On a night of nervous laughter and resilient tears and applause, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for fiction and Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis, of Georgia, shared the prize for young people’s literature for a graphic novel about his civil rights activism.
The awards were presented Wednesday during an emotional dinner ceremony in Manhattan, with Larry Wilmore serving as host and President-elect Donald Trump the running theme and arch-villain. From Wilmore’s opening monologue through virtually every award announcement, speakers in the deep-blue literary community addressed Trump’s stunning upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton and how authors should respond.
“Outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland, which we’re going to inhabit,” said Whitehead, whose Oprah Winfrey-endorsed narrative about an escaped slave was the year’s most talked about literary work. “I hit upon something that made me feel better: be kind to everybody, make art and fight the power.”
Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human won for poetry, and historian Robert Caro was presented an honorary medal for lifetime achievement.
Ibram X Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America won for nonfiction and an honorary award was given to the founders of Cave Canem, a Brooklyn-based foundation for black poets.
“I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, its horrible history of racism, but in the end I never lost faith,” Kendi said. “In the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there is the human beauty of the resistance to racism.”
No speaker moved the crowd more than Lewis, who collaborated with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell on a trilogy of illustrated works titled March. Cited Wednesday for the finale, March: Book Three, the 76-year-old Lewis became tearful as he remembered a librarian in his native Alabama who refused to let him borrow books because of his skin color. He then remembered an elementary school teacher who told him “Read, my child, read!”
“And I tried to read everything,” he said.
Wilmore, whose rueful jokes about Trump at the beginning of the night seemed to depress rather than amuse the gathering of writers, publishers, editors and others, got a good laugh at the end when he called the evening the BET (Black Entertainment Television) production of the National Book Awards.
The awards are presented by the National Book Foundation and the ceremony was the first under executive director Lisa Lucas, the first black and first woman to have the job.
Each of the winners in the four competitive categories received $10,000.