2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) riders can now enjoy an even closer view of world-class art inspired by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards cannon as Phase II of INTER|URBAN was unveiled as part of Cleveland Book Week 2018.

Completed ahead of the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, the first phase of INTER|URBAN included murals, photographs and installations along the train tracks of the RTA’s Red Line, which connects downtown Cleveland with Hopkins International Airport to the west, and University Circle to the east.

This second phase of the project brings the art onboard the train cars, giving riders a more intimate and prolonged interaction with the art. We’re proud to have supported INTER|URBAN, a collaboration between the RTALAND Studio, and the Cleveland Foundation.

For Phase II, 25 artists – most of whom call Northeast Ohio home – were chosen from more than 200 applicants to create works inspired by five Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners: The Negro Speaks of Rivers, by Langston HughesThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel WilkersonThe Fortunes, by Peter Ho DaviesFar From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon and The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, by Lillian Faderman. Their art has been installed on 25 Red Line train cars.

If you haven’t already, we encourage you to ride the Red Line and experience INTER|URBAN for yourself. Learn more about the project in this short film, which premiered to the audience at the 83rd Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Ceremony on September 27:

Riders heading to downtown Cleveland on the RTA’s Red Line may have noticed quite a few more pops of color adorning the city landscape over the past two weeks. The colors have a story, and each story comes from a work or writer in the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award canon.

Inter|Urban, the collaboration among the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation, North East Ohio Area Coordinating Agency, RTA and LAND studio, has filled the 19-mile stretch from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and into downtown Cleveland with bright, vibrant murals. Coming up in time for the Republican National Convention in July will be two photo installations. All the art is inspired by Anisfield-Wolf texts and writers.

Seventeen artists from around the world converged on Cleveland in June for a public art blitz, creating an outdoor gallery and anchoring installations at the airport and Terminal Tower. Eight artists are based in Cleveland, with the others representing South Africa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, and Florida.

“This marvelous project moves the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards out into the city, showcased through original art spaced along the everyday paths of thousands of commuters,” said Karen R. Long, who manages the prize. “We expect the murals and the photography to start important conversations and serve as gateways to the books themselves, and the galvanizing ideas they contain.” 

View the artworks below and hear from the artists in their own words how each piece came to be. Photos, unless otherwise specified, taken by Brandon Shigeta:

ARTIST: Aaron De La Cruz INSPIRATION: “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” a poem from Dolores Kendrick’s The Women of Plums, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1990, and consist of poems in the voices of slave women:
ARTIST: Aaron De La Cruz
INSPIRATION: “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” a poem from Dolores Kendrick’s The Women of Plums, which won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1990, and consist of poems in the voices of slave women. LOCATION: Lorain Avenue underpass

San Francisco muralist Aaron De La Cruz drew inspiration from a selection of Dolores Kendrick’s “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” about an enslaved woman sneaking off to read. The passage evoked a memory of his parents speaking in Spanish to keep their conversations a mystery to the young De La Cruz and his brother. Drawing off the theme of literacy, his mural features deconstructed letters and punctuation marks. 


 

ARTIST: Alan Giberson  INSPIRATION: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, a 1966 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner  LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street
ARTIST: Alan Giberson
INSPIRATION: The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley, a 1966 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner
LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Cleveland artist Alan Giberson’s mural came from a brief scene in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when a New York Times reporter meets the civil rights leader for the first time. “Noblesse Oblige” is a French phrase referring the responsibility of those with privilege to extend generosity to those less fortunate.  The artist, who specializes in hand-painted signage and gold-leaf lettering, was eager to tackle this project. “This was a big challenge, being the largest thing I’ve ever painted.” 


 

ARTIST: Amber Esner INSPIRATION: The End by Elizabeth Alexander from American Sublime. The poet won for Lifetime Achievement in 2010. LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Amber Esner
INSPIRATION: The End by Elizabeth Alexander from American Sublime. The poet won for Lifetime Achievement in 2010.
LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

Amber Esner, a Cleveland illustrator, was struck by Alexander’s ode to the dissolution of a relationship, as she lists the items left behind after a breakup. “My concept is based around the process of how people deal with loss by letting go of — or holding on to — specific objects,” she writes. 


 

margaret kimball mural
ARTIST: Margaret Kimball INSPIRATION: Martha Collins, White Pages The poet won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2007 for Blue Front. LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Cleveland illustrator and writer Margaret Kimball drew upon Martha CollinsWhite Pages, a collection of untitled poems that explore white privilege and the ongoing racial divide in America. Kimball latched on to the repetition of the phrase “Yes, but” within the poem and used a minimalist color scheme to make one word prominent—YES. “The word is inclusive and strong and in this case has no strings attached, nothing to interrupt it,” Kimball writes.


 

louise chen
ARTIST: Louise “Ouizi” Chen INSPIRATION: “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1993 for her story collection that contains “Eleven.” LOCATION: Overpass Pillars, beneath I-480 & I-71. Photo by Louise “Ouizi” Chen

If you happen to be in the passenger seat as you’re driving to and from Cleveland Hopkins airport, take a look around to see if you can spot these 35-foot tall overpass pillars, designed by Detroit artist Louise Chen. “The totem pillars are a celebration of the way cultures represent themselves in the language of ornament, with design inspired by many different cultures spanning the world,” she writes. 


 

nosego
ARTIST: Nosego INSPIRATION: A. Van Jordan’s “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics” from his 2007 collection, Quantum Lyrics He won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 2005 for his collection M*A*C*N*O*L*I*A. LOCATION: Temple Façade, east of Tower City Station

The Philadelphia-based artist describes this piece, titled “Unmask,” as “a visual metaphor about self-awareness, self-reflection and perception.”


 

ARTIST: Osman Muhammad INSPIRATION: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2011) by David Eltis and David Richardson & A Holocaust Called Hiroshima by Ronald Takaki, who won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1994  LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Osman Muhammad
INSPIRATION: Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade (2011) by David Eltis and David Richardson & A Holocaust Called Hiroshima by Ronald Takaki, who won an Anisfield-Wolf award in 1994
LOCATION: East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

Cleveland artist Osmad Muhammad used his mural to make a statement about national and global atrocities. The burning woman in foreground is a reference to Hiroshima and the burning ships depict the slave trade throughout the Americas.


 

ARTIST: Ryan Jaenke  INSPIRATION: Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes  LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street
ARTIST: Ryan Jaenke
INSPIRATION: Montage of a Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes
LOCATION: W.25th and Columbus Street

Published in 1951, Langston HughesMontage of a Dream Deferred reads like a jazz record, full of conflicting rhythms and short bursts of animation. Cleveland artist Ryan Jaenke took Hughes’ melody and translated it to this mural on Cleveland’s west side.  Hughes won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1954.


 

ARTIST: Jasper Wong  INSPIRATION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008  LOCATION: Old Abutment West, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Jasper Wong
INSPIRATION: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2008
LOCATION: Old Abutment West, east of Tower City Station

Jasper Wong, Hawaiian artist and co-curator of the Interurban project, explored the themes of luck that featured prominently in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He peppered his mural with black cats and broken down cars (symbols of bad luck) and rabbits (symbols of good luck).


 

ARTIST: Ellen Rutt INSPIRATION: “The Danger of a Single Story” -- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's 2009 TED talk She won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007.
ARTIST: Ellen Rutt
INSPIRATION: “The Danger of a Single Story” — Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED talk She won an
Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for her novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” in 2007. LOCATION: Underpass pillars on I-90W

Detroit artist Ellen Rutt used bold geometric patterns to transform these underpass pillars. Her “Patchwork Cleveland” mural was inspired by Adichie’s call to avoid “making generalizations about culture based on a singular experience or limited knowledge.” When Rutt moved to Detroit in 2011, she quickly realized the broader narrative about the Rust Belt city was flawed. “It was in Detroit, surrounded by amazing street art, that my interest in murals grew from awe­filled admiration, to an unstoppable desire and ultimately, an incredibly important part of my art practice,” she writes.  


 

ARTIST: Darius Steward INSPIRATION: The Rain by John Edgar Wideman, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011 LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Darius Steward
INSPIRATION: The Rain by John Edgar Wideman, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011
LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station

A Cleveland native, Darius Steward is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. His mural features yellow as a primary color, the prominent color from John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “The Rain.”


ARTIST: Faith47  INSPIRATION: Language as a boundary by Wole Soyinka.   He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983  for his memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood, and again for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.  LOCATION: Old Abutment East
ARTIST: Faith47
INSPIRATION: Language as a boundary by Wole Soyinka. He won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983 for his memoir Ake: The Years of Childhood, and again for Lifetime Achievement in 2013.
LOCATION: Old Abutment East

South African artist Faith47 brought her international murals to Cleveland as part of her Psychic Power of Animals series, which attempts to “bring the energy of nature back into the urban metropolis.”

“There’s an inherent irony in recreating nature on cement, so the series is a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost but also an attempt to reintegrate that into the present,” Faith47 writes on her website. “We have become so distanced from nature, so these murals are an attempt to reconnect us with the natural world.”


 

ARTIST: Brendan Monroe INSPIRATION: The Boat by Nam Le   This short story collection won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2009. LOCATION: Mirrored wall
ARTIST: Brendan Monroe
INSPIRATION: The Boat by Nam Le This short story collection won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2009.
LOCATION: Mirrored wall

San Francisco artist Brendan Monroe took cues from the dangerous sea voyage in Nam Le’s The Boat as he created this expansive mural.  Look closely and you can see a child overboard.


 

ARTIST: Katy Kosman INSPIRATION: The short story "5 Dollar Bill" from Dorothy West's collection The Richer the Poorer. West won our lifetime achievement award in 1996. LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station
ARTIST: Katy Kosman
INSPIRATION: The short story “5 Dollar Bill” from Dorothy West’s collection The Richer the Poorer. West won our lifetime achievement award in 1996.
LOCATION: New East 9th Street Wall, east of Tower City Station. Photo by Amber Esner

“My father and I had a complicated relationship like the one in the story,” Kosman wrote, “and he died when I was fairly young, but he taught me most of the lessons I use now in my everyday life.”


pat perry by brandon shigeta
ARTIST: Pat Perry INSPIRATION: Edith Anisfield-Wolf, founder of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

 

If Edith Anisfield Wolf were alive today,” Detroit artist Pat Perry wrote, “I think she’d be encouraging us all to take direct aim at the great moral and social crises of our time. I can earnestly say that I think she’d be proud to see folks employing ideals taught to us by the past, in order to tackle issues of the present.”

National Poetry Month, celebrated every April for the past 20 years, became a little less abstract for Cleveland students this spring. This year the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards embedded local graduate students in two Cleveland-area elementary schools and a community center for an eight-week poetry residency.

Ryan Lind, Ali McClain, Karly Milvet, and Amanda Stovicek — all students in the NEOMFA creative writing consortium — drew inspiration from the Anisfield-Wolf canon in crafting their lessons, sampling Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes, as well as recent winners Adrian Matejka and Jericho Brown.

Stovicek taught fourth and fifth-graders at Urban Community School, her second experience in the classroom with younger students. “One student wrote, ‘Sometimes it feels like the last bee in the hive and the last one to get honey.’ What a startling wonderful poetic connection. The voices of these children are just waiting to be heard.”

McClain, an MFA student and director of the Sisterhood program at West Side Community House, used the residency to help her students discuss race, gender, violence and trauma through a poet’s lens. “The Sisterhood girls responded to poetry the same way most students respond to something new — with hesitancy and curiosity,” McClain recalled. “But by the time our second session took place the girls were approaching me with poems they wrote on their own time. I wasn’t shocked because I know that this is what poetry does — it pulls people in.”

A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam.
A Greenview Upper Elementary school student recites his poem at the April poetry slam as his student-teacher Karly Milvet looks on.

Lind and Milvet used Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” and George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” to engage their Greenview Upper Elementary students in a lesson on identity and origin. “One of my favorite lessons,” Milvet said, “and the students’ too, was Langston Hughes ‘Hey!’ and ‘Hey! Hey!’ because they got to explore repetition and rhythm and colloquialism. Overall, I think we succeeded in making poetry accessible and fun.”

Lind agreed: “I love the calm moment that follows our group activities when individuals start grinding out their own work, raising their hands with pride with each interesting word or phrase.”

To cap the enriching experience, students at all three locations were invited to perform in a poetry slam at Urban Community School on Cleveland’s west side.

One by one students filed onto the stage to recite their poetry. Students from Greenview Upper Elementary wore sunglasses as they shared their work, and fourth-graders from Urban Community donned their “Word Nerd” shirts from Kent State’s Wick Poetry Center.

Several students recited their remixed version of “Won’t You Celebrate With Me” into their own odes of lip balm, basketball championships, and school awards. In his version, Brandon Johnson, of Greenview, mused about winning a character award: “When I get it/It will be because of my hard work/So let me get started/today.”

“Sometimes my heart feels like a baseball thrown into the air/Sometimes my heart is hoping for a scarf against the cold,” Lily Tidrick of Urban Community School wrote in “My Heart.”

“It snows ten times a day/And you make it feel like 100 degrees,” Shantrel Anthony, a student from the West Side Community House, wrote in her poem, “Miracle.

Awards manager Karen R. Long envisioned the partnership as a potent artistic brew. “What better way to pass 80 years of the Anisfield-Wolf tradition to two generations simultaneously?” Long said. “Our marvelous MFA graduate students amplified their commitment to literature all spring by introducing grade school children to poetry via their own voices.”

The parents in the audience were moved by the hard work of their children. “Wick Poetry Center assistant director Nicole Robinson overheard one parent exclaim about their child: ‘I had no idea he could write!'” Long said. “That is a magical discovery.”

Listen to three of the students as they recite their poetry. 

Brandon Johnson, “Won’t You Celebrate With Me”

Lily Tidrick, “My Heart”

Beyonce Smith, “Characterize”

Almost a year before Matt de la Pena won the latest Newbery Medal—the highest honor in children’s literature—he told National Public Radio that his picture book about a young boy riding a bus with his grandmother wasn’t a story about diversity.

“That’s very important to me,” de la Pena told NPR. “I don’t think every book has to be about the Underground Railroad for it to be an African-American title.”

This observation from the author of “Last Stop on Market Street” drew an emphatic Amen from Professor Michelle H. Martin, the Augusta Baker Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina.

“I find it encouraging that this award winner tells a quiet story about an African American boy’s day in the city with his Nana that isn’t about 1) slavery, 2) the fight for civil rights or 3) famous black Americans, because if you strip those children’s and YA books out of the American literary record, you have a paltry list left,” Martin told a gathering in Cleveland. “We need more books like ‘Last Stop on Market Street,’ ‘One Word from Sophia’ and even Ezra Jack Keats’ 1965 ‘The Snowy Day’ that are about the dailiness of being a child of color in America.”

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes signing autographs for a group of children during Negro History Week in 1947 (Credit: Yale Collection of American Literature)

Martin delivered a pointed and eloquent case at the Schubert Center for Child Studies of Case Western Reserve University. She titled her remarks, “Brown Gold: African American Children’s Literature as a Genre of Resistance.”

Turns out that Toni Morrison, Gwendolyn Brooks and Langston Hughes—all Anisfield-Wolf winners—also wrote children’s books.  So did Alice Walker, bell hooks, W.E.B. DuBois, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and James Baldwin, according to the research of Cara Byrne, newly awarded a doctorate in English from Case Western Reserve.

Martin focused her remarks on the groundbreaking children’s books of Langston Hughes and his collaborator Arna Bontemps. They published “Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti” in 1932.  This book, she noted, “combats the prevailing notion that black Americans and those in the African Diaspora spoke broken English reminiscent of slavery, that they were shiftless and lazy and that their broken families left their children to their own devices”—all tropes that still bedevil the white imagination.

10 little colored boys
Cover of Ten Little Niggers. New York: McLoughlin Brothers, 1894. (Credit: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)

Before Martin began her talk, she played a tinny recording—featuring a woman’s soprano and then a man’s tenor—merrily singing “Ten Little Nigger Boys,” a nursery rhyme tittering about the annihilation of black children. It was enormously popular among whites until the mid-20th-century, showing up in stage plays, minstrel shows and on Ebay today. It stands with “A Coon Alphabet” and other children’s books so violently racist that their covers and content drew gasps from Martin’s audience.

Watching and listening seemed like a corollary to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ now famous observation in “Between the World and Me,” addressed to his son: “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”

For Martin, “African-American children’s literature has always been a genre of resistance.” She cited “Clarence and Corrine” and “The Brownies’ Book Magazine” as vital counter-stories that “resist by telling from the inside and inviting readers to understand, not mock.”

But while the quality of literature produced by African Americans and other writers of color is often “tremendous,” Martin said, “the quantity is still shamefully low.” She offered numbers to illustrate this state of affairs:

Nearly 40 percent of American children are non-white and almost half under the age of five are children of color. But among the 3,500 titles sent to the Cooperative Center for Children’s Books in 2013, less than three percent were about black people and less than two percent were written by black authors.

Martin presented three tools to combat the status quo:

  1. Buy books by and about people of color
  2. Raise readers
  3. Openly challenge summer reading lists and book stores and libraries to feature stories that are, in the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, mirrors, not merely windows.

“I have a 12-year-old who reads on a 12th grade level, who ‘eats’ books on her own, but her dad and/or I read to her every night,” the professor said. “It’s the best way to improve her ‘ear reading’ and to expose her to books and genres she isn’t yet willing to venture into on her own.”

A recent study by the Packard and MacArthur Foundations found that the average middle class child enjoys 1,000-1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading, compared to a low-income child’s total of 25 hours.

Deborah McHamm, president of A Cultural Exchange, stressed that not all books containing a brown face are worthwhile, and that reading is a political act. “Let’s remember,” she said, “that it used to be against the law for black and brown children to read.”

John Newbery, a printer who is said to have invented children’s literature in 1774, took as his motto the Latin “delectando monemus” or “instruction with delight.” Martin suggested that the phrase is still pertinent in crafting books that benefit all children, as de la Pena accomplished in his Newbery book.

It also requires mindfulness to do so.

When Jericho Brown won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, he spoke of his awe of Langston Hughes, calling his discovery of Hughes’ poems in a Louisiana public library the equivalent of falling in love.

He also reminded the audience at Playhouse Square that Hughes was still a teenager, newly graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920, when he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. “Every time I think of an 18-year-old writing a poem that great,” Brown deadpanned, “I really hate Langston Hughes.”

Now Brown has returned to this “first poet” in his pantheon, publishing an evocative, moving post “To Be Asked for A Kiss” on the Poetry Foundation web site.

Suicide’s Note
          by Langston Hughes

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss

Brown ponders Hughes’ 14 words, written sometime before he was 24; the poet’s lifelong preoccupation with rivers and the meanings of suicide – as both noun and verb – in the single tercet, and in Brown’s own life, and the lives of young, gay black men.

In introducing Brown to Cleveland in September, Dr. Henry Louis Gates praised the Emory University professor, saying that the jury singled him out “for his penetrating and elegant portrayal of the complexity of human identity in a digital, multicultural universe, generally, and more specifically, the complexity of black identity, encompassing the multiple and competing claims and denials of African American masculinity and personhood.”

Brown’s most recent essay makes the case for Langston Hughes’ poetry as a wellspring of that masculinity and personhood. He makes the case – with a poem called Suicide’s Note – for Hughes’ immortality.

Cleveland In Print

 

Come learn more about the Cleveland that helped shape Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Harvey Pekar. Teaching Cleveland has teamed up with Literary Cleveland and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards to present “Cleveland in Print: The History and Literature of Northeast Ohio” on Thursday, January 28.

The story of Cleveland in the 20th Century is one of immigrants and migrants, racial tensions, and economic stratification. Join us as we examine three works by these three Northeast Ohio writers and explore the interplay between person, place and perspective; bring a notebook or a laptop and explore your own connections as well.

A light dinner will be served, and participants will receive a book, compliments of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards.

“Here is a unique opportunity to reflect on transcendent American literature tied to the 216,” said Karen R. Long, manager of the book awards. “I have enormous respect for the work of Greg Deegan and Arin Miller-Tait as innovative educators and founders of Teaching Cleveland, and Lee Chilcote for his initiative in bringing Literary Cleveland onto the scene. This night should be worth everyone’s time.”

Register for this event here. We’ll see you on the 28th.

“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me—no fear,” Nina Simone wistfully told an interviewer in 1968. “If I could have that half of my life…”

This search for freedom haunts each beat of “What Happened, Miss Simone,” the new Netflix-commissioned documentary on the award-winning singer, pianist and activist. The film, book-ended by Simone singing her classic “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” traces her journey from a piano prodigy in small town North Carolina to an international force of blues and soul.

“What Happened, Miss Simone” reaches viewers months before the highly controversial “Nina” biopic—in which Afro-Latina actress Zoe Saldana dons facial prosthetics to more closely resemble Simone. Simone’s only child, Broadway actress Lisa Simone Kelly, prefers the documentary: “[This film] reboots everything to what it’s supposed to be in terms of mom’s journey and mom’s life the way she deserves and the way she wants to be remembered in her own voice on her own terms.”

Born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the young girl’s early aptitude for music inspired a rare communal pride in her segregated town: both black and white residents contributed to a fund to send her to the Juilliard School in New York. When she applied to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the admissions office turned her down. “It  took me six months to realize it was because I was black,” Simone said. (The institute would later award her an honorary degree two days before her death in 2003.)

Fresh out of money, the 19-year-old took the first job she could find—playing piano in an Atlantic City bar: “The owner came in the second night and told me if I wanted to keep the job, I had to sing. Ninety dollars was more money than I ever heard of in my life, so I sang.”
She changed her name to Nina Simone to avoid having her preacher mother discover she was playing secular music for a living. Yet it was the classical training that made her stand out. Soon she found herself performing at jazz festivals, drawing attention with her booming vocals.

“What I was interested in was conveying an emotional message, which means using everything you’ve got inside you, sometimes to barely make a note, or if you have to strain to sing, you sing,” she explained. “So sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream.”

Her then-husband Andrew Stroud quit his job as a New York City police sergeant to oversee her career. Mutual friends described him as a man who could spook you with one word; their love affair quickly turned violent.

“Andrew protected me against everybody but himself,” she spat in one interview. “He wrapped himself around me like a snake.”

While Simone aspired to commercial success, the relentless pressure of being the breadwinner for an entire entourage— at one point she counted 19 people on her payroll—exhausted her: “Inside I’m screaming, ‘Someone help me’ but the sound isn’t audible – like screaming without a voice,” she wrote in her journal. “Nobody’s going to understand or care that I’m too tired. I’m very aware of that,” she later said.

Stroud recounted a story of Simone having a mental breakdown before a performance. “She had a can of shoe polish. She was putting it in her hair. She began talking gibberish and she was totally out of it, incoherent.” No one took her to get help; instead, Stroud took her arm and escorted her to the piano on stage. The show must go on.

Kelly, who also produced the film, uses her screen time to “explain” her mother, to smooth some of the controversial aspects of the entertainer’s life. For the most part, she is successful: “She was happiest doing music. I think that was her salvation. It was the one thing she didn’t have to think about.”

As her marriage imploded, Simone entered the burgeoning civil rights movement, flourishing in the company of contemporaries like James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes. “I could let myself be heard about what I’d been feeling all the time.” The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four little girls enraged her. She wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” which soon became her best-known song and an anthem of the movement.

As Simone’s priorities shifted to what she called “civil rights music,” promoters shifted away and her career stalled. After stints in Barbados and Liberia, she settled in Europe to mount a comeback. Friends took in her disheveled appearance and odd behavior and took her to the doctor, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disease many suspected she struggled with most of her life.

It’s never quite clear how close Simone would have considered some of the individuals tapped to interview; director Liz Gruber’s decision to gloss over their connection weakens the film. But the inclusion of Simone’s journal entries—she talks about contemplating suicide, of taking pills simply to function—gives an unvarnished insight into a woman of genius whose complexity makes her difficult to sum up, or pin down.

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 been honored 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.

The wood-frame Cleveland house where Langston Hughes once scribbled teenaged insights is back from the brink. Four years ago its back door flapped open and its copper fixtures had been pilfered by thieves, leaving ugly holes in the walls.

Today, it is renovated, and ready for its new owner, an aspiring writer from Lyndhurst. Perhaps the 3-bedroom home’s proximity to long-ago greatness will bring him luck. Langston Hughes was just 15 in 1917 when he rented the attic room on E. 86th St. His mother and stepfather had moved away, and Langston was doing well at Cleveland’s prestigious Central High School. He had started to write poems.

“The only thing I knew how to cook myself in the kitchen of the house where I roomed was rice, which I boiled to a paste. Rice and hot dogs, rice and hot dogs, every night for dinner. Then I read myself to sleep,” he wrote in his autobiography, The Big Sea. 

Young Langston was a star on Central’s track team, and in its literary magazine, “The Monthly,” where his first short stories appeared. Ethel Weimer, his much-respected English teacher, encouraged him to read Walt Whitman, Carl Sandberg, Edgar Lee Masters, Amy Lowell, and Vachel Lindsay.

He went on to attend Columbia University (for a year), travel the world and play a central role in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes returned briefly to Cleveland in the 1930s when the Karamu House produced six of his plays. In 1954, he won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for his novel, Simple Takes a Wife.

But even as Hughes became enshrined in the 20th Century American pantheon, the colonial on E. 86th St. declined. In 2009, a neighborhood improvement group bought the decrepit property for $100 from the city of Cleveland, only to discover that the celebrated poet of the Harlem Renaissance had been a boy there.

Debra Wilson, real estate manager for Fairfax Development Corp., said her small nonprofit was ill-prepared to find the cash that rescuing a historic landmark would require. Nevertheless, her group managed the renovation and to sell it in October for $85,000. (See listing here.)

“We put about $174,000 into it, but we’re not complaining. We’re very proud,” Wilson said. “We’re doing a Langston Hughes reading garden next to it on land the Cuyahoga County Land Bank donated.”

Occasional news stories have meant “we get phone calls about it from around the world,” she said.

Studying the poetry Langston Hughes wrote during his adolescent in Cleveland, the scholar Arnold Rampersad observed that it is ”dominated by images of childhood. He was a star high school athlete, the best high jumper in Ohio, and again and again he depicted himself as a child in his poetry, showing an extraordinary quality of innocence” in a complex man.

In 2012, biographer Rampersad returned to Cleveland to be honored with an Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement award.

Huffington Post’s Black Voices rounded up 50 books the editors think every African American should read (they added on Twitter that of course the list has value to everyone, but these books focus primarily on the black experience in America). We were thrilled to see how many Anisfield-Wolf winners were on the list, proving to us once again that our winners stand out in the crowded literary field. 

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

“Annie Allen” (1949)

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

“Breath, Eyes, Memory” (1999)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Adichie

“Half Of A Yellow Sun” (2008)

Ralph Ellison

Ralph Ellison

“Invisible Man” (1952)

Edward P. Jones

Edward P. Jones

“The Known World” (2003) 

Malcom X

Alex Haley

“The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1987)

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

“Song of Solomon” (1977), “Sula” (1973) and “The Bluest Eye” (1970)

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

“The Weary Blues” (1925)

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)

Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith

“White Teeth” (2000) 

Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson

“The Warmth of Other Suns” (2010)

Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley

“Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990) 

Ernest J. Gaines

Ernest J. Gaines

“A Lesson Before Dying” (1993)

No, it’s not a “best books of all-time” list, but the list assembled by the Library of Congress, to celebrate the works that most define our nation’s history, is pretty close. There’s some stand-outs, like Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. But the list particularly caught our eye because there are several Anisfield-Wolf winners on the list—and we’re thrilled. Check out who made the cut. Descriptions are pulled from the Library of Congress website: 

Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues” (1925)

Langston Hughes was one of the greatest poets of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 1930s. His poem “The Weary Blues,” also the title of this poetry collection, won first prize in a contest held by Opportunity magazine. After the awards ceremony, the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten approached Hughes about putting together a book of verse and got him a contract with his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf. Van Vechten contributed an essay, “Introducing Langston Hughes,” to the volume. The book laid the foundation for Hughes’s literary career, and several poems remain popular with his admirers.

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937)

Although it was published in 1937, it was not until the 1970s that “Their Eyes Were Watching God” became regarded as a masterwork. It had initially been rejected by African American critics as facile and simplistic, in part because its characters spoke in dialect. Alice Walker’s 1975 Ms. magazine essay, “Looking for Zora,” led to a critical reevaluation of the book, which is now considered to have paved the way for younger black writers such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “A Street in Bronzeville” (1945)

“A Street in Bronzeville” was Brooks’s first book of poetry. It details, in stark terms, the oppression of blacks in a Chicago neighborhood. Critics hailed the book, and in 1950 Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. She was also appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate by the Librarian of Congress in 1985.

Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man” (1952)

Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is told by an unnamed narrator who views himself as someone many in society do not see, much less pay attention to. Ellison addresses what it means to be an African-American in a world hostile to the rights of a minority, on the cusp of the emerging civil rights movement that was to change society irrevocably.

Malcolm X and Alex Haley, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (1965)

When “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” (born Malcolm Little) was published, The New York Times called it a “brilliant, painful, important book,” and it has become a classic American autobiography. Written in collaboration with Alex Haley (author of “Roots”), the book expressed for many African-Americans what the mainstream civil rights movement did not: their anger and frustration with the intractability of racial injustice.

Toni Morrison, “Beloved” (1987)

Toni Morrison won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her post-Civil War novel based on the true story of an escaped slave and the tragic consequences when a posse comes to reclaim her. The author won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, and in 2006 The New York Times named “Beloved” “the best work of American fiction of the past 25 years.”

Check out the full list here. 

Langston Hughes would have turned 100 this year and in a fitting tribute to his life and literary contributions, the Library of Congress selected two poets—Dolores Kendrick and Evie Shockley—to read selections of his work and discuss Hughes’ influence on their own writing. Take a look. 

We’re continuing our look back at Langston Hughes this week by featuring some audio of his work. Listening to his works (particularly the second and third, which Hughes reads himself) evokes different reactions than reading them – take a listen and let us know which one is your favorite in the comments below. 

“The Dream Keeper + Dreams”

“A Negro Speaks Of Rivers” (Here Langston Hughes reads his own work)

“I, Too” (Here Langston Hughes reads his own work)

Each week, we’ll be helping you to get to know our winners better (what a great bunch they are) and highlighting the best of their work, interviews and essays. This week we’re highlighting Langston Hughes, 1954 winner for fiction. 

This mini-bio of Langston Hughes talks about his prolific writing career and how he was one of the first African American writers to support himself solely through his work.

‎Because it is more appealing to hear from the authors themselves, we’ve rounded up some of the best quotes we’ve heard this year (even if they’re a bit older) from some of our distinguished Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Enjoy!

Ernest J. Gaines

“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”

— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying

Toni Morrison

‎”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”

— Toni Morrison

Nam Le

‎”Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth.”

— Nam Le

Elizabeth Alexander

‎”Poetry is what you find / in the dirt in the corner, / overhear on the bus, God / in the details, the only way / to get from here to there.”

— Elizabeth Alexander, Ars Poetica #100: I Believe

Nicole Krauss

“One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all.”

— Nicole Krauss

Langston Hughes

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”

— Langston Hughes

2005 Anisfield-Wolf Award winner Edwidge Danticat gets emotional after receiving the Langston Hughes medal at the 2011 Langston Hughes Festival, celebrating writers from the African diaspora. Past winners of the Langston Hughes medal include Paule Marshall, Toni Morrison, Ralph W. Ellison, August Wilson, and Derek Walcott—all Anisfield-Wolf Award winners as well! As Danticat said during her emotional acceptance speech, “My life, for reasons that only the universe fully understands has been one in which I always feel I am walking in the footsteps and on the shoulders of giants.” Congratulations to Ms. Danticat for a well-deserved honor!

In the video below she talks about the history and the power of storytelling in Haitian culture and talks about her new book, “Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work.”

Chairing the jury for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards is one of the single pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet – a white, female poet – had the foresight to endow a prize to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle, isn’t it? And in a few days, we will honor her commitment to racial equality and justice by recognizing this year’s winners of her prize, the 76th such occasion. It is humbling to thumb through the names of previous winners, including Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and three Nobel laureates, Wole Soyinka, Toni Morrison, and Derek Walcott. God bless Edith Anisfield Wolf, and the Cleveland Foundation for so judiciously protecting her legacy.