As the year draws to a close, the inevitable tide of award ceremonies is underway. Many have already taken place, from the Pulitzer Prize to the Emmys, but probably one of the most important award ceremonies for this year was The National Book Awards.
As many such as NPR have mentioned, the 67th National Book Award took a political focus, several of the winning texts directly address race and politics. The winners include novelist Colson Whitehead as Fiction prize winner for The Underground Railroad, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America took the Nonfiction prize, and Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell collectively won the Young People’s Literature award for their collaborative work on the graphic novel series March.
The winners for Fiction, Non-Fiction, Poetry, and Young People’s Literature directly address race in America in one context or another; historicizing racial ideology, reimagining the underground railroad, contending with immigration, or chronicling the life of a prominent figure since the civil rights movement. Like many other classical art forms, literature isn’t above being white-centric, so this year’s winners and finalists are a welcome change. The awards are also a prime example of how art can engage with race and other issues.
Congressman Lewis’s acceptance speech, where he told the story of how, as a teenager, he was denied a library card because of his race, was both heartbreaking and a testament to social progress. March illustrates the history of the civil rights movement for young audiences through Lewis’s life experiences. Lewis’s life, work, and speech highlights that the civil rights movement must be preserved for future generations because it is not just the history of the past, but history in the making.
This award season shows that art can and does take an active role in the present, and that there are many voices that still need to be heard. Colson Whitehead ended his award speech with the statement, “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power. That seemed like a good formula – for me anyway.”
Many of the speeches by the winners are worth viewing. For those who missed the award ceremony, hosted by writer and comedian Larry Wilmore, footage is still available on the official National Book Foundation’s website and youtube channel.
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