The National Book Awards Make a Powerful Statement

In the wake of a divisive election, the prestigious literary prize honored three African American authors whose work explores black history.

Robin Platzer / Twin Images

When John Lewis took the stage Wednesday night to accept the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for his graphic novel March: Book Three, the congressman was on the verge of tears. The book, co-authored with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the final installment in the trilogy that follows the civil rights movement through the eyes of Lewis, who was at its heart. “This is unbelievable … some of you know I grew up in rural Alabama, very poor, very few books in our home,” Lewis said, his voice shaking. “I remember in 1956, when I was 16 years old, going to the public library to get library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only and not for coloreds. And to come here and receive this honor, it’s too much.”

It was a powerful moment that set the tone for the ceremony, which went on to see three out of four of its categories won by African American authors (the Poetry award went to Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human). It was  a night that not only celebrated historically marginalized literary voices, but looked keenly toward what those voices mean, now more than ever. The specter of political turmoil, fear, and uncertainty about the future after a sharply divisive election hung heavy over the ceremony. But after a year when many people have looked to writers to make sense of the country’s political upheaval, the National Book Awards emphasized the importance of recognizing that the stories told by people of color, and African Americans in particular, are indelible parts of the American narrative.

The prize for nonfiction, awarded to The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates last year, went to the historian Ibram X. Kendi for his book Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi’s work is a deep (and often disturbing) chronicling of how anti-black thinking has entrenched itself in the fabric of American society not solely through ignorance, but through a rationalization of inequity in institutional practices. Using the stories of five key intellectual figures—from Thomas Jefferson to Angela Davis—Kendi traces extensively, over the course of 600 pages, how history has woven racism into not just the consciousness of explicitly anti-black figures, but even the more subtly-rooted thinking of what he calls “assimilationists,” a group who oppose and fight racial inequity, but find blame in both the oppressed and oppressors.

Kendi thanked his six-month old daughter Imani in his speech. Her name means “faith” in Swahili, a word that he stated has a new meaning for him now as the first black president is about to leave the White House, and a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan is about to enter. Kendi talked about the burden of weariness he’s carried in digging through the darker chapters of American history for this book, and insisted he would keep faith in a new movement of protest against white supremacy and nationalism.

Perhaps the most eagerly-anticipated prize of the night, the award for fiction, went to Colson Whitehead, for his novel The Underground Railroad. The book, by an author previously recognized for his more fantastical work, was a heavy favorite after its glowing critical reception—to Whitehead’s own surprise—since it was published in the summer. The story follows Cora, a slave on a cotton plantation in the antebellum South who’s offered an escape via a secret network of tracks running beneath the ground. Whitehead takes a metaphor for a network of people who helped slaves escape northward, and turns it into a literal mode of salvation, as Cora moves frantically from state to state with a notorious slave-catcher hot on her heels. Accepting the award, Whitehead spoke with resolute hopefulness about what The Underground Railroad and the projection of black voices mean for those who must endure “the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trump-land” outside.

Whitehead wasn’t the only person to reference the president-elect: The former Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, who hosted the evening’s proceedings, wondered how a Trump presidency might affect the book world, speculating that all copies of the constitution would effectively have to be moved to the Fiction section, and Trump’s own writing re-categorized as Horror.

There are those who question whether or not awards like these are necessarily the means to validate or evaluate the power of literary voices, particularly when those voices are all male. The National Book Foundation—currently helmed by its first woman of color, executive director Lisa Lucasmay indeed represent a prestigious inner circle of an educated elite that was effectively left flailing this election. But there was something powerful about the palpable sense of community that transcended the evening. The Literarian Award, an honorary prize presented for outstanding service to the American literary community, was given to Cave Canem, a nonprofit that cultivates a platform for black poets. And though Whitehead, Lewis, and Kendi all told stories explicitly dealing with notions of black racial identity in America’s past, their works may be even more significant when it comes to navigating the future.

In these times of uncertainty, literature can be instructive, comforting, and inspiring. As Colson Whitehead movingly told the audience in his acceptance speech, his own advice for a Trump presidency is, “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power.”