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:
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.
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.”
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.
Cleveland illustrator and writer Margaret Kimball drew upon Martha Collins’ White 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.
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.
The Philadelphia-based artist describes this piece, titled “Unmask,” as “a visual metaphor about self-awareness, self-reflection and perception.”
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.
Published in 1951, Langston Hughes‘ Montage 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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
The magisterial Wole Soyinka turned 80 this week, and—once again—the world is listening.
In London, the Royal African Society hosted “Wole Soyinka at 80,” a retrospective on the life of the Nobel laureate and Anisfield-Wolf winner, exploring his influence in politics and letters. As a young man, the Nigerian playwright and poet attempted to broker peace during the 1967 Biafran War, becoming a political prisoner and spending 22 months in solitary confinement. He wrote “The Man Died” out of that experience.
For the retrospective, Soyinka joined editor and critic Margaret Busby to reflect on his upbringing and the relationship between politics and culture. He has spent more than 50 fierce years campaigning against Nigerian despotism, often with a price on his head. Soyinka’s critique of Western smugness and corruption has been just as withering.
For those engaged by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist Boko Haram, Soyinka also places the splinter group’s recent killings and kidnappings in historical context (34:20 mark).
Last September, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka spoke passionately about the global “contest between barbarism and enlightenment” around educating children. His words sound prophetic now in the wake of the April kidnapping of Nigerian school girls in the northeast of his own beloved country.
Soyinka, 79, decried these armed men, saying these groups must be fought and immobilized. One such cadre – the Islamic militants of Boko Haram — has targeted schools, burning down more than 20. Then on April 15, this segment kidnapped some 234 girls, and drove them in trucks into the forests near the border with Cameroon. The name “Boko Haram” translates roughly as “western education is forbidden.”
In recent days, families of the missing girls have organized street protests and started social media campaigns to try to goad the Nigerian government into action. Rumors suggest many have already been sold off to soldiers, some for as little as $12. On Saturday, protests spread to London, New York and Washington, D.C. Demonstrators held aloft signs that read “African Lives Matter” and “Bring them Home!” The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls is surging.
During his September remarks, Soyinka drew a sharp line between those seeking education and those violently suppressing it. He had already asked several Nigerian governors to distribute the inspirational videotape of Malala Yousafzai addressing the United Nations last summer—“so that the school children can see that they are not alone. What they are undergoing has become a universal scourge, which has to be fought.”
The great writer called for a world in which children could go to school without fear, “enjoying the smell of books – even those who couldn’t read, just being among the instruments of enlightenment, of expanding the mind.”
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.”
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.
At the conclusion of this year’s ceremony, a number of Nigerians in attendance approached our lifetime achievement winner Wole Soyinka, for a chance to get close to the man they admired. A few bowed in his presence. He returned their kindness, speaking with a few before being whisked away to the book signing. We spoke with Soyinka to hear his thoughts on being honored for a lifetime of work and what it means to get that type of reception at this point in his career:
We’ll be spending this week exploring the lives and works of the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Today we’re recognizing Wole Soyinka, this year’s Lifetime Achievement winner.
The greatest threat to freedom is the absence of criticism. ~Wole Soyinka
A playwright/poet/essayist, Soyinka is one of Nigeria’s most beloved figures. Repeatedly, he has risked his life to protest the corrupt governmental regimes. In 1967, he was arrested and put in solitary confinement for 22 months for his attempts at brokering a peace between the warring Nigerian and Biafran parties warmongering in his homeland. He kept writing during this time, creating ink in his cell and using scraps of paper to collect his poetry.
Wole Soyinka’s Ake: The Years of Childhoodwon an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1983. Three years later, he went on to become the first African to win a Nobel Prize for Literature.
At 78, he splits his time between the United States, where he teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and his home outside of Lagos in Nigeria. He narrates the introduction of the new documentary, “Fuelling Poverty,” which protests the Nigerian government’s oil subsidy scandal of 2011.
“[Nigeria] is one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world,” he says in the introduction. “This film, made by the younger generation, is about the oil subsidy scheme. It is about a culture of greed and corruption and its effects on the people. But it is also about a people of great resilience, of people who are finding their voice, who care deeply about their country and dare to ask for a better world for themselves.”
Watch the full documentary below (22 minutes):
Soyinka is acutely attuned to global perceptions of Nigeria. He criticized “Welcome to Lagos,” a 2010 three-part documentary made by the BBC, for being colonialist and exploitative. He told the Guardian newspaper, “There was no sense of Lagos as what it is – a modern African state. What we had was jaundiced and extremely patronizing. It was saying, ‘Oh, look at these people who can make a living from the pit of degradation.'”
Soyinka added: “It is a pulsing city – in many ways too pulsing for me, which is why I live a little way out of it. But it is such a rich city, and it is deeply frustrating to see it given such a negative and reductionist overview.”
The jury has spoken and five new authors will join the Anisfield-Wolf family.
“The 2013 Anisfield-Wolf winners are exemplars who broaden our vision of race and diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who chairs the jury. “This year, there is exceptional writing about the war in Iraq, slavery on a Kentucky pig farm, the Filipino experience in the U.S., and the complexity of families in which a child is radically different from parents.”
Gates directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. He praised the singular achievement of Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian whose writing won a Nobel prize in 1986, three years after he won an Anisfield-Wolf award for his memoir, Ake: The Years of Childhood.
Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard said this year’s winners reflect founder Edith Anisfield Wolf’s belief in the unifying power of the written word.
“The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards rose from the philanthropic vision of one woman who realized that literature could advance the ongoing dialogue about race, culture, ethnicity, and our shared humanity,” Richard said.
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland Sept. 12 at a ceremony at the Ohio Theatre hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Stay tuned this week as we profile each of our 2013 winners.
“The 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winners reflect the complexity of the issues of race and cultural diversity in our world,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “These books and the people who created them help us gain a deeper understanding of the need to respect both the humanity and individuality of one other.”
Our 2012 winners are (click on any of the photos to read more on the authors):
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.