In 1997, I came to the Cleveland Public Library (CPL) to serve as the head of community service. The new main library had just opened, and it included a beautifully appointed auditorium. This gave CPL its first opportunity to host the Anisfield-Wolf (A-W) Book Awards ceremony, which they did until the audience outgrew the space in 2003. As a Cleveland newbie, I had never heard of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, and I did not anticipate the impact the awards would have on my own reading.
I attended my first A-W ceremony on June 4, 1998. It was a memorable night. Toi Derricote won for The Black Notebooks, and Walter Mosley for Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. I was already a fan of Mosley’s Easy Rawlins mysteries, and looked forward to following Socrates Fortlow through the complex stories of Mosley’s award-winning collection. The masterful Gordon Parks also took the stage that night to accept a lifetime achievement award, he told a powerful life story set against the backdrop of American history, particularly the civil rights movement.
Somehow, I had been afforded the honor of hosting Parks prior to the event. But I recall it was more like Parks was hosting me—a genius and a gentleman, he insisted on serving me a glass of wine and talking about my work and my family. By the time he took the stage that evening, I was starstruck. Best known as a photographer, it was his words that night that stayed with me, compelling me to make A-W titles a major thread of my personal reading list each year.
A Flat-out Miracle
The A-W Awards, presented by the Cleveland Foundation, can often be overlooked by readers—perhaps understandably; they don’t have the profile of the Pulitzer Prize, or the National Book Awards (which were announced this week at a glitzy ceremony in New York hosted by actress Cynthia Nixon). But the A-W Awards are an important part of the literary landscape in America, with a rich history.
The only American book prizes to focus on works that address racism and diversity, the awards were established by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf in 1935. At this year’s event in September, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chair of the A-W Awards committee, spoke of Wolf’s prescience regarding “the place of race, ethnicity, difference in the shared civic life of any community.” He described the A-W Awards as awards that puts the human experience in the humanities. “Back in 1935,” he said, “that was a flat-out miracle.”
When the A-W Awards ceremony came to the CPL in 1997, it had arrived home, in a sense: Edith Anisfield-Wolf was a CPL trustee from 1943 until 1946, and later her personal book collection, which included copies of every book that had won the award, was bequeathed to CPL. Upon her appointment to the Board, Anisfield Wolf said she envisioned the library as a place that could become more than a space for books and literary pursuits but “the regular meeting place for groups dedicated to the discussion of world problems.”
Her instincts about public libraries and our place in the civic dialogue on race and humanism, particularly through books, was spot-on. Today libraries do indeed play the critical role she envisioned in our public discourse; they are places committed to free speech, to countering hate speech, and fostering a greater understanding of the power we draw from our multicultural society.
“Life depends so much on where we direct our attention,” explains Karen Long, manager of the A-W Book Awards. A longtime friend and colleague. I first met Karen in 2005, when she became the Cleveland Plain Dealer book critic. In 2013, she joined the Cleveland Foundation to lead the A-W Book Awards, a perfect position for a reader and thinker like Karen. She works tirelessly to capture the stories and meaning of the awards. “The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award was the biggest payday of Zora Neale Hurston’s life,” Long recalls. “Five A-W winners have gone on to win the Nobel Prize: Gunnar Myrdal, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nadine Gordimer, Wole Soyinka, and Toni Morrison. And another winner collected his A-W Award after his Nobel Prize: Derek Wolcott.”
In her time at the Cleveland Foundation, Karen has elevated the awards ceremony to the must-attend event of the fall, with a growing audience each year. In addition, she maximizes the winning authors’ visits through year-round programming and by connecting those honored with audiences across greater Cleveland. For example, this year’s poetry winner Tyehima Jess was also featured at Karamu House, connecting the author with the local spoken-word community.
“My dream is to see the Anisfield-Wolf canon enter the groundwater of our region, and then our nation,” Long says. “I hope it becomes a widely used key to how we think about racism, identity, power and equity. And I like that it’s a renewable resource, adding books each year.”
Into Your Heart
Personally, I am often surprised by the books selected by the esteemed A-W Awards jury (which is comprised of five luminaries: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker, and Simon Schama). And as a reader, I sometimes find myself playing catch-up. After a mesmerizing ceremony, for example, I immediately read Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 fiction winner. The same for Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel, which won nonfiction honors in 2008.
Sometimes, the titles and authors are already favorites for me, like the 2009 winner, The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich. Other times, the titles and authors are totally unknown—for example, Rope Burns by F.X. Toole, a 2001 winner. Toole was already 70 years old when Rope Burns was first published, and his rambling storytelling at the 2001 awards ceremony (and the next day at the City Club of Cleveland) was especially memorable, interwoven with tales about boxing, and his own literary heroes, including William Butler Yeats.
Sadly, Toole died suddenly the next year, in 2002, and the world lost a major, if largely unknown talent. But in 2004, readers did come to know him, when one of his books, Million Dollar Baby, was adapted to film and won the Academy Award for best picture.
No question, the titles and authors honored by the A-W Awards make a great “must read” list for anyone concerned with some of the most challenging and charged issues in our culture. In 2010, the 75th anniversary of the award, I was finally able to share my love of the winners community-wide. At my library, the Cuyahoga County Public Library, we conducted a year of book discussions based solely on previously awarded titles. As one customer later told me, “It was an honor to participate in such a meaningful year of reading.”
Given current events in our nation, the books and authors honored by the A-W Awards have become even more meaningful, and a number of my friends and colleagues wondered whether this year’s A-W Awards ceremony, which was held on September 7 at the State Theater in Playhouse Square here in Cleveland, would be a more politically charged event. Karan Mahajan, who won for The Association of Small Bombs, quickly struck a different tone.
“Hopefully we can all find within ourselves a way to pause the different species of rage that we are experiencing in the country right now,” he told the audience. “I think novels can offer one way of doing that. I believe all the books that have been selected today essentially help us achieve that in a way that watching cycles of news can’t.”
Other speakers echoed that sentiment. “The only way to make the American story a true story is to make the American story a complete story,” observed Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly.
Peter Ho Davies, author of The Fortunes, elevated the conversation further in his remarks. “We’re in a moment in history when that great American welcome can seem in doubt,” he observed. Davies went on to speak movingly of his own “welcome to America” as a writer. “If you can take a book into your heart, a book about immigrants say or any other,” he concluded, “you can take a person or a people into your heart.”
Isabel Allende, lifetime achievement award winner, was perhaps the most overtly political speaker of the evening. Allende shared with the audience the tragic inspiration for her human rights foundation, the Isabelle Allende foundation—the premature death at age 29 of her daughter, Paula, an educator and psychologist who had dedicated much of her life to working as a volunteer in poor communities in Venezuela and Spain. Allende left us all with words to live by, words that ring especially true for the library community.
“When in doubt, ask yourself what is the most generous thing to do,” Allende said. “Today, as a nation, we need to ask ourselves what is the most generous thing that we can do for others?”
Sari Feldman is executive director of the Cuyahoga County Public Library in Cleveland, Ohio—one of the nation’s largest and highest-rated public library systems—and a former president of both the Public Library Association (2009–2010) and the American Library Association (2015–2016).