What if Martin Luther King Jr woke up and asked, “What happened since I’ve been gone?” The answer is the premise of “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” – the latest documentary series from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The two-parter premieres on PBS November 15 at 8 p.m., with Gates serving as host, executive producer and writer. There is also a companion book, “And Still I Rise,” published in 2015.
In the 50 years since King was assassinated, progress in Black America has been complex. African Americans have dominated sports, music and pop culture over the past few decades, but struggled since 1965 in the economic and political realms. “Black America Since MLK” explores this multi-faceted coin, examining mass incarceration, child poverty and police brutality alongside the election of the nation’s first black president.
“I want white America and black America to listen to black people talking to each other about what their lives mean and what these events signify,” said Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury. “I want Americans to realize we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
This series promises new faces will emerge as eyewitnesses to history.
“We’re all familiar with the leadership — especially the male leadership, so I wanted to tell the story of Ella Baker,” Gates told Salon. “But I was also finding foot soldiers, who didn’t make the evening news but were sitting in those churches, clapping their hands, but had never been interviewed before. So we spent a lot of time on the ground, just talking to people. ‘Hey, were you there? Do you want to be in the series?’… We wanted to widen the lens.”
Viewers can tune in November 15 and 22. Watch the official trailer below:
Each time poet and Akron native Rita Dove speaks in Northeast Ohio, she begins with an acknowledgement of home. Her trip to Cleveland this past September was particularly rich in the significance of place.
“It’s been like one huge family reunion,” she said, smiling wide at the audience assembled at the Maltz Performing Arts Center on the Case Western Reserve University campus.
More than 600 people sat entranced for “An Evening With Rita Dove and Friends,” a celebration of the Anisfield-Wolf juror’s three decades of literary prominence. One of them was Harvard Sociologist Orlando Patterson, who said the following evening, “Last night I witnessed the extraordinary cultural presence of black America in our cultural life as I sat with the largest and most integrated audience I have ever seen, listening in rapt attention and near reverence to Rita Dove reading her glorious American poems.”
The evening of verse commemorated the 30th anniversary of “Thomas & Beaulah,” Dove’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, and this year’s publication of her “Collected Poems.” At 64, Dove has said the new anthology felt like “a tombstone,” but that she has come to appreciate having her best poems in one volume.
Dave Lucas, co-founder of Brews + Prose, emceed the evening, cautioning against viewing the evening as a respective. “I think I can speak for all of us when I say, thank you Rita, but we are greedy for much much more.”
Poet Toi Derricotte, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “The Black Notebooks” in 1998, made the trek from Pittsburgh to introduce her friend, sampling and relishing her verse. As the capper, Lucas presented his mentor with a paper bouquet of flowers, carefully constructed from a copy of “Thomas and Beulah.”
“It must have been so difficult to destroy a book, I hope,” Dove remarked as she admired the token, “but it’s so beautiful.”
Mary Morris spent close to two decades crafting her jazz-soaked Chicago novel, The Jazz Palace, winner of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf award for fiction. “It is almost impossible for me to imagine that a book I began in 1997 is being recognized in that way, almost 20 years later,” she told the Playhouse Square crowd at this year’s ceremony. “Just for a cultural reference, Clinton was president and there were no cell phones.”
As is our tradition, we sat down with each of our winners during their Cleveland itinerary for a quick interview on what this recognition meant to them. Here is Morris’ turn in front of the camera:
“America is indelibly black-ish,” sociologist Orlando Patterson asserted to the audience at Playhouse Square during this year’s awards ceremony. “Trying to imagine America without blacks is like trying to imagine Lake Erie with no oxygen.”
Patterson continued his thesis on race and culture as he accepted the 2016 Lifetime Achievement award from his friend and colleague Steven Pinker. Jurors selected Patterson for his global scholarship over the past 30 years, with his 2015 book, The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth, earning sharp praise.
Earlier that morning, we caught up with Patterson in a few quiet moments to get his thoughts on what winning an Anisfield-Wolf award meant to him. Take a listen:
Cleveland welcomed poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips to town by giving him a good sense of our hometown pride. Visiting only months after the city won its first championship in 52 years, Phillips arrived in a walking boot, as he was recovering from surgery on his Achilles. As he made small talk, he’d remark, “Better me than Lebron, right?” To his surprise, everyone responded: “Yes, definitely. Better you than Lebron.”
Phillips told this story from the stage at Playhouse Square, where he was collecting the 2016 Anisfield-Wolf award for Heaven. We found a few quiet moments to speak with Phillips during his busy Cleveland itinerary about what this award means to him both personally and professionally:
Brian Seibert, the New York Times dance critic and 2016 nonfiction winner for his book, What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, is an accomplished tap dancer himself. At the close of his book reading, the final event of Cleveland Book Week, he slipped on his tap shoes and treated the audience to a powerful dance duet with Chandler Browne, an Oberlin College student. (Missed it? Catch it here.)
A day prior, we sat down with Brian Seibert for a brief interview on what winning the 2016 award for nonfiction means to him. Take a listen:
From the Playhouse Square stage, Lillian Faderman began her acceptance of this year’s nonfiction award with a story of how she discovered she won. After Faderman received an email from jury chair Henry Louis Gates requesting her phone number, her wife Phyllis Irwin remarked that he must be soliciting support for the Hilary Clinton campaign.
Neither considered that he would be reaching out to tell her she had won this year’s Anisfield-Wolf prize for The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle. The skepticism was appropriate, Faderman remarked: “In the past, writers of LGBTQ history have seldom been recognized outside of our community as worthy of awards. So I’m doubly grateful to the AW jury for believing the time has come to regard LGBTQ history as part of American history.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the busyness of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Faderman’s reflection on what the award means to her:
Richard S. Dunn spent 40 years researching and writing “A Tale of Two Plantations,” a scrupulous, revelatory archival investigation of some 2,000 people enslaved across three generations: roughly half on a Jamaican sugar plantation called Mesopotamia, and half on Mount Airy, a Virginia tidewater plantation growing tobacco and grain.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Dunn’s turn in front of the camera:
As Marilyn Chinbegan her acceptance speech for this year’s award for poetry, she looked out in the audience upon former poet laureate and jury member Rita Dove, thanking her for her sisterhood. Dove praised “Hard Love Province,” noting, “In these sad and beautiful poems, a withering portrayal of our global ‘society’ emerges – from Buddha to Allah, Mongols to Bethesda boys, Humvee to war horse, Dachau to West Darfu, Irrawaddy River to San Diego.”
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is Chin’s turn in front of the camera:
It was a brief passage in “Sula,” Toni Morrison‘s 1973 novel, that changed Marlon James‘ entire life: in it, Sula refutes the idea that her life choices only have value if affirmed by others. James realized: “I don’t owe anything to anyone. I didn’t have anything to prove. I could be the writer; I could be the artist. I could be the person that I want.”
James’ indebtedness to Morrison extends further into the Anisfield-Wolf canon—Edwidge Danticat, Arnold Rampersad, Wole Soyinka are among the winners he referenced as he accepted his prize for 2014’s “A Brief History of Seven Killings” at the sold-out awards ceremony at Playhouse Square.
As is our tradition, we interview each of our winners prior to the hustle of the evening to get their quiet thoughts on what being recognized means to them. Here is James’ turn in front of the camera:
“My idols sat around and read my book, y’all,” Jericho Brown remarked from the podium at the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony. Moments later he launched into “Labor,” a piece featured in his 2014 collection, The New Testament.
As is our tradition, we caught up with Brown in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry:
“They’re going to throw me in director’s jail,” director Ava DuVernay remembered thinking before premiering “Selma” at the American Film Institute in November. Sweating buckets in the bathroom before the screening, she was so stressed she recalled devising a back-up plan if the film bombed: “Maybe Ben [my agent] can help me get another $200,000. I’ve still got stories. I was freaking out.”
It was one of the delightfully transparent anecdotes DuVernay shared during her one-hour keynote at South by Southwest, one of the country’s biggest tech and culture conferences, held every March in Austin, Texas. Equal parts laidback and constructive, her talk veered from screening her film at the White House for the First Family, her strategy for staying rooted while filming “Selma,” and her biggest realization after the Oscars. A few highlights:
1. She felt she was chasing the wrong things while making her first two films.
“On I Will Follow, I was proving my worth through distribution and the box office…My worth was outside of myself. On Middle of Nowhere, I was proving my worth through festivals and accolades. My worth was outside of myself. I was just going from thing to thing, accomplishment to accomplishment and my heart wasn’t enlarging…The dreams were too small. If your dreams only include you, they’re too small.”
2. She doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
“You can tell any story for any amount of money. That’s why it was important for me to not go from a $20 million film to another film but to completely change gears.” 2015 will see her at the helm of two TV projects—a civil rights procedural for CBS as well as a series adaptation of Natalie Baszile’s novel Queen Sugar for the Oprah Winfrey Network. In both, she said her goal is to “slip in some stories about marginalized folks that aren’t usually on the forefront.”
3. Her daily “gratitude list” keeps her grounded.
DuVernay said Oprah encouraged her to write down five things that she is grateful for every day. The practice came in handy during the film’s controversy over the portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. “I thought, what am I grateful for today? Well…I’m in the New York Times.”
4. Her mission is consistent from project to project.
“The image is vital. So if there’s a dearth of them, it affects the way we see ourselves and the way that we are seen…Stop asking people who don’t care about the work and just do the work. If I look at television and I think something’s missing, then you have to go do the work. A lot of people talk and I try to act.”
HBO will turn Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land into a television documentary, CEO and chairman Richard Pleper announced at the 2015 INTV media conference in Jerusalem.
“The book left me awestruck and as moved as I’ve been maybe ever,” Pleper told the crowd. “When I first approached him, I said to Ari that I’ve waited my whole adult life to find this book.”
Published in 2014, “My Promised Land” is a carefully crafted narrative history, weaving family memoir, documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. The book, Shavit’s first, took home the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction.
No release date has been set, but Israeli filmmaker Dan Setton, whose previous work has centered on Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has been tapped to direct.
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 beenhonored 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 biggest laugh during Ari Shavit’s serious, passionate talk about the Middle East came at the end, when a questioner at the City Club of Cleveland asked the Israeli journalist about the Kurds.
“Look,” Shavit said. “There are no good guys. There are no Canadians in the Middle East. So you have two options: You opt out and say, ‘I’m a purist; I don’t touch it; it’s all contaminated.’ Or you say, ‘It’s a rough world out there, and promoting the lesser evil is doing the right thing.’”
In “the world’s most unstable region,” Shavit insisted that the United States must stay in the game: “I think the distinction should be not between moderates and extremists but stabilizers and de-stabilizers. America should lead an alliance of stabilizers. . .Jordan is better than Syria. And the Kurds are very, very promising.”
Shavit, 57, a columnist for Haaretz, a major dailynewspaper in Tel Aviv, made his first trip to Cleveland in September to receive the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in nonfiction for his first book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel. The book, five years in the making, received enormous critical attention for being frankly critical of the displacement of Arabs from their land in 1948 while still insisting on the morality of Zionism.
Speaking slowly, Shavit began his remarks as a gracious guest, praising the decency of the American Midwest and placing the City Club — the longest running free speech forum in the United States — in the line of civic institutions that the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated as essential to the American experiment. Shavit reiterated his respect for the United States, and stressed the continuity between “your great democracy” and Israel’s “frontier democracy.”
He underscored this parallel: “This summer was traumatic for both democracies…We had rockets and tunnels and you had beheadings. Who would have thought of it just a year or two ago that we would once again see this Medieval evil.”
Shavit identified two hazards depleting Western influence in the Middle East: “the fatigue of two wars and an economic crisis that took the oxygen out of the room,” and what he described as an “intellectual weakness” among Western elites, chastened by this history of imperialism, in confronting “Third World evil.” Shavit spent much of his half hour elucidating the perils of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. “Nothing is more evil than ISIS but other are more dangerous,” he warned.
The former paratrooper and philosophy major insisted that he is still an optimist, a believer in the vibrancy of his people and his hosts. “We have an amazing Israeli society,” Shavit said, pausing, as if weighing the messiness of democracy. “But we have horrific politics—worse than yours.”
“When you’re not born in the U.S. and you’re a person of African descent, in some ways identifying as black becomes a political choice,” novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie told Tavis Smiley during a recent appearance on his PBS show. “I’m very happily black.”
Adichie was on hand to discuss her most recent novel, Americanah, now available in paperback. A love story that spans three continents, Americanah is about many things—with race and immigration at the forefront.
“I wanted to write about a kind of immigration that is familiar to me,” Adichie said. “When we hear about Africans emigrating, we think of people who have run away from burned villages and war and poverty. And that story is important to tell but it’s not the story I know. I wanted to talk about the Africa I know, which is that the middle-class educated people are leaving…because they want more choices.”
The pair discussed Adichie’s decision to come to the United States at 19, her refusal to speak with an American accent, and that “creative terror” that strikes when she sits down to write. The interview is worth watching in full. Take a look:
George Lamming, who spent decades as a leader of the Caribbean literary Diaspora, won our 2014 Lifetime Achievement award for his deeply political books that critique colonialism and neo-colonialism. His first novel, In the Castle of My Skin, drew accolades from Jean-Paul Sartre and Richard Wright. Health concerns prevented Lamming from attending our 2014 ceremony in person, but we were able to film him in his native Barbados for a brief Q&A:
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is an intoxicating first book about intersecting lives in war-torn Chechnya. The novel begins as Russian officers burn down a Muslim home and “disappear” the father Dokka but can’t find his daughter Haava. A neighbor hides the 8-year-old girl in a barely-functioning hospital. Novelist Anthony Marra sets this story over five taut days, as the child is hunted and the adults around her try to navigate radically different circumstances. Marra teaches at Stanford University. We caught up with Marra a few hours before he accepted the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for fiction. Hear his remarks in the brief video below:
Ari Shavit, a columnist for Jerusalem’s daily newspaper Haaretz, spent five years writing My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel in English and Hebrew simultaneously. A former Israeli paratrooper, peace advocate and great-grandson of Victorian-era Zionists, Shavit carefully examines a fraught and difficult history, interweaving family memoir, multiple documents and hundreds of interviews with Arabs and Jews. This important, clarifying book asks why Israel was created, what it has achieved, what went wrong and if it can survive.
We spent a few minutes with Shavit prior to this year’s ceremony, and he expressed his gratitude to the jury for recognizing his work:
Adrian Matejka’s “The Big Smoke” is a nuanced, polyphonic book that explores the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the first African- American heavyweight world champion. A fan of the sport, Matejka was moved by this son of emancipated slaves – born in Texas just 13 years after the end of the Civil War – who loved Shakespeare, Verdi’s operas, travel abroad and a series of white women. The Big Smoke follows Johnson until 1912 in 52 poems. Matejka spent eight years researching and writing this book. He teaches at Indiana University in Bloomington.
We caught up with Matejka in a few quiet moments before this year’s ceremony to hear his thoughts on being honored with the 2014 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry: