Why The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards Are Good For You
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
This Thursday, the annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards will be held in Cleveland. The prize, which is known as the black Pulitzer Prize, is one of the great literary events of the year. The award has recognized the achievements of such authors as Toni Morrison and Martin Luther King Jr. From member station WCPN, David C. Barnett tells us about an award recognizing people who've joined the national conversation about race and belonging.
DAVID C. BARNETT, BYLINE: Jericho Brown says he's gotten used to suspicious looks and muttered comments as one of the few African-Americans in his suburban Atlanta neighborhood. But even he was surprised when a police officer followed him into his driveway one day.
JERICHO BROWN: He walks (laughter) up to me and starts asking me questions, you know, in the front yard of my house (laughter) that I am paying the mortgage on. And this has been the case for my life since I was about 14 or 15 years old.
BARNETT: Brown turns his rage over such incidents into poetry.
BROWN: (Reading) Show me a man who tells his children the police will protect them and I'll show you the son of a man who taught his children where to dig...
BARNETT: That's an excerpt from Brown's 2014 collection, "The New Testament," one of this year's Anisfield-Wolf book award winners. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Rita Dove has been an Anisfield-Wolf juror for 20 years. She says poetry is a powerful voice.
RITA DOVE: The poem can concentrate a particular instant, draw the reader or the person who is in the audience into that moment so that they have to live it with you.
BARNETT: Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created the prizes in 1935 to honor books that make a contribution to a better understanding of race and diversity and to honor her father's passion for social justice. Awards manager Karen Long says that focus has evolved and expanded from Wolf's original idea.
KAREN LONG: She was thinking black, white, Jewish, basically. Now there are books that confront tensions around the Muslim, Christian worlds, transgender identity, Asian-American experience.
MARILYN CHIN: I was born in Hong Kong, and I was raised in Portland, Ore. And at that time, there weren't that many Asian families. And so I was bullied, beat up a lot. So I write these heroine figures to talk back to the past.
BARNETT: That's Marilyn Chin, who is also an Anisfield-Wolf poetry winner this year.
CHIN: I am an immigrant poet, and I have lost a lot. I've lost Hong Kong, pretty much. The building of my birth is gone. It's been replaced by a mall.
BARNETT: But her work also addresses what she sees around her today.
CHIN: (Reading) One child has brown eyes, one has blue, one slanted, another rounded, one so nearsighted he squints internal...
BARNETT: Awards juror Rita Dove says both Marilyn Chin and Jericho Brown channel feelings of helplessness and rage as a way of pushing through such emotions to a place of forgiveness.
DOVE: They talk about difference. They write about the pain. And then they also both say I am open to the world. We need to open ourselves to this world that we live in if we're going to live in it with any kind of dignity and fullness.
BARNETT: Despite the long roster of well-known writers who have taken home the Anisfield-Wolf Award, and despite the fact that the winners get cash prizes equal to the Pulitzer's or the National Book Awards, Anisfield-Wolf remains a relatively unknown honor. Awards manager Karen Long suspects she knows why.
LONG: Things that address race are considered, sometimes in the larger culture, as homework or broccoli or good for you.
BARNETT: That's right, says Jericho Brown. They can be good for you. They can teach you tenderness.
BROWN: Those moments of tenderness, those moments of intimacy, I think, are the moments in poetry that tell us actually the real way to solve some of these problems. And that has to do with a simple consideration of one another as human beings.
BARNETT: This Thursday, Jericho Brown and Marilyn Chin join historians Richard Dunn and David Brion Davis and novelist Marlon James for the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony. They become part of a conversation that's still going strong after 80 years. For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett in Cleveland.