2020 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Documentary Now Available To Stream

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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. 

May has been an incredible month for Ms. Morrison. She released her latest novel, Home, to rave reviews and she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Tuesday, May 29.

In the clip above, she discusses her novel and her intention to help us remember what the 50s were really like.

We were also treated to this incredible photo of President Obama and Ms. Morrison sharing a private moment after the awards ceremony. Wonder what they were talking about?

During the ceremony, President Obama remarked that this year’s honorees were also his personal heroes, adding a special note about Toni Morrison. “I remember reading Song of Solomon when I was a kid,” he said. “Not just trying to figure out how to write, but also how to be. And how to think.”

 

We’ve been talking about Toni Morrison a lot lately, but we think it’s difficult to provide too much information on one of our greatest living writers. Bookriot named May 8 “Toni Morrison Day,” in honor of the release of her newest book, but we’re going to extend it one day and share one more video of the great Ms. Morrison. In it, she discusses the early part of her career and what she thought of the “Black is Beautiful” movement.

It’s not very likely to hear us expressing doubt about Ms. Toni Morrison‘s literary abilities. If anything, our appreciation for her craft only grows larger with the release of each new work. Her latest novel, Home, explores the homecoming of Frank Money, a Korean War vet who signed up for the service to get away from his hometown, only to return weary and disturbed and not sure of how welcome he will be. The reviews are in—is this still the Toni Morrison we all know and love?  

New York Daily News

Toni Morrison’s new novel “Home” is a slim volume. That alone excuses it from providing the sweeping exhilaration of “Beloved” or “Song of Solomon.” But “Home” is also a lesser novel — still powerful, still moving, but not her best work.

San Francisco Chronicle

In addition to her reputation for gorgeous sentences, Morrison is known for a certain brutality in her plotting, and this wrenching novel is no exception. But “Home” also brims with affection and optimism. The gains here are hard won, but honestly earned, and sweet as love.

Los Angeles Times

Ultimately, the impression with which “Home” leaves us is of a novel that, like the town it encircles, is “much less than enough.” Or maybe it’s that the book seems tired, as if it were something we’ve read before. Either way, it leaves us wanting, without the discovery, the recognition of how stories can enlarge us, that defines Morrison’s most vivid work.

Washington Post

At just 145 pages, this little book about a Korean War vet doesn’t boast the Gothic swell of her masterpiece, “Beloved” (1987), or the luxurious surrealism of her most recent novel, “A Mercy” (2008). But the diminutive size and straightforward style of “Home” are deceptive. This scarily quiet tale packs all the thundering themes Morrison has explored before. She’s never been more concise, though, and that restraint demonstrates the full range of her power.

Will you be reading her latest book?  

 

In anticipation for Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, following the story of a Korean War veteran and his return to America in the 1950s, New York magazine wrote one of the best pieces on Toni Morrison that we’ve ever read. In it, writer Boris Kachka examine her feelings on her pen name (Surprise! She hates it), whether she believes her writing is as good as other people say it is (she does) and much, much more. We’ve lifted some of the best excerpts and encourage you to read the full piece. It’s extraordinary: 

On whether she deserves to be listed among the all-time greats,
regardless of skin color:

But two decades after she won her Nobel, Toni Morrison’s place in the pantheon is hardly assured. A writer of smaller ambitions would live on contentedly in this plush purgatory, but Morrison writes—more and more consciously, it seems—for posterity. Having once spearheaded the elevation of black women in culture—Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Oprah—she now finds herself struggling to cut them loose, to admit at long last what she’s always believed: that she’s not only the first, but the best. That she belongs as much with Faulkner and Joyce and Roth as she does with that illustrious sisterhood. That she will pass the test that begins only after Chloe Wofford is gone, and Toni Morrison is all that’s left.

On how she managed to develop such a strong command of literature
and storytelling:

At night her parents told R-rated ghost stories, like one about a murdered wife who returned home holding her own severed head. The following evening, the kids had to retell the tales with variations: Maybe it was snowing, or there was blood dripping from the head. “This was all language,” she says now. There were also fifteen-minute plays on the radio, which “influenced me as much if not more,” she remembers. “If they said ‘green,’ you had to figure out in your head what shade that was. And you only heard voices. So everything else you had to build, imagine. Everything.”

On what writing represents to her:

“All of my life is doing something for somebody else,” she says—though her children are long grown and she’s been divorced for almost 50 years. “Whether I’m being a good daughter, a good mother, a good wife, a good lover, a good teacher—and that’s all that. The only thing I do for me is writing. That’s really the real free place where I don’t have to answer.”

Read the rest of the article here and tell us – did you come away with a different view of Ms. Morrison? What book of hers is your favorite? 

Junot Díaz

Junot Diaz’s short story collection This Is How You Lose Her will be published in September. It’s Diaz’s first book since his 2007 debut novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which, in addition to the 2008 Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award. {New York Times}

Zadie Smith

It hasn’t been officially confirmed but the rumor mill is buzzing that Zadie Smith’s latest book will be released in September. No doubt fans of White Teeth and On Beauty are waiting anxiously. {Sarah Weinman}

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison’s 10th novel, Home, will be released May 8. It follows an African American Korean war veteran who returns to his Georgia community a changed man. {L.A. Times}

Each Friday we’ll be bringing you news about your favorite authors, literature and books in general. Check out the first installment and tell us what you think in the comments: 

Isabel Wilkerson (2011 winner) was on PBS Newshour to discuss the groundbreaking of the Smithsonian’s African-American History Museum. See her part at the 4:00 minute mark.

Our friends over at Book Riot have declared May 8 “Toni Morrison Day” based off the release date of Ms. Morrison’s (1998 winner) newest book, Home. One of their writers will be re-reading her entire catalog and will be blogging about the experience.

Paule Marshall (2009 winner) will be doing a reading during the 2012 Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival, scheduled for May 7-13.

New York has tons of payphones but its residents also have millions of cell phones. To make them more useful, architect John Locke has fashioned these bookshelves to repurpose the structures into free-standing mini libraries.

Oberlin College will host 1988 Anisfield-Wolf award winner Toni Morrison in an intimate event on Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30. The Nobel-prize winning author will read from her upcoming novel, Home, as well as participate in a question-and-answer session. The public can request tickets by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope along with your request to:

Central Ticket Service
Hall Auditorium
67 N. Main St.
Oberlin, OH 44074

If you have the opportunity to go, we highly recommend you take the time to see Ms. Morrison in person. In the meantime, check out this reading Toni Morrison delivered in late 2011, at George Washington University:

‎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

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.

The Anisfield-Wolf book prize 75th anniversary celebration is in full swing at Cuyahoga County Public Library. Since January, Library staff members have facilitated lively discussions of books by Anisfield-Wolf book prize-winning authors in each of the Library’s 28 branches.

Special Anisfield-Wolf book discussion series held in the Library’s Bay Village (502 Cahoon Road / 440.871.6392), Beachwood (25501 Shaker Boulevard / 216.831.6868) and Parma Heights (6206 Pearl Road / 440.884.2313) branches have been extremely popular. Each month, book clubs meet at these branches to engage in thought-provoking discussions of books by Anisfield-Wolf book prize-winners. Past discussion titles have included: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz; Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali; and The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed, among many others.

During a recent discussion of Toni Morrison’s prize-winning novel Beloved at the Parma Heights Branch, book club members spoke eloquently about how profoundly the book had changed their lives. One member said she was proud to belong to a group that would read and discuss such a book.

Members of the Bay Village Branch book club expressed their gratitude recently for the opportunity to read and share their thoughts about Edwidge Danticat’s poignant memoir, Brother, I’m Dying. The book resonated profoundly with the group, particularly in the aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquakes, and prompted a thoughtful discussion of the island nation’s past and current tragedies.

Book club members at the Beachwood Branch enjoyed a special visit from Anisfield-Wolf book prize representative Laura Scharf, who shared the history of the prize as well as the story of its founder, Edith Anisfield Wolf.

Books by Anisfield-Wolf prize-winning authors have also been featured in the Library’s monthly Online Book Discussion. These online discussions, which are moderated by Library staff members, allow readers to share their thoughts on selected books with fellow readers across Cuyahoga County from their home or office computer. In May, in conjunction with Child and Family Month, the online book group held a discussion for teen readers of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, as well as a family-friendly discussion of Louise Erdrich’s children’s novel The Birchbark House.

By facilitating these discussions, Cuyahoga County Public Library seeks not only to connect readers with the works of outstanding authors, but also to highlight the rich, storied history of the Anisfield-Wolf book prize and to spread the Anisfield-Wolf message of tolerance in today’s global society.

All Cuyahoga County Public Library book discussions are open to the public. To participate in the online book discussion or to register for a book discussion group at a Library branch, visit www.CuyahogaLibrary.org.

Sari Feldman
Executive Director, Cuyahoga County Public Library