At a gala ceremony in New York City, the 67th National Book Awards gathered many of literature’s leading lights in celebration of just a few authors: Colson Whitehead, who won in the fiction category; Ibram X. Kendi, in nonfiction; Daniel Borzutzky, in poetry; and Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell in young people’s literature.
The fiction prize went to Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, a novel that was 16 years in the making. As Whitehead told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross earlier this year, his idea was born first of a childhood misunderstanding: that the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a literal locomotive.
He nurtured that idea into his adulthood, turning it into an exploration of the United States. The novel traces a slave’s journey to freedom as a kind of American Gulliver’s Travels, “rebooting every time the person goes through a different state,” Whitehead told Gross.
Perhaps the most emotional moment of the night came just a bit earlier, though, when the medal for young people’s literature went to March: Book Three. The third book in a series of graphic memoirs, the collaboration by Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell tells the story of Lewis’ work during the civil rights movement.
As Lewis accepted the award with Aydin and Powell, he tearfully recalled his childhood in rural Alabama, where he says the library refused to give him a library card because of the color of his skin. But he did not relent.
“I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who told me, ‘Read my child, read!’ ” Lewis said. “And I tried to read everything.”
He added: “To come here and receive this award — it’s too much.”
The nonfiction prize went to scholar Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi’s comprehensive study finds the threads of racism as they wind throughout U.S. history and traces them from their origins. Even as he delved deeply into some of this country’s bleakest moments, Kendi said in his acceptance speech, he kept his belief in that country and its people.
“I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America,” Kendi said. “I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end; in the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there is the human beauty of the resistance to racism.”
Daniel Borzutzky took home the prize for poetry, for his book The Performance of Becoming Human. A bleak, often dystopian book, it is a work that came out of “the idea that literature and poetry can serve as a means of producing a social and historical memory,” Borzutzky said.
One medal, however, came as no surprise: Robert A. Caro had already been announced the winner of the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, the National Book Foundation’s version of a lifetime achievement award. The journalist and biographer, who is perhaps best known for his multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, has won more literary awards than would be feasible to list here — including another National Book Award, in 2003 for The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate.
In accepting his medal, Caro made the award less about his own work than those who have supported him over the decades.
“The most important thing about a journey is your companions,” he said, and one companion especially: his wife, Ina. Other historians may have a team of researchers at their disposal, he said, and “I have a team of researchers, too: It’s Ina. She is the whole team.”
Yet even amid the glitz and the winners, one figure in particular seemed to cast a long shadow over the evening — and he wasn’t even in attendance. Donald Trump, both explicitly and implicitly, served as a focal point of many of the night’s speeches.
Host Larry Wilmore set the tone early, taking aim at the president-elect with a series of quips and barbs in his opening monologue. Of Trump’s election last week, Wilmore noted: “It’s exciting in the way that an asteroid hurtling toward Earth is exciting.”
Later, he added the that the election was having its own effect on bookstores across the country: “They’re moving all copies of the Constitution to the fiction section.”
Others, however, responded to the events of the past week in more somber tones. Poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady — who accepted the literarian award for service to the literary community on behalf of their organization Cave Canem — spoke of the role that poets have in shaping the narrative around minority communities.
“Right now, as we speak, there are people in a building trying to write a narrative about who we are. When you allow that narrative to be taken from you, bad things happen,” Eady told the crowd.
The nonprofit Cave Canem, the 12th recipient of the literarian award, has spent 20 years dedicated to supporting and promoting the work of African-American poets nationwide. And, in a declaration to close out his speech, Eady explained the group’s work — and the work of so many of the authors present — this way: “Our job and duty is we get to say who we are — to write our story, who we are, in our own language in our own way.”
On a night that so often swung between laughter and resolve, his colleague Derricotte’s closing statement felt especially fitting: “Joy is an act of resistance.”