2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Pull up a chair at Case Western Reserve University’s new reading seminar for a hearty discussion of four Anisfield-Wolf award-winning books, covering everything from the modern, urban Native experience to the consequences of political upheaval in Chile.

Organizers invite you to explore four Anisfield-Wolf award winning books:

  • “There There” by Tommy Orange (2019, fiction) — January 23
    Orange, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, launched his literary career with :”There There,” a layered, multi generational journey of 12 Native American characters who converge on a fictional powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. “Markedly, there’s so much joy [from Native communities] in feeling like they’re in a book, in a way that feels like ‘now,’ like it hasn’t been represented enough.” Orange said during a recent stop in Cleveland.
  • “Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation” by Jonathan Kozol (1996, nonfiction) — February 20
    In “Amazing Grace,” Kozol examines the living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx, giving residents in his 300-page treatise space to discuss AIDS, drug addiction, prostitution, crime, dismal education systems, white flight and more.
  • “Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News” by Kevin Young (2018, nonfiction) — March 19
    “Bunk” spans nearly 200 years of fraudulent behavior, from the cruel spectacles of showman P.T. Barnum to modern day racist birther movement. Young, the current director of the Schomburg Center in New York, spent six years researching the book.
  • “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende (2017, fiction) — April 16
    What began as a letter to Allende’s 100-year-old grandfather became “The House of the Spirits,” her debut novel that led to a career tally of more than 67 million copies sold. The story follows four generations of the Trueba family through political upheaval in Chile, Allende’s home.

Colette Ngana, a doctoral student in sociology, said the choice to begin with “There There” was an intentional one.

“I don’t think we highlight indigenous writers often enough,” Ngana said. “[There There] allows us to learn more about the historical perspective. If you didn’t know about the occupation of Alcatraz, for example, the book pushes you to look into indigenous history. What does that mean for our perspectives in resistance movements of the indigenous experience?”

Facilitators will provide historical and political context on the books, while participants are invited to discuss the larger themes these books present.

The reading seminar is open to the community, with organizers hoping for a mixture of students, staff and Cleveland-area residents to attend. “Often we don’t have many opportunities for people in the community to feel integrated into academic life,”  Ngana said. “[This first seminar] will be a test to see who comes. We want everybody to feel welcome.”

The first session will be held Thursday, January 23 from 4 to 5:15 p.m. in the Kelvin Smith Library’s Dampeer Room, 11055 Euclid Avenue. Light refreshments will be served. For more information, contact Lisa Kollins at lbk24@case.edu.

As I approached the ballroom of the Cleveland Convention Center to reach the Open Doors Academy luncheon, I heard a commotion that seemed a bit out of place–more like a pep rally. Students flanked both sides of entrance to the ballroom, arms outstretched, giving enthusiastic high-fives to each guest. “No one asked them to do that,” executive director Annmarie Grassi shared with the audience. “That enthusiasm is all their own.”

More than 500 attendees filled the ballroom to support Open Doors Academy, a 13-year-old enrichment and leadership nonprofit serving some 400 students in Northeast Ohio. These students, buoyed by academic tutoring, volunteer projects and summer camps, boast a 100 percent high school graduation rate and 97 percent of participants pursue post-secondary education.

These are astounding and encouraging numbers when nearly 90% of the students enrolled in programming live below the poverty line. It is a population that writer Jonathon Kozol, keynote speaker for the event, knows well.

With his sleeves rolled up and blue sneakers on his feet, Kozol, 79, looked like a man of action. For the past five decades, Kozol has become known as one of the most respected education writers in America, with 13 books investigating America’s racial and class disparities both inside the classroom and out. He won the Anisfield-Wolf book award for nonfiction in 1996 for Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, a 300-page treatise on living conditions of poor children in the South Bronx.

“Why did I give a book about destitute children that optimistic title?” he shared. “Here’s why: because in the midst of all the desolation in which those children lived, I came upon a little miracle: a beautiful afterschool program in a small Episcopal church called St. Ann’s.” This program, he noted, was not unlike the origins of Open Doors Academy, which got its unofficial start as a drop-in program at a Cleveland Heights church.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1958, Kozol began teaching in the Boston Public Schools, where he was later fired for teaching a Langston Hughes poem. He moved on to another district, before shifting his attention to writing about his pupils, the young men and women living in the poorest, most segregated cities in the country. Cleveland, unfortunately, bears striking resemblance to the South Bronx.

“As central cities start to shine again…it is very easy to lose sight of those we left behind. Fifty-four percent of children in this city live in poverty,” Kozol told the crowd, as a recent U.S. Census Bureau report now puts that number closer to 60 percent.

The gulf between adequately funded schools and its struggling counterparts is getting wider, Kozol said, thanks in part to “pathological” testing standards that are driving out good teachers in schools that need them most. Whereas wealthier parents feel empowered to opt out of testing, lower-income families hesitate to make such a move.

“Critical thinking is flourishing still in top suburban high schools, schools that have plenty of money,” Kozol said. “Well-educated parents in those districts want their kids to grow up with the ability to ask discerning questions, to interrogate reality so that in their adult lives they can take a real role in the workings of democracy and they can help shape the future of our nation. It’s less common in the inner-city schools, especially in the schools that serve the black and brown and very poor. Poverty is not the only issue at stake here.”

Education analysts have projected more than 2 million teachers will hit retiring age in the next decade, which is why Kozol said we need to recruit passionate educators and respect the ones in the trenches every day with our students: “I still think teaching is a wonderful profession and there are so many marvelously creative teachers. I don’t want to lose them.”

1996 winner Jonathan Kozol will be speaking with Tavis Smiley and Dr. Cornel West at the January 17th event, Vision For A New America: A World Without Poverty. In advance of the event, Kozol appeared on the Smiley and West PBS show (link to the full show here) to discuss his new book, Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America and his work to change education policy to create a more even playing field for impoverished children. 

As Dr. West said in his introduction, “There is just nobody like Jonathan Kozol in the culture, going back to 1967 with Death At An Early Age, on through 14 more powerful texts…No one else has been able to keep track of the rich humanity and resiliency of our poor brothers and sisters of all colors.” 

Listen to the full show here.