Most of the articles published in the wake Wednesday’s National Book Awards ceremony—in the New York Times, NPR, the Washington Post, and so on—noted how the presenters and winners addressed our current political landscape. In almost “every award announcement, speakers in the deep-blue literary community addressed Trump’s stunning upset of Democrat Hillary Clinton and how authors should respond,” writes the Associated Press. Well, not exactly.
Colson Whitehead certainly did. “Outside is the blasted hellhole wasteland of Trumpland, which we’re going to inhabit,” he said, accepting his award for The Underground Railroad. “Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power,” he continued, invoking Public Enemy at the National Book Awards for what must surely be the first time in the ceremony’s history. (Shortly afterward, host Larry Wilmore quoted Kendrick Lamar: “We’re gonna be alright.”)
And so did Andrew Aydin, who addressed Trump directly when he took the stage for March: Book III. “I challenge you to take this trilogy into your tiny hands and allow it to transform your tiny heart.”
So the National Book Awards ceremony, held eight short days after a brutally divisive presidential election and comprising writers with personal convictions strong enough to drive book-length expressions of them, became a political event. Could it have been anything else?
In times of consensus, awards ceremonies—each of which necessarily contain great langueurs—can only hope for memorably sodden speeches or antics outré enough to shock viewers out of their boredom, exemplified by Sally Field on one end and Madonna on the other. In times of conflict, you get Sacheen Littlefeather refusing an Oscar on Marlon Brando’s behalf.
The National Book Awards has yet to have its Soy Bomb, and maybe it never will. But Wednesday night seemed a triumph, even for a viewer watching the proceedings in Chicago on her laptop: with no seat fillers, no audience reaction shots, and a single, static camera, it managed to be entertaining, provocative, and encouraging all at once.
This had much to do with the National Book Foundation’s new executive director, Lisa Lucas, the first black woman (and the first black person, and the first woman) to hold the job. A New York Times article published upon Lucas’s February appointment emphasized the challenges Lucas faced “at a time of increased scrutiny of artistic diversity, from the recent discussion about nominees for the Oscars to the literary world, in which organizations like VIDA keep a close eye on the number of bylines given to women and minority writers.”
It seems Lucas has done an admirable job of meeting these challenges during her short tenure: African-American writers took home three of the four awards, and host Larry Wilmore proclaimed the ceremony “woke”—an assessment repeated in many news outlets. Lucas even acknowledged where she fell short during the awards ceremony on her own Twitter feed:
Resplendent in a gold dress and side bun, she addressed the divisiveness of the moment. “The act of reading creates a community where we are all welcome,” she said. “We need books right now more than we ever have.”
Of course, Lucas’s words have limitations. As Alex Shephard wrote in the New Republic,
For the most part, the 67th National Book Awards were not so different than the sixty-six that came before. This is meant to be an evening for the publishing industry to celebrate itself for promoting free expression and (though this is a relatively recent development) diversity. But it’s always been a bit ironic, in that the National Book Awards are also devoted to a certain kind of publishing, which is to say (typically and with the exception of the Poetry category) mainstream and corporate and moneyed.
Still, it would be hard to ask for more from such an event. Even Shephard thought so: “Too often the people in the room take precedence over what is ostensibly being celebrated, but for the most part and to its benefit that was not true of the 2016 National Book Awards.”
And the most compelling person in the room was, hands down, Rep. John Lewis, who delivered such a moving speech for March that it made me (and more importantly, him, everyone in that room, and everyone watching at home) cry. This is the kind of speech that, if books were less marginal, would have been shared 50,000 times already. Seriously, just watch it.
Ibram X. Kendi’s acceptance speech for Stamped from the Beginning was extremely moving, too. Here’s a selection as quoted in the New Republic (thanks, Alex!):
I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, it’s horrific history of racism. But in the end I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end. Because every racist idea there was an anti-racist idea. For every killer of the mind there was a life-saver of the mind. And in the midst of the human ugliness of racism, there was the human beauty—there is the human beauty in the resistance to racism. That is why I have faith. And I’ll never lose faith that you and I can create an anti-racist America where racial disparities are non-existent, where Americans are no longer manipulated by racist ideas, where black lives matter.
If anything, last night’s ceremony both gave me hope and faith in book-award ceremonies.