Set in a fictional New York City public housing project in 1969, “Deacon King Kong” begins with a shooting. But former journalist James McBride’s tragicomic novel is not a whodunit but rather a whydunit.
Written with warmth and tenderness, McBride infuses each of his characters with intricate backstories that humanize and intertwine them — from the old, bumbling church deacon who pulled the trigger, to the feared, but talented, young drug dealer he shot, from Italian mobsters to Irish cops to black church ladies. This is not a story of urban isolation but rather of connected and human cacophony.
As he did in his memoir, “The Color of Water” (which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for non-fiction in 1997), McBride again richly imagines the love, violence, and everything in between that forge a community.
For his multilayered and generative understanding of the multitudes of humanity, James McBride is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
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.
How does one structure a year in reading?
The New York Times published the answers of 47 writers and artists who reflected on the books they chose over the past year. Their responses create a fascinating skein of reading and thinking, and include essays from four Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards recipients. The entire conversation, which weaves from basketball hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to filmmaker Ava DuVernay to former House speaker Newt Gingrich to author Maxine Hong Kingston, is enlivening, a hopeful way to face into a new year.
Maxine Hong Kingston, who won a 1978 Anisfield-Wolf prize for “The Woman Warrior,” came up with the longest and the widest-ranging list. She sampled Charles Darwin and Nora Ephron and Andrew Solomon’s “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas on Depression.” He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize for “Far from the Tree,” another landmark, luminous work of nonfiction.
Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust expended her entire essay praising “March,” the three-book graphic memoir by Congressman John Lewis recounting his formation in the crucible of Civil Rights. These books in turn are based on “Walking with the Wind,” Lewis’ classic accounting of his life, which won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1999.
Another graphic work attracted the praise of Junot Diaz, who kicks off the New York Times compilation recommending “Ghetto Brother,” a history of a multiracial Bronx, drawn and created by Julian Voloy and Claudia Ahlering. Diaz, who won an Anisfield-Wolf for his novel “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” also highlighted another nonfiction title: Wesley Lowery’s “They Can’t Kill Us All.” Diaz writes that “Lowery more or less pulls the sheet off America” in a book subtitled “Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement.”
James McBride, whose 1997 memoir “The Color of Water” is still taught widely in universities, strikes a bluesy note in an essay that divides books “into categories like saxophone players.” He read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and then — to shake off some of its disturbing currents – turned to the manuscript for “Two and Two,” a forthcoming memoir from Rafe Bartholomew. McBride highly recommends this portrait of New York’s oldest saloon.
Samantha Power, who won both a Pulitzer and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “A Problem of Hell,” read books last year that illuminated her work as the United States ambassador to the United Nations: Madeline Albright’s “Madame Secretary” and Clark Clifford’s “Counsel to the President.”
The list from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was flavored by two Anisfield-Wolf winning authors: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson, and “Charcoal Joe,” the latest detective novel from Walter Mosley. The basketball legend also read poetry, specifically “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” by Warsan Shire, a Kenyan-born Somali poet. Meanwhile sublime novelist Colm Toibin read 2013 Anisfield-Wolf honoree “My Promised Land.” Toibin described Ari Shavit’s nonfiction work as giving him “an increased sense of the complexity of Israeli heritage.”
Back in the United States, filmmaker Jill Soloway thought about making a pilot as she read “You Can’t Touch My Hair” by Phoebe Robinson. And Jacqueline Woodson recently held up her copy on PBS’s “News Hour” as a galvanizing book from 2016.
However one navigates a year, it is bettered by the company of a good book. The selections in this compilation are a bracing place to start.
by Gail Arnoff, adjunct professor, John Carroll University
The first time I read The Color of Water, I was deep in the woods of Otter Creek, a lovely wilderness in West Virginia. In my hammock strung between two trees, with the musical creek flowing just below our campsite, I began to read. From the first page I was fascinated by the story of James McBride and his mother, Ruth Jordan McBride. I didn’t climb out of the hammock until hours later, when I’d finished the book. That summer I was planning a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” for Case Western Reserve University and was looking for pertinent memoirs. I knew immediately that The Color of Water would make the reading list.
In the past eight years I have introduced McBride and his mother to more than 135 students. The Color of Water tells the story of Ruth, born an Orthodox Jew, who leaves her family to marry an African American man and is, according to Orthodox Jewish tradition, then considered to be dead. When her husband dies she is pregnant with her eighth child (James). She then marries another African American man and has four more children before he dies. With very little money but an unusual amount of “chutzpah” (nerve), Ruth gets her children into the best schools and sees them all graduate from college. Then Ruth, her maternal job done, earns her own degree in social work. Although McBride writes that his mother had “little time for games, and even less time for identity crises,” my students — most of them in their first year of college — are at a perfect age for questioning who they are. Reading The Color of Water not only provides a forum to discuss race, religion, and identity, but also models a way for them to tell their own stories and those of their family.
While teaching at Ohio State University, McBride wrote a story he felt compelled to tell. I ask my students to write a story in a similar urgent vein about themselves or someone else in their family. One student wrote about a brother’s suicide attempt; for this paper he spoke to his brother for the first time about what had happened, a family secret that was never discussed. Another wrote about her father’s desertion of the family when he returned to Colombia. Other students took a lighter tack, describing humorous family stories. When I first present the assignment, some worry that their story won’t be significant, and certainly not as dramatic as that of McBride’s family. Once I assure them that any story they choose to tell will be significant, I am amazed at the papers they write.
At the end of the semester, many of the students choose The Color of Water as their favorite book. Some years I change of few of the titles in the syllabus, but I have no plans to eliminate this memoir.
In 2014 I began facilitating discussion groups for Books@Work, a program which brings professors and books into various workplaces. For one session I met with mentors and parents from the Intergenerational School. Without knowing much about the participants, I decided to use The Color of Water. In each of four sessions, we discussed a topic illuminated by the Jordan/McBride family, as well as our own. I began by asking each person to tell us where she came from, and I suggested that the group members could interpret that in any way. By the time we had gone around the room we knew that we were women of all ages, of various educations and several religions. And we discovered that we all had stories to share.
We talked about Ruth’s refusal to reveal anything about her background; childrearing; and racial and religious exclusion. In the last session, we discussed the burden of family secrets – in the book as well as in our own families. Most of all we talked about our identity, and the places from which it comes. So many passages in the book triggered discussions, including McBride’s own declaration: “Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul….[When] I look at Holocaust photographs…I think to myself, There but for the grace of God goes my own mother—and by extension, myself.”
The Color of Water is a marvelous text for young people and adults, an evocative opener of discussion. I never tire of teaching this book. Italo Calvino defines a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” On each reading—and there have been many—I find something new in The Color of Water. James McBride offers us lovely writing, as well as a memorable family story which I feel privileged to share with my students.
Gail Arnoff received her B.A. from Western Reserve University and her M.A. from John Carroll University, where she currently teaches in the English Department. She also facilitates a seminar, “Questions of Identity,” in the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University.
Brooklyn, N.Y. — The Brooklyn Book Festival—a celebratory, cerebral, free event that runs one Sunday in September—attracted tens of thousands of readers, and this year, a spike of controversy.
Anisfield-Wolf jurors Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates read from their work, soaking up warm applause, while two recent fiction winners—Junot Diaz and Kamila Shamsie—signed a petition calling on the festival to sever its support from Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
“It is deeply regrettable that the Festival has chosen to accept funding from the Israeli government just weeks after Israel’s bloody 50-day assault on the Gaza Strip, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians – including 500 children – dead,” asserts the petition, distributed by Adalah-NY: The New York Campaign for the Boycott of Israel. “Sustaining a partnership with the Israeli consulate at this time amounts to a tacit endorsement of Israel’s many violations of international law and Palestinian human rights.”
The nub of the criticism centered on a small aspect of the festival: the sponsorship of Israeli writer Assaf Gavron by Israel’s Office of Cultural Affairs. Gavron, whose much-lauded novel, “The Hilltop,” will publish in the United States in October, participated in a panel entitled “A Sense of Place: Writing From Within and Without.”
Diaz, who won both a 2008 Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf award for “The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” stayed away, as did the Pakistani writer Shamsie, who won for the novel “Burnt Shadows” in 2010. But a number of the signatories—New Yorker writers Elif Batuman and Sasha Frere-Jones, author Greg Grandin and essayist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts—also participated as speakers at the festival.
So did two other Anisfield-Wolf winners, Zadie Smith, a Londoner who won in 2006 for her novel “On Beauty” and James McBride, whose best-selling memoir “The Color of Water” earned the prize in 1997 and whose most recent book, “The Good Lord Bird” surprised the bookies by winning a National Book Award last year.
Appearing on the main stage with other poets laureate, Dove praised 19-year-old Ramya Ramana, who recited a moving piece called “A Testimony in Progress.” For her part, Ramana described Dove as one of her essential inspirations.
In a panel titled “Influence of the Real,” Oates spoke of her latest story collection, “Lovely, Dark, Deep,” in which an elderly Robert Frost is visited by a disturbing young woman in the title story. “Each of these stories jolted me awake,” said the critic Alan Cheuse, “like a bark from a monstrous dog.”
Meanwhile, an affable James McBride appeared on a panel with novelist Jeffery Renard Allen, whose dense and beautiful historical novel “Song of the Shank” scored a cover review this summer in the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times Book Review.
“I wanted to do something different,” McBride said of his comic slavery novel. “Many books about race are [dropping his voice to sing] ‘Ohhh, Freedom, Ohhh Freedom.’ I didn’t want to read that book. I wanted to write to the common place. I was thinking about the kid who reads Spider-Man comics.”
Allen, whose “Song of the Shank” has comic elements, said a famous black writer told him that the makers of the film “12 Years a Slave” forgot that black people like to laugh. Allen added that Langston Hughes entitled one of his novels, “Not Without Laughter.”
McBride, who allowed that he’d “had my buns toasted” over his irreverent portrait of Frederick Douglass in “The Good Lord Bird,” said that the sainted abolitionist lived under one roof with his black wife and his white mistress, a set-up that the writer found “too delicious” to pass up.
The festival, now in its ninth year, awarded McBride its BoBi prize for “an author whose body of work exemplifies or speaks to the spirit of Brooklyn.”
Few writers have made the kind of spectacular, multimedia splash onto the literary scene the way James McBride has.
McBride, 56, first attracted attention in 1996, for his memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. It sat atop the New York Times bestsellers list for two years, selling more than two million copies and winning an Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction. His first novel, 2002’s The Miracle of St. Anna, enjoyed a movie adaptation from director Spike Lee, for which McBride adapted the screenplay.
But Song Yet Sung received a quieter reception in 2008. “Only eight people read it, and I have 11 brothers and sisters so that’s saying something,” he quipped at his recent appearance at the Hudson Library & Historical Society in Ohio.
It’s safe to say McBride has rebounded nicely with The Good Lord Bird. A picaresque story built around abolitionist John Brown, the story is told through the eyes of runaway slave Henry Shackleford, a boy passing as a girl. It won the 2013 National Book Award in November; McBride was so surprised he carried his dinner napkin up to the lectern, where he had to improvise an acceptance speech.
“In jazz, lots of people play the same songs,” McBride told the Daily Beast. “But it’s the way you play it is what distinguishes you from the next man or woman who plays it.”
Indeed, music informs McBride’s writing, and vice versa. An accomplished tenor saxophonist, McBride has traveled with jazz legend Jimmy Scott and composed songs for Anita Baker. For his last two books, McBride has married the literary with the musical on tour with what is now the Good Lord Bird band. The quintet performed funky, jazz-infused renditions of enduring gospel hymns, often packing auditoriums and driving audience members to their feet. Others sway in their seats.
Watch this clip of the band’s performance at the New York Public Library.
McBride, who earned a conservatory degree at Oberlin College in 1979, noted the connection he felt with John Brown, who worked for a time at Oberlin, and whose father was a trustee.
“History depends on who’s telling it — and why,” he said. The novel “seemed a way to thrust Brown into the reality of now.”
Wither the best book list? Inherently inane and crazy-making, these are also undeniably good conversation starters.
Of course, it is strange to see “Kitchen Confidential” make the cut, and the bizarre assertion that “Portnoy’s Complaint” is Philip “Roth at his finest.” The Amazon list tilts toward best-sellers, rather than an author’s best work.
Working another vein is the redouble Cosmopolitan Magazine, which has offered its list of the 10 best books to read after a breakup. Junot Diaz makes this list, too, this time for “This is How You Lose Her,” his sexy, harrowing short story collection. Surprisingly, he is joined by Adrian Nicole LeBlancfor her gold-standard of domestic reporting, “Random Family.” Cosmo editors give the somewhat spurious reason that the book is an absorbing distraction. May we add: and much more.
It’s almost hard to believe 1997 Anisfield-Wolf winner James McBride when he talks about his failures. His 2002 novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was turned into a movie Spike Lee a few years later and his debut, The Color of Water, was on the New York Times bestseller’s list for two years. But in this deeply personal and highly observant video, McBride shows us the true honesty that keeps readers coming back again and again.