Brow Beat

The 2016 National Book Award Winners Focus on Racism, for Some Reason

Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell and Rep. John Lewis in July. The three men jointly won a National Book Award for March: Book 3.

Dave Mangels/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

The 67th National Book Awards were held Wednesday night in New York City, and for some reason, the National Book Foundation chose to honor several books on the subject of race. Publishers Weekly reports that the ceremony was a response to Trump from the very beginning, as host Larry Wilmore announced that the awards ceremony would henceforth be called “the Trump National Luxurious Evening for Books Big League.”

The evening began with two pre-announced awards: Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady were given the Literarian Award for Outstanding Achievement to the American Literacy Community for founding Cave Canem, an organization dedicated to black poets, and Robert A. Caro, author of The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson, was given the Lifetime Achievement Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.

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The main awards began with a bang as the first graphic novel to ever win a National Book Award won the Young People’s Literature category: March: Book 3, by Nate Powell, Andrew Aydin, and civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis. It’s the third book of a trilogy about Lewis’ life and achievements, and, according to Slate’s Dan Kois, speaks directly to our moment:

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Lewis, accepting the award, thanked an elementary school teacher who had encouraged him to read after he was denied a library card because of his race. Illustrator Powell addressed the president-elect directly, asking him “to take this trilogy into your tiny hands and to hold it in your tiny heart.”

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In the nonfiction category, Ibram X. Kendi won for Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi’s book, framed around the lives of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, W.E.B. DuBois, and Angela Davis, traces racist ideas in American intellectual life throughout history. The fiction award went to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a novel that imagines the flight from slavery as a literal railroad. Whitehead, like Powell, also discussed the incoming administration in his acceptance speech, referencing “the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland that we’re going to inhabit.”

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Beyond the artistic merits of this year’s winners, March, Stamped From the Beginning, and The Underground Railroad all have particular resonance in an era when white supremacists are once again ascendant in American political life. But where does poetry winner The Performance of Becoming Human, by Daniel Borzutzky, fit in to the theme? Well, like all the other winners in the main awards, Borzutzky’s a man, a gender disparity even National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas pointed out:

But does The Performance of Becoming Human speak to the life under Trump currently stretching horribly before us all? Well, perhaps a clue can be found in this Brooklyn Rail review: Borzutzky reportedly describes his book as a “lullaby for the end of the world.”

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