It’s the job of art and culture to hold up a mirror to reality and to shape what we want to see. This year, one of the US’s highest artistic honors shows a nation grappling with its own bloody, racist past through literature.
Yesterday and today the National Book Foundation, which gives out the country’s biggest book prizes, announced its nonfiction and fiction longlists. Several of those 20 books show a nation trying to understand its own dark history, through topics like eugenics, prison, and war. Five books focus on the US’s racist past, the most prominent theme.
In fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (the year’s most highly anticipated non-wizarding fiction book) is a slave narrative that begins on a cotton plantation in Georgia and traces its main character’s way north.
On the nonfiction list, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez investigates the secret history of the slavery of Native Americans, starting with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in what came to be the US. In The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, Manisha Sinha looks at the many groups across American history that fought for abolition.
In Patricia Bell-Scott’s The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, she shows how aspiring writer Pauli Murray shaped Eleanor Roosevelt’s views on social justice and segregation in the country. And in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi traces the intellectual history of anti-black racism in the US.
See the nominee lists in full:
- The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder (W. W. Norton & Company)
- What Belongs to You, by Garth Greenwell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
- Imagine Me Gone, by Adam Haslett (Little, Brown and Company)
- News of the World, by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow)
- The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan (Viking Books)
- The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie (Penguin Press)
- Sweet Lamb of Heaven, by Lydia Millet (W. W. Norton & Company)
- Miss Jane, by Brad Watson (W. W. Norton & Company)
- The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
- Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson (Amistad)
- America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History, by Andrew J. Bacevich (Random House)
- The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice, by Patricia Bell-Scott (Alfred A. Knopf)
- Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, by Adam Cohen (Penguin Press)
- Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, by Arlie Russell Hochschild (The New Press)
- Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by Ibram X. Kendi (Nation Books)
- Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Harvard University Press)
- Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy, by Cathy O’Neil (Crown Publishing Group)
- The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
- The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition, by Manisha Sinha (Yale University Press)
- Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon Books)