2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Almost 18 years ago in The New Yorker, Anisfield-Wolf Jury Chair Henry Louis Gates Jr. profiled the intellectual and novelist Albert L. Murray, concluding, with a flourish, “this is Albert Murray’s century; we just live in it.”

That century ended August 18, 2013, when the Alabama-born man of letters died in New York at age 97. Gates memorialized the man, writing “Murray will be remembered as one of the great aesthetic theorists of American culture, specifically for his concept of the ‘blues aesthetic,’ which he identified as the subtext and deep structure of what, to the last, he thought of as Negro-American culture.”

That hyphen was inviolate to Murray.

In his magnificent 1970 essay collection, The Omni-American, Murray states, “American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto.”

He took a dim view of separatism of all stripes. “Improvisation is the ultimate human (i.e. heroic) endowment” wrote Murray in The Hero and the Blues. In 1997, he came to Cleveland to accept an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.

Murray – friend of Duke Ellington, who called him “the unsquarest man I know,” and confidant of novelist Ralph Ellison since their Tuskegee Institute student days – lived to see a 44th American president embody some of his own notions. The public continues to wrestle with Murray’s ideas today – as indicated by the comment thread on the man’s front-page obituary in the New York Times. Better reading is found in Murray’s books. His novel, “Train Whistle Guitar,” is a felicitous place to start.

On March 21, 2013, another literary titan died at age 82 after a brief illness. Chinua Achebe (pronounced CHIN-you-ah Ah-CHAY-bay) was only 28 in 1958 when William Heinemann Ltd. of London published his first book, a brisk Nigerian novel, Things Fall Apart. Achebe took the title for his anti-colonial masterpiece from a Yeats poem, “The Second Coming,” and—in 209 pages—remade the global literary conversation.

Things Fall Apart is now a classic—with more than 10 million copies sold—and taught around the globe. Philosopher and Anisfield-Wolf winner Kwame Anthony Appiah praised Achebe for his moral intensity, writing: “It would be impossible to say how ‘Things Fall Apart’ influenced African writing. It would be like asking how Shakespeare influenced English writers or Pushkin influenced Russians.”

The novel chronicles how a proud Igbo man named Okonkwo is brought low in late 19th-century Nigeria. It stands at the headwaters of contemporary literature, and, as Appiah noted, “opened up the magic casements of African fiction.”

During my freshman year at Kent State University, I was a little wary when I saw one of the books listed on my syllabus in my English class: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. My tongue stumbled over his name and I sat there trying all the possible pronunciations until I figured it might be best to just ask the professor.

I grabbed the book from the university bookstore and went back to my dorm to read a few chapters. Instead, I finished the whole book that evening.

Set in Nigeria, highlighting the conflict between traditional Igbo culture and colonialism, Things Fall Apart hooked me in a way that few books have since. The story of Okonkwo and his quest to be noble and respected, unlike his father Unoka, deeply resonated with me and millions of other readers. Whenever I would hear the book being discussed, I would interject myself into the conversation (despite my introverted nature) because I simply couldn’t get enough of the story.

It was his most famous work, going on to sell more than 10 million copies around the world. He inspired an entire generation of authors, including our 2007 winner for fiction, Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieIn late 2012, Adichie wrote an essay detailing his influence on her life and work:

I grew up writing imitative stories. Of characters eating food I had never seen and having conversations I had never heard. They might have been good or bad, those stories, but they were emotionally false, they were not mine. Then came a glorious awakening: Chinua Achebe’s fiction. Here were familiar characters who felt true; here was language that captured my two worlds; here was a writer writing not what he felt he should write but what he wanted to write. His work was free of anxiety, wore its own skin effortlessly. It emboldened me, not to find my voice, but to speak in the voice I already had.

I am so deeply sad to hear of his passing, but feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to spend time with his work. There is nothing more I can say but, thank you.

Below is a short video, of CNN’s “African Voices” program from 2009, which profiled Chinua Achebe.