Colson Whitehead won the National Book Award for fiction for “The Underground Railroad” in New York on Wednesday night.
Whitehead’s novel is a strikingly original slave narrative that imagines that the underground railroad was an actual subterranean train system. It received an early boost this summer when Oprah Winfrey selected it for her book club, and it has been on the bestseller list since it was published in August.
Three of the four winners at the 67th annual National Book Awards ceremony were African Americans, and the evening was punctuated by frequent expressions of alarm over the election of President-elect Donald Trump.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) won the Young People’s Literature award with his co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell for “March: Book Three.” The widely celebrated graphic novel recounts Lewis’s experience during the civil rights movement. Lewis told the ecstatic crowd, “Some of you know I grew up in rural Alabama — very, very poor with very few books in our home.” Forcing back tears, he recalled walking to a local public library with his siblings to get a library card and being turned away because the library was for whites only.
Powell had a special message for President-elect Trump: “I challenge you to take this trilogy into your tiny hands and allow it to transform your tiny heart.” Aydin, the son of a Muslim immigrant, thanked his mother and said, “Let the prejudice against comic books be buried once and for all!”
Ibram X. Kendi won the nonfiction award for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America” . The author noted that he had named his 6-month-old daughter Imani, which in Swahili means faith. “Her name, of course, has new meaning as the first black president is set to leave and a man who is enthusiastically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan is about to enter. I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolutely worst of America and its horrific history of racism, but in the end, I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end. Because for every racist idea, there was a nonracist idea. And in the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there is the human beauty of the resistance to racism. That is why I have faith, and I’ll never lose my faith.”
Daniel Borzutzky won the poetry prize for “The Performance of Becoming Human.” His success was a special triumph for Brooklyn Arts Press, a small press run from a New York apartment.
All finalists received $1,000 prizes. Each winner received $10,000.
Biographer Robert A. Caro accepted the National Book Foundation’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters. In accepting the lifetime achievement award, Caro recalled a dark moment when New York City urban planner Robert Moses told him that neither he nor any of his relatives or friends would ever talk to him for his planned biography. But Moses eventually changed his mind, and Caro’s resultant book, “The Power Broker,” won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for biography. He went on to write four volumes of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson.” The third volume of his series on the U.S. president won a Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2003. “It’s been a great journey,” Caro said. “I’ve always loved finding things out and trying to explain them.”
Cave Canem, a nonprofit group founded to nurture the work of African American poets, received the National Book Foundation’s Literarian Award for service to the American literary community. MacArthur Fellow “Genius Grant” recipient Terrance Hayes, one of the earliest instructors at Cave Canem, presented the $10,000 prize, the first time the Literarian Award had been awarded to an organization instead of to an individual. Cave Canem was started 20 years ago by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady “to remedy the underrepresentation and isolation of African American poets in the literary landscape.” In her acceptance speech, Derricotte noted that just last year, Cave Canem participants had won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
This was the first NBA ceremony since Lisa Lucas became the foundation’s new executive director in March.
Comedian Larry Wilmore hosted the ceremony with a heavy dose of anti-Trump jokes.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.