At this year’s National Book Awards, the US sees its racist past up close

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“Wow, the National Book Foundation is woke!” said comedian Larry Wilmore at an award’s ceremony on the night of Nov. 16 in downtown New York City.

The host was referring to this year’s winners of the National Book Awards, the US’s biggest literary prize. The recipients across four categories include three black men writing about the United States’s racist past, one of whom is civil rights leader and US congressman John Lewis.

The mood at the award ceremony was nervous, with speakers making digs at president-elect Donald Trump while also expressing concern that their efforts toward inclusion and intellect will be undone.

Still, the list of winners shows that the foundation, led by Lisa Lucas, the first woman and first African-American to direct it, will not be deterred.

The 2016 awards, each worth $10,000, went to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad for fiction, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America for nonfiction, Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human for poetry, and John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell’s March: Book Three for young people’s literature. All show a country confronting conflicts both historical and political with its minority groups.

The 2016 winners are highlighted below:


  • The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • News of the World, by Paulette Jiles (William Morrow)
  • The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan (Viking Books)
  • The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday)
  • Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson (Amistad)
Image for article titled At this year’s National Book Awards, the US sees its racist past up close
Image: Courtesy Doubleday

Colson Whitehead’s page-turner The Underground Railroad follows the lives of Cora, a slave from Georgia, and the friends and enemies she meets along the storied anti-slavery route. Having escaped from a cotton plantation, Cora moves from state to state in the American south and is confronted by the brutal violence of the men who want to return her to her masters. The novel is about “the myriad ways in which black history has too often been stolen by white narrators,” wrote the New York Times.


  • 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)
  • The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, by Andrés Reséndez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
  • Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, by Heather Ann Thompson (Pantheon Books)
Image: Courtesy Nation Books

Stamped from the Beginning is 600 pages of the history of racist ideas in the US. Ibram X. Kendi weaves through the lives of five key American intellectuals, tracing a complex journey and development of the ideas of racism. In conducting his research, said the history professor, he “spent years looking at the absolute worst of America.” But in doing so, he added, “I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end.”


  • The Performance of Becoming Human, by Daniel Borzutzky (Brooklyn Arts Press)
  • Collected Poems 1974 – 2004, by Rita Dove (W. W. Norton & Company)
  • Archeophonics, by Peter Gizzi (Wesleyan University Press)
  • The Abridged History of Rainfall, by Jay Hopler (McSweeney’s)
  • Look, by Solmaz Sharif (Graywolf Press)
Image: Courtesy Brooklyn Arts Press

Daniel Borzutzky’s poetry collection is one of borders, refugees, and racism. The poet draws a relationship between the US and Latin America, and is fiercely political in criticism of the oligarchical powers that run the United States. “In his figurative world our bodies are forced through privatized meat grinders,” writes poet Carmen Giménez Smith, “but funnily in the way that all dark horror stories trigger our gallows humor.”

Young people’s literature

  • Raymie Nightingale, by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick Press)
  • March: Book Three, by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (Top Shelf Productions / IDW Publishing)
  • When the Sea Turned to Silver, by Grace Lin (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers)
  • Ghost, by Jason Reynolds (Atheneum Books for Young Readers/Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing)
  • The Sun Is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon (Delacorte Press/Penguin Random House)
Image for article titled At this year’s National Book Awards, the US sees its racist past up close
Image: Courtesy Top Shelf Productions

March: Book Three is the final in a graphic novel trilogy about the life of US congressman John Lewis. It follows his struggles as a young man in the Jim Crow United States as he prepares to march on Selma, Alabama. Accepting his award with tears, the civil rights leader recalled being a teenager in 1956, trying to get a library card in his home in Alabama, and being told that libraries were “only for whites and not for coloreds.”