At the 67th National Book Awards, held at Cipriani New York in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday night, the junction where politics and publishing meet was in the spotlight from the start.
Larry Wilmore, former host of The Nightly Show on Comedy Central, served as emcee for the evening, and got things started on a political foot. “Welcome to the 2016 National Book Awards!” Wilmore said in his opening bit. “Or, as it’s going to be called, the Trump National Luxurious Evening for Books Big League. Get used to it, everybody.”
“The coming Trump presidency is even affecting the book world,” he added. “[Booksellers are] moving all copies of the Constitution from the nonfiction section to the fiction section…. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is now called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Canada. Pride and Prejudice now has to be called Pride and Really F—in’ Prejudiced.”
Wilmore then introduced David Steinberger, chairman of the board of the National Book Foundation, who set the stage for the pre-announced awards and introduced new NBF executive director Lisa Lucas. “Everyone I’m running into this evening is saying, ‘Where did you find this person? She’s unbelievable. I can’t get over her,’” Steinberger said of Lucas. “I’m just glad I’m talking before her.”
Poet Terrance Hayes introduced Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, founders of Cave Canem, a black poetry organization honored with the Literarian Award for Outstanding Achievement to the American Literary Community.
“Often over the years, I’ve been asked why a group of black poets would call itself Cave Canem. (It’s Latin.) Because blackness, like poetry, means different things, I like to say,” Hayes said. “Writing is lonely all the time. No organization can change that. But Cave Canem is a kind of fortification. Even if you are not a poet or black, it is a fortification of your language, your history, your future.”
NYPL Andrew W. Mellon Director of Research Libraries William P. Kelly then introduced Robert A. Caro, author of Robert Moses biography The Power Broker and a series of biographies on Lyndon Johnson, and the winner of the Lifetime Achievement Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Caro extended prolific thanks to his agent, editors, and publishers, including Lynne Nesbit, Bob Gottlieb, Kathy Hourigan, Sonny Mehta, Andy Hughes, and Paul Bogaards.
Following dinner, NBF executive director Lisa Lucas made her introduction of the awards proper. “I am a black woman, obviously,” Lucas said. “I’m the first woman and first person of color to serve in this role. And that’s a source of pride for me. It’s also a source of inspiration, and I’m reminded every day that as a black woman, it’s my job to make sure there’s more seats at an ever-expanding table.”
Immediately following Lucas’s remarks, Wilmore returned to the stage. “Great writing does not just require you to be smart, or intelligence,” he said. “It requires you to be an athlete of the heart.”
The hall then exploded upon Bridge to Terabithia author Katherine Paterson’s announcement that John Lewis, Nate Powell, and Andrew Aydin had won the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature for March: Book 3. It is the first graphic novel ever to win a National Book Award; its predecessor, March: Book 2, won the Eisner award, making the trilogy the first to win both awards.
Lewis, tearing up, recounted being turned away from a library as a black child growing up poor in rural Alabama, but encouraged by a teacher. “I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who told me, ‘Read, my child, read.’ And I tried to read everything.”
Powell, for his part, directed his remarks to President-Elect Trump. “I challenge you to take this trilogy into your tiny hands and to hold it in your tiny heart,” he said. “None of us are alone in this. Not even you.”
Poet Joy Harjo presented the National Book Award in Poetry to Daniel Borzutzky, author of The Performance of Becoming Human, published by tiny indie Brooklyn Arts Press.
“I want to acknowledge those people who labor in the small press world, which is where I very much come from,” Borzutzky said as he accepted his award. “The Performance of Becoming Human comes out of the experience of thinking about many types of abuse…. I would simply conclude by asking that we all do our part to make sure that this country remains safe for undocumented people, immigrants, and speakers of many languages.”
Masha Gessen introduced the winner of the award for nonfiction, which went to Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.
“I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, its horrific history of racism—but in the end, I never lost faith,” Kendi said after thanking his six-month-old daughter, Faith. “I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end. For every racist idea, there was an anti-racist idea. For every killer of the mind, there was a lifesaver of the mind. There is a human beauty in the resistance to racism. That is why I have faith.”
"Let me tell you something," Wilmore joked immediately following Kendi's speech: "National Book Foundation is woke."
"Outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland that we're going to inhabit. But who knows what's going to happen a year from now," Whitehead said before offering a little advice: "Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power. That seems like a good formula—for me, anyway.... Tell yourself: 'They can't break me, because I'm a bad motherf—er."
In closing, Wilmore joked: "This concludes BET Presents the National Book Awards with special guest Robert Caro." He added: "In the words of Kendrick Lamar, 'We gon' be alright!'"
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article stated that March: Book 3 won the Eisner Award. March Book 2 won the Eisner Award.