Politics and the 2016 presidential election infused the 2016 National Book Awards on Wednesday night, from the Donald Trump jokes of emcee Larry Wilmore to poet Joy Harjo’s statement, “We absolutely need poetry as we move forward from last Tuesday,” as she announced the winner in poetry.
The winning books — including Colson Whitehead’s novel “The Underground Railroad” — all had weighty themes, dealing with the civil rights movement, immigration, racism and slavery.
Lisa Lucas, the first black woman to head the National Book Foundation, said that judges read 1,464 books to come up with the list of finalists. “The simple act of reading creates community where each and every one of us will always be welcome,” Lucas said.
“We need thoughtful prose. We need them to inspire us, and to recognize us, and to affirm our place in the world. We need literary activists of all kinds. We need to reach readers, new readers. We need to come together. And there is no better way to start the conversation we need to have than by reading.”
“We must be the dog that guards the house. We must be the bark and the bite,” poet Terrance Hayes said as he awarded the Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the African-American poetry organization Cave Canem.
The prize for young people’s literature went to Rep. John Lewis for “March: Book Three,” a graphic novel about the civil rights movement written with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell.
Lewis choked up as he accepted the award.
“This is unreal,” Lewis said. “This is unbelievable. I grew up in rural Alabama, very, very poor, very few books in that home.” He remembered going to the library as a child and being turned away.
“We were told that libraries were for whites only, not for coloreds. To come here and receive this award, it’s too much. … Thank you.”
Minnesota writer Kate DiCamillo was a finalist in the young people’s category for “Raymie Nightingale,” the second time she has been a finalist. She was also on the long list in 2013 for “Flora & Ulysses.”
The nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi for “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.”
And the poetry award went to Chilean-American poet Daniel Borzutzky for “The Performance of Becoming Human.”
Robert A. Caro, biographer of Lyndon Johnson, won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Upon taking the stage, Caro immediately quoted Johnson.
After a particularly laudatory introduction, Caro said, Johnson once said, “I wish my parents were alive to hear that introduction. My father would’ve loved it, and my mother would’ve believed it.”
Caro thanked his publisher, editors and agent of 44 years, and his wife, Ina, the only person he trusted to help with his research. When he told his wife he wanted them to move to the hill country of Texas to do research, she said, “Why don’t you write a biography of Napoleon instead?”
“And then,” he said, “we moved.”