reflecting on this anecdote and the book, I was struck by Smith’s observation that for all that has been written about genocide, war, and dehumanization, little scholarship centers on why and how. Why have we not studied this process? Does our discomfort prevent us? Or are we afraid of what we might find?
Using an interdisciplinary approach, Smith not only goes into the philosophical and historical development of modes of dehumanization, but how religion, science and biology have been used to bolster both the practice and justification of demeaning others. By delving into how humans identify and react to difference, he also reflects on the cognitive and emotional processes we use.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence for me was his inclusion of research into human biology, cognitive science and the animal world. His synthesis of the biologic and psychological impulses behind our ability to dehumanize in comparison to similar species, such as chimpanzees, made a great deal of uncomfortable sense. He finds: 1) we are biologically wired to categorize strangers as “other”, 2) because of our propensity to order our world according to our perception of kinds and essences, there is a definable process we adhere to when categorizing who is “us” and “not us,” 3) as a result, we are all capable of extreme violence or cruelty given the right push, and 4) we are unique in the animal kingdom for so doing.
Smith doesn’t stop there. He confronts us with the reality that perpetrators of genocide are not outliers or “monsters” but often just like us. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil,” he points out that we all have the capability to dehumanize, and argues that we must work to recognize and refute these impulses if we are to rise above them. Since these are complex social and psychological constructs, the same ability that allows us to dehumanize can also help us overcome our innate, and arguably submerged, hard-wired reactions to difference.
The evidence Smith uses to craft his theory shows that our propensity to dehumanization comes out of a complex of biology, social pressure, psychology around real and perceived danger, politics, and propaganda. Yet, our ability to reflect and make the better choice offers some hope for change. Such change, however, requires effort. As Smith notes in his conclusion, we have barely tried.
As the first Anisfield-Wolf SAGES Fellow, I have worked to incorporate explorations of race and diversity into my teaching. When I designed a class on world slavery, it allowed me to introduce books that have won the prize. This spring, I added Smith’s book to my reading list, and began the first week of class with his chapter on slavery, “The Rhetoric of Enmity.”
Student reaction has been profound. The students immediately took to his ideas and incorporated them into their essays and final projects. Some have offered insightful critiques and suggestions for expanding on his theory, while others have used his ideas as a basis from which to interrogate past and present constructions of race, class, sexuality and gender.
Though Smith doesn’t focus specifically on slave systems or gender in “Less than Human,” his outline of the process of dehumanization has changed the way I think about and teach slavery. Is slavery inherently a dehumanizing process, through the fact of being owned? Are there slave systems where this is not the case? How can dehumanization be applied to issues of gender and sexuality? And, in considering the continuation of dehumanization tactics today: What more can I do to help my students critically assess the social and cultural messages they receive?
If we accept that we are all prone to certain kinds of essentialist thinking, it is vital that we give students every tool to challenge their own assumptions, and to listen empathetically to others. This type of intellectual discipline takes a lot of effort, and we need people who can and are willing to do the work. My students at Case have that will and ability, and they inspire me to hope.
What a year forEsi Edugyan! After winning multiple awards for her stunning novel Half Blood Blues, she has recently been nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Prize. Nominees are selected by librarians in 120 cities, and the most promising of the authors will move to the short list, announced April 9, 2013. The winner will be announced on June 6, 2013. Along with a prize of about $160,000 (Canadian), the winner will be able to take their place alongside great writers like Edward P. Jones and Michael Thomas.
The 2012 election cycle was filled with a bombardment of political ads, 24-hour news cycles dissecting every possible angle, and an overwhelming sense of hype surrounding who will be our next batch of elected representatives. Some of our winners got in on the action and made a few comments about the election as well.
Junot Diaz, who has been writing consistently about the Latino effect in this year’s election, wrote a special message on his Facebook page. “Obama WINS!” he wrote shortly after the race had been called. “The Latino community came out BIG for Obama. Very proud of my community, very proud of all the new voters, the very proud of all the Obama supporters who put in the time and the hard work to make this happen.”
Never one to shy away from his passions, David Livingstone Smith took the opportunity to remind people of the atrocities happening in East Africa. “While we’re celebrating, they’re dying. How about urging our newly elected officials to take notice?”
Isabel Wilkerson, whose 2010 book, The Warmth of Other Suns, was selected as a top five book pick by President Obama, gave a brief history lessons for her fans on her Facebook page. “‘The right of citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’ Those words, the 15th Amendment, were ratified in 1870. NINETY-FIVE years passed before it was acted upon. Poll taxes, literacy tests and lynchings barred black southerners from voting. It wasn’t until Aug. 6, 1965, when, after decades of protest and violence, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act ‘to enforce the fifteenth amendment to the Constitution,’ that everyone was actually permitted to vote.”
Whoever you supported and whatever your political leanings, we hope you took advantage of your right to vote and made a difference in this election cycle!
For all the words we could pick to describe this election cycle, one word that most of us would agree on would be overwhelming. We’ve seen a record number of campaign contributions, more ads, and more news stories than any other election in recent memory.
One major topic has been the practice of voter suppression, long thought to be a relic of the 1950s. 2012 winner David W. Blight tackled the issue in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, giving us the example of Frederick Douglass’ attempts to vote as a fugitive man—not quite free, not quite a slave:
In 1840, and again in 1841, the former Frederick Bailey, now Frederick Douglass, walked a few blocks from his rented apartment on Ray Street in New Bedford, Mass., to the town hall, where he paid a local tax of $1.50 to register to vote. Born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818, Douglass escaped in an epic journey on trains and ferry boats, first to New York City, and then to the whaling port of New Bedford in 1838.
By the mid-1840s, he had emerged as one of the greatest orators and writers in American history. But legally, Douglass began his public life by committing what today we would consider voter fraud, using an assumed name.
It was a necessary step: when he registered to vote under his new identity, “Douglass,” a name he took from Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 epic poem “Lady of the Lake,” this fugitive slave was effectively an illegal immigrant in Massachusetts. He was still the legal “property” of Thomas Auld, his owner in St. Michaels, Md., and susceptible, under the federal fugitive slave law, to capture and return to slavery at any time.
We know how much of an honor it is to be able to dedicate a night of our lives to the power of books. Not just any books, but the kind of books that make you think, that give you new information to digest, that force you to see the world a bit differently once you finish reading the last sentence.
This year’s ceremony was a must-see, and if you weren’t able to get tickets (they sold out in record time this year), if you weren’t able to watch it as it was broadcast live here at anisfield-wolf.org or at ideastream.org, you are in luck! This year there will be a number of additional chances to watch the broadcast on TV. Check out the dates and times below to see when you might be able to watch the ceremony in full on the Ohio Channel (statewide across Ohio) or on WVIZ/PBS Ohio (digital subchannel).
WVIZ/PBS Ohio can be viewed over the air on channel 25.2, on Time Warner on channel 990, and on Cox channel 201. Other channel locations for other systems available at the Ideastream channel guide.
Sunday, September 23 9:00 a.m. 5:00 p.m.
Monday, September 24 1:00 a.m.
Friday, September 28 2:30 p.m. 10:30 p.m.
Saturday, September 29 6:30 a.m.
Saturday, October 20 12:00 p.m. 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, October 21 4:00 a.m.
We won’t spend too much time on an introduction today; let’s get right to the meaty stuff. Recently, our 2012 winners all had a chance to speak with Dred-Scott Keyes on the Public Radio Exchange to discuss their books and the deeper themes within. Take a listen to David W. Blight and Esi Edugyan in part one, and David Livingstone Smith and Arnold Rampersad in part two:
Some of the world’s greatest historians—David W. Blight, Henry Louis Gates, Taylor Branch, etc.—are also Anisfield-Wolf award winners. They know their subjects backward and forward, being able to recall dates, times, places with astonishing accuracy, clarity and insight. They make it possible for us to get to know some of history’s most important leaders in a way that is completely accessible.
That is what David W. Blight aims to do with his upcoming book, his third focusing on the life of Frederick Douglass, who he claims is the “most important and famous African American leader in the nineteenth century.” Check out the above video to learn more about the man who escaped slavery to become President Abraham.
We are roughly a month away from the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf ceremony and is customary, we are alerting fans to several opportunities to meet our 2012 winners.
Cuyahoga County Public Library, Beachwood Branch (In the Meeting Room) 25501 Shaker Boulevard Beachwood, Ohio 44122-2398 Corner of Richmond & Shaker Boulevard Wednesday, September 12, 2012 7:00 PM – 8:30 PM Registration is recommended. Click here to register.
Baker-Nord Center for the Humanities (Clark Hall Room 309) Wednesday, September 12, 2012 4:30 PM – 5:30 PM This event is free and open to the public. Registration is recommended. Click here to register.
For someone as storied as Arnold Rampersad, sometimes the best words of praise come not from awards jurors or book critics, but from colleagues who have worked side by side with you for years. Shelly Fisher Fiskin, who co-edited Oxford University Press’ Race and American Culture series with Rampersad, wrote that there are few people more deserving of an award than her longtime colleague:
An extraordinarily elegant writer, a meticulous researcher, and a scholar gifted with the ability to focus on what matters most about any subject that he tackles, Arnold Rampersad richly deserves this honor.
His biographies and his literary scholarship have had an enormous impact on our understanding of American culture, illuminating issues of race and racism in America in groundbreaking, crucial ways. He has been a role model for generations of scholars in American Studies, English, and African American Studies. I congratulate the Anisfield-Wolf jury for recognizing his important contributions to the cultural conversation with this award.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Congratulations again to an amazing writer.
Arnold Rampersad, our 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winner, has a special tie to the Cleveland area, where our awards are hosted every year. As one of the nation’s definitive biographers, he has covered noted Cleveland resident Langston Hughes in detail, publishing two volumes of The Life of Langston Hughes, served as editor of Collected Poems of Langston Hughes and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes. We are looking forward to his remarks at the 2012 ceremony in September!
Here’s a few tidbits about our 2012 lifetime achievement winner that you can chew on:
Rampersad is a 2010 National Humanities Medal winner, along with Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates. The committee honored him for his skills as a gifted biographer and literary critic.
He won the 1987 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction, for his work, The Life of Langston Hughes.
He’s been featured at Authors@Google, the web giant’s program that allows for some of the world’s most innovative authors to share their work with a greater audience, video above. We welcome him to the Anisfield-Wolf family and look forward to the ceremony in September!
2012 nonfiction winner David Livingstone Smith, author of Less Than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave and Exterminate Others, will be a on a panel at the G20 Summit in Mexico. He’s featured on a panel about provoking understanding, dealing with transforming communities and exploring new paradigms. In the video above, he explains why humans lie, and why it’s a part of human nature. He tells the audience, “The picture we have now is lying is pervasive…because it’s natural. It comes naturally to us. It’s not something our parents have to teach us.”
Often writers feel that urge to put their thoughts out in the world as young children. 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winner Esi Edugyan felt the bug as a pre-teen after she drafted a piece of poetry that was so good, her mother insisted she must have copied it from a book. From then on, being a writer was an ultimate goal of a young Ms. Edugyan. Check out this short video presentation put together for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize and learn more about her thoughts on the writing process, whether she’ll ever use social media to converse with fans, and how she feels when she completes a first draft.
“This book is the first serious study of the phenomenon of dehumanization,” David Livingstone Smith says in this recent interview on his book, Less Than Human. “No one has really looked into what goes on when human beings think of other groups of human beings as sub-human creatures.”
Check out the full interview to see how dehumanization has contributed to global crises like the Holocaust and global wars. Visit his website at RealHumanNature.com.
We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Today we’re recognizing Esi Edugyan, who won the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award for Half-Blood Blues.
She counts Leo Tolstoy and Alice Munro among her favorite writers of all time: “Tolstoy has given me the most, year after year, without fail. I return to him for his scope, his sense of human destiny, the vastness of his vision. Alice Munro, for the precision of her writing, the sharp corners she can turn between sentences. There are many others – dozens and dozens! – of course.”
If she wasn’t a writer, she’d still be doing something creative: “I honestly don’t know. On those days when you’re having problems and dreaming of greener pastures, you know, you think about it…I thought I’d study law or might do something else artistic – like dance, perhaps. Definitely something creative. As an adult I took a lot of dance classes, but wish I had danced as a child. Or singing. I would love to have trained my voice up.”
Does she believe in writer’s block? “If something isn’t coming, I think the angle from which you’re entering the work is not right, and you just have to change it. I think the business is difficult – getting an audience in all of this, I mean. You finish a book and you’re really excited, and it might not perform the way you (or others) want it to perform, and you wonder why certain books aren’t more celebrated, and why others are, and so many great books seem to slip through the cracks. It can seem quite arbitrary.”
How did she cope when her initial publisher for Half-Blood Blues went bankrupt and her novel was “homeless” for a couple months? She addresses that, as well as her reaction to the book’s popularity, in this video.
Edugyan was a finalist for the Booker Prize, for which she recorded this video of a reading of Half-Blood Blues:
We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2012 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. First up is David W. Blight, 2012 winner for nonfiction, for his work, American Oracle: The Civil War in the Civil Rights Era.
He’s working on a biography of Frederick Douglass to be released in 2013.
He is, as to be expected from his body of work, one of the nation’s most preeminent scholars on the Civil War. (Read his thoughts on whether the war could have been prevented.)
His course at Yale, The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877, is available for free on Yale’s Open Courses website. Check it out here.
His work has been acknowledged by many, as his long list of awards and accolades can prove. He’s won the Frederick Douglass Prize, the Lincoln Prize, the Merli Curti Award, the James A. Rawley Prize, and Bancroft Prize and now, an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
He believes: “The civil war is an event (and will probably always be an event) through which Americans have to somehow define themselves. It’s the event that first tested and destroyed the original American republic…” Catch the rest of his thoughts here:
“The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winners reflect the complexity of the issues of race and cultural diversity in our world,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “These books and the people who created them help us gain a deeper understanding of the need to respect both the humanity and individuality of one other.”
Our 2012 winners are (click on any of the photos to read more on the authors):