Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad Wins National Book Award for Fiction

Books News National Book Awards

The 67th National Book Awards were given out last night and, from the recipients to their thank-you speeches, the whole ceremony felt like a reflection on the events of the election.

The winner in fiction was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a surreal story of an escaped slave who discovers a literal underground railroad that shepherds her north. In his acceptance speech, Whitehead said, “We’re happy in here; outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland. Be kind to everybody, make art and fight the power.”

Ibram X. Kendi won the nonfiction award for Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, a book that tracks the development of racist beliefs in American culture. Kendi said in his speech that racism could be stopped even “as the first black president is set to leave the White House and as a man who was emphatically endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan is about to enter it. In the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there was the human beauty. There is the human beauty in the resistance to racism.”

The poetry award went to Daniel Borzutzky for his collection The Performance of Becoming Human, which deals with the relationships between countries, a topic Borzutzky spoke about in his speech, particularly in regards to undocumented immigrants.

March: Book Three, a graphic novel and memoir by civil rights activist Representative John Lewis, writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, took home the award for young people’s literature. Lewis, who helped organize the famous Selma marches during the Civil Rights era, said in his speech that as a child, he had been turned away from his local library for being black, “And to come here and receive this award, it’s too much.”

Also awarded were the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community, which was given to the Cave Canem Foundation for its work in helping African-American poets, and the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, which went to biographer Robert. A Caro, perhaps best known for his work on a multi-volume biography on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

As host Larry Wilmore noted, four out of five awards went to people of color: “This concludes BET Presents the National Book Awards, with special guest Robert Caro.” The notable representation of black authors isn’t a coincidence. Lisa Lucas, in her first year as executive director of the National Book Foundation, has stated that her goal is making the awards more inclusive. Speaking to The New York Times, she said:

Look, I’m a black woman. I care a lot about racial inequity. But when I think about building a nation of readers, I don’t think it’s fair to leave anyone behind. If I say I’m going to focus only on racial inclusivity, and I don’t think about poverty or regional isolation, then I’m failing to connect people, which is what literature does.

Looking at the award-winners, their speeches, and the current state of the country, Lucas is doing an admirable job. Find more info on the 2016 National Book Award winners here.

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