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Kerrick Woyshner, 18, was a scholar in the first college-level Anisfield-Wolf class, pioneered by Dr. Lisa Nielson at Case Western Reserve University. Students read essays, poems and books by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, attended the September awards ceremony and did original research on topics inspired by the course.

“I never realized what motivated my hand to click on the ‘Reading Social Justice: The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards’ class this summer,” Woyshner wrote. “I wanted something new. Though I hailed from a conservative, all-male Catholic high school, I plan on continuing this education my entire life, striving to benefit those who don’t have the resources so that I may one day become the Martin Luther King or, rather, the Kerrick Woyshner of social justice.”

A student from Hamburg in western New York, Woyshner decided to contrast the work of two Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka.

By Kerrick Woyshner

The writings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. have left an indelible mark on humanity and its quest for racial equality. In them, King presents his campaign of nonviolent protesting that built the framework for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Birmingham Lunch Counter Sit-ins, and the March on Washington. King described these principles in his resounding first book, Stride Toward Freedom, which won the Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1959.

I argue that the life and writings of King, particularly in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, serve as the United States’ most important references for effective and successful social change.

Born on January 15, 1929, in Atlanta, Georgia, King was the son and grandson of ministers who pioneered the struggle for African American equality. His grandfather, A.D. Williams, was one of the first heads of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP while his father, Martin Luther King, Sr. fought for equal salaries for African American teachers.

King skipped several grades and entered Morehouse College at 15 in search of “some intellectual basis for a social philosophy.” Torn between medicine, law, and the ministry, King chose the ministry. His study of social philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Locke, and Hegel, in addition to his theological studies, fed his ability to organize and speak eloquently to the subjugation of African Americans. The most important influence, however, on the collegiate King was India’s leading peace activist, Mohandas Gandhi. “The spirit of passive resistance came to me from the Bible and the teachings of Jesus,” King wrote, “…The techniques of execution came from Gandhi.”

Interestingly, as Gandhi was criticized by British officials for his Quit India speech, King was criticized by eight white, Birmingham clergymen in an open letter titled “A Call for Unity.” The eight called King’s coordinated marches and sit-ins “unwise and untimely,” which prompted King’s response: his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” King demonstrated to his eight critics, the entire city of Birmingham, and the citizenry of the United States that his nonviolent movement for civil rights had never been more wisely and timely conducted, and he did it writing a letter upon scraps of wrinkled paper scavenged while locked up in Birmingham Jail.

King compared himself to Paul, one of Jesus’ apostles and one of Christianity’s predominant figures of the Apostolic Age, and to the early prophets of Christianity in bolstering his reasons for not sitting idly while the injustices of Birmingham were hindering the justice of humanity. “You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham,” King wrote to his critics, “But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being.” King’s poignant response was persistent, powerful, and public.

Four months after King published his letter, he helped lead the March on Washington, making clear that his effort was not solely for the advancement of African American citizens, but for all races and religions that have endured the malicious sting of dehumanization globally.

Today, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards continue to recognize the Martin Luther Kings of society, the writers and orators who advocate for equality for all men and women regardless of their creed, color, disability or sexual orientation. The recipient of the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award, Wole Soyinka, is a prime example. In his book The Man Died, Soyinka presents a stirring account of his time imprisoned in solitary confinement during the Biafran War in Nigeria.

In the same way that King recognized and exposed political and social injustice, Soyinka builds on King’s mission through moral obligation and immediate action, writing, “The man dies in all who keep silent in the face of tyranny.” Soyinka, whose literary and political gifts make him somewhat of a modern-day aggregate of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in September of the need to preserve libraries, safeguard and extend education and bend toward the arc of justice that King outlined a half century ago.

King’s “I Have a Dream” message preached a solution to the contradictions and paradoxes in society’s deviation from the Declaration of Independence: the end of racism. By eliminating discrimination, the United States inches closer to its intended goal of granting life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to all of its citizens. This synthesis of equality and understanding, supported by work of Wole Soyinka and the other winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, set King apart.

I believe in social justice in the same way King did. While I firmly believe those who do evil will be held to the principle of karma, it is not my place to perform such evil unto them. Similarly, King recognized that injustices cannot battle injustices — he had to kill his enemies with kindness. What’s more, King put his life on the line. He never knew when his last speech was going to be, when his last book was going to publish, what his last day would dawn, so he made each one count. He looked at wrongdoings and proposed peaceful, non-violent corrections. In this way, King viewed the world differently, so that, to him, me, and the 200,000 supporters assembled at the Lincoln Memorial before him, 1963 was not an end, but a beginning.

Arjun Gopinath, 17, participated in the first college-level Anisfield-Wolf class, pioneered by Dr. Lisa Nielson at Case Western Reserve University.  The class read essays, poems and books by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, attended the September awards ceremony and did original research on topics inspired by the course.

“Being an international student, I had this paranoia that my level of writing wouldn’t match the level of an average American student, but the small seminars – such as the Anisfield-Wolf course – have helped me get in sync with writing and not be afraid of it anymore,” wrote Gopinath, who grew up in Bangalore, India.

His essay on Far From the Tree is one of a selection from students featured on this site.

By Arjun Gopinath

There is a huge variety of parenting books available in the bookstore: Parenting for Teenagers, How to take care of your Asian daughter, and so forth. But there was one missing from the self-help section that I found on the shelf reserved for bestsellers: Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon. After hearing Solomon speak at the Anisfield-Wolf ceremony, I was eager to read this book that explored the families of children who had what Solomon calls “horizontal identities.”

Once I opened the book, I was lost in the beauty of Solomon’s writing. The sad tales and the happy tales of different families left me aghast.

Solomon proposes that children who are different, who have fallen “far from the tree” derive their identities from others like them:  “Someone has an inherited or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.”  The writer looks at the families of children who are physically or mentally disabled, gay, prodigies – 10 categories in all — and asks how they develop horizontal identities.

In interviews with more than 300 families, Solomon invites them to the front of the room to share little incidents and grave difficulties. In many ways, he is the perfect writer for the subject— nuanced, thorough, humane, and a gifted stylist. As he works toward the root of this conflict, Solomon pushes horizontal identity as far as it will go.  He examines deafness and dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disability, early genius, conception through rape, criminal behavior, and transgender — bringing new light to these conditions by considering them across category. He lets the families talk, and when bonds within families begin to fray, he seeks to understand what went wrong.

In one instance, David and Sara Hadden had the seemingly perfect life – married in their early twenties with plum jobs in the heart of New York City. Soon, Sara gave birth to a first son, Jamie, in August 1980. Three days later, Jamie turned blue. The infant’s breathlessness soon transitioned into salt-and-pepper pigmentation of his retina. Doctors said that Jamie would be completely blind and severely retarded, incapable of speech, feeding himself or urinating on his own.  But the doctors also assured the Haddens that Jamie’s condition was anomalous, and so Liza was born when Jamie was four, and Sam followed four years later. The condition that disabled Jamie skipped Liza but struck Sam with a greater ferocity. After the family won a legal settlement, Jamie and Sam went to a group home. Tragically, an oversight by a caretaker let Sam drown in a bathtub. Despite their immense grief, the Haddens refused to prosecute the caretaker. Why? “It could have been any of us.”

Parenting is an extremely difficult occupation. Yes, I used the word “occupation.” And children are terrible employers. When a child requires extra care, there is no way to quantify the stress and cost. Parents of disabled children may fight for their children’s rights, may give up jobs and outside lives. The Donovans, whose son Liam suffers from the CHARGE syndrome, asked themselves if he would have been better off dead than alive. For parents of children in such crises, morals can conflicts with parental love.

Solomon reaches into his own life for one example.

One day while shopping for shoes in New York, little Andrew – unlike his brother –picked a pink balloon over a blue balloon offered by a salesman in an Indian Walk Store. His mother persistently nudged him to pick a blue balloon, insisting “it was his favorite color.” Much later, she told him, “When you were little, you didn’t like to do what other kids liked to do, and I encouraged you to be yourself, although I sometimes think I let things go too far.”

In this book, the reader travels trough unseen incidents and unheard narratives that can truly change one’s view of the world. We glimpse, for example, how a transgender child, Kim struggled for years to tell her parents about her transition, and yet her mother accepted it with no qualms (“I love my child; the intelligent, caring, humorous person is still there”).  We witness the parents of a drug-addicted criminal take in the granddaughters.

“Solomon moves in the opposite direction – instead of starting with the principles and applying them to specific conditions, he’s starting with the conditions and progressing toward where they converge,writes the critic Nathan Heller of The New Yorker. This is a quite fascinating approach.

As Solomon finishes one chapter and begins the next, the reader moves from the end of one emotional rollercoaster to the beginning of the next. “Far From the Tree” engenders empathy and shifts in thinking. Solomon considers the profound change cochlear implants have made for many in the deaf community, and asks the painful question of whether parents of gay children might embrace a similar device to make their child straight.

Solomon writes, with frankness, “In my adulthood, being gay is an identity; the tragic narrative my parents feared for me is no longer inevitable.”  In an effort to recast his fraught relationship with his mother and father and their reaction to his sexuality, he began studying other forms of horizontal identity, and what he discovered is truly astounding.

I wish Solomon had tucked in a chapter on children conceived through sperm banks, and perhaps another on interracial adoptions.  At more than 900 pages, Far from the Tree is a “cross-section of something that defies sectioning,” an exploration of difference as it shapes family life. The book brims with science, medicine and psychological research, and it breaks ground by reducing fear and opening questions about new horizontal identities.

Andrea Lau, 18, was a student scholar this past fall in the first college-level Anisfield-Wolf course, pioneered by Dr. Lisa Nielson at Case Western Reserve University.  The class read essays, poems and books by Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winners, attended the September awards ceremony and did original research on topics inspired by the course.

“The pieces of literature that we read and the stimulating discussion held in this class have left a profound impact on my perspective of the world and my understanding of how society participates in equality and prejudice,” wrote Lau, who grew up in New Jersey.

In coming weeks, this site will feature a selection of work from these students.

By Andrea Lau

My story of growing up in America as a first-generation Chinese-American is not particularly individual or unique, but it has shaped me as a person and American citizen, and I am proud of my background in my own low-key way. This is not a sob story, nor is it a sentimental essay of how I and my parents struggled to fit into a society designed against us. I write this piece as a chronicle of my personal journey to “find my true self”; to document my struggle to identify myself and locate a true definition that I can be content to use in detailing my make up as a person.

It may be true that my favorite Disney princess is Mulan, and it so happens that my favorite dishes include rice or noodles. I have difficulty watching Caucasian girls’ makeup tutorials online because my eyes are genetically differently than theirs. These descriptions already categorize me perfectly into the image of the stereotypical Asian American. However, I have never been one to believe in stereotypes because there are always more complex and interesting storylines underneath. I watched Mulan all the time as a child, mainly because I admired her bravery, cleverness, and humility.

The Little Mermaid was another childhood favorite, yet society does not immediately believe that I have fish friends and live in the sea.  Furthermore, rice and noodles are present in a wide range of cultures outside Asia and are enjoyed by many races. Finally, I can’t even follow makeup techniques for Asians because my features, like my inner personality, seem to be a hybrid of both races’ characteristics. My upbringing and environment throughout my socialization have created my personality and the life perspective I have today.

Generally, I simply think of myself as an American individual who just happened to grow up in a Chinese household: the paleness of my skin and knowledge of another language have never played a defining role in my life. I attribute this freedom to my parents, who never forced things like Chinese school upon my childhood. If they had urged me to attend, like my very traditional grandmother wanted them to, I probably would have despised it as a child; viewing it more as a prison and burden than the intended enrichment of my culture and an education of another dialect of my native language. As a result, my inability to speak Mandarin has followed me through life, haunting me and wreaking its inconvenient effects all too often.

Possessing a mediocre capacity to speak Cantonese only allows me to communicate with my relatives on an elementary level. As a matured and more developed young adult, I am now equipped with the knowledge and hindsight to regret my incompetence in the dialect which a large portion of the world speaks. The skill with which my parents mastered English has always been a blessed convenience for me, but I now realize that it is just another factor that contributed to my lack of proficiency in Chinese. This inconsistency illustrates one struggle that my identity faces – I may be a well socialized American citizen who can easily blend in with the white majority, but I also regret the lack of a connection I have to my ethnic character.

Zadie Smith’s “Speaking in Tongues” dictated a powerful message to me, and in reading it I realized how similar my struggles are to those of my peers. While I have never had any trouble communicating with my parents in the same kind of language I use with school colleagues, conversing with relatives has always posed an obstacle, and I indeed had to alter my discourse and diction in order to facilitate conversation and understanding. From another interesting angle, whenever I speak to family friends, who, like my parents, were Chinese immigrants educated in America, I have little trouble doing so, and I actually admire how cultured and knowledgeable they are. They represent who I strive to be through hard work in hopes of rising through society’s ranks.

Racism has never had a significantly negative affect on my life. In a society that is fortunately quite accepting of the minority I am a part of, it is more interesting for me to observe the public’s attitudes toward other races. My lifestyle has never fulfilled a specific stereotype for the typical Asian American, and I have always taken a secret pride in not simply conforming to yet another social standard for who an individual should be. Unfortunately, I am no better at mathematics or academia than the average non-Asian person who studies diligently.

The widely publicized memoir of the so-called “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in 2011 could not be more different than the household in which I was raised. Surely, I was familiar with the traditional and strict parenting she swore by because I grew up surrounded by figures who inflicted small dosages of these techniques on my upbringing. However, I consider myself lucky that my family approached parenting from a more understanding and flexible perspective, and it is why I am content with the way I conduct my life today. I am fortunate that my race and background have never hindered me from any of my ambitions, and the cultural flavor that has been added to my life has only enriched me and made me more interesting as an individual.

This class introduced me to the intriguing concept of intersectionality: the idea that no individual in society has a single label.  A person is not classified by his/her gender alone, but also by his/her race, and any other factor that influences how he/she is perceived.  Several, sometimes conflicting, identities in tension are what truly characterize a person and their role in society.  I am not simply an Asian, but an Asian woman.  That means my experience in the world is different from that of an Asian man, who is respected at least for his sex, or a Caucasian woman, who rallies for women’s rights separately from ones against racism.  As a result, my experience is unique and original, and reading the works of and hearing the voices of Asian American women is even more enriching.

I have indeed grappled with how true I am to my heritage, and wonder if I struggle more with being a Chinese person Americanized by society, or being an American person endeavoring to reestablish connections to my culture. Reading pieces from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has enlightened me to the idea of multiple cultural personalities and living in society with these labels, and I embrace both the benefits and obstacles that come with my heritage.