2019 Anisfield-Wolf Winners Grapple with Race and Identity

2015 Anisfield-Wolf winner Jericho Brown announced this year's honorees, Thursday night.
2015 Anisfield-Wolf winner Jericho Brown announced this year's honorees, Thursday night [Taylor Carpenter]
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The winners of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards were announced Thursday evening by author Jericho Brown, a prior winner, at the South Euclid-Lyndhurst branch of the Cuyahoga County Public Library. 

The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners

Tracy K. Smith [Rachel Eliza Griffiths]

POETRY - Traci K. Smith: She is the U.S. Poet Laureate and previous winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, “Life on Mars." 

"And, unusual for a laureate, she has not only put out a book of her poems during her tenure, but some of the poems speak to our national moment," said Karen Long, Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards manager. "It’s called 'Wade in the Water.'"


Tommy Orange [photo: Elena Siebert]

FICTION- Tommy Orange: "This is an Anisfield-Wolf win for a debut book, 'There, There,' which is very unusual, but he is an out-sized talent," Long said.  "He’s a member of both the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, and he grew-up in Oakland, California.  71 percent of indigenous Americans live in cities now, and that is an unexplored fictional space."  

Andrew Belbanco [photo: Zachary Peckler]

NON-FICTION – Andrew Delbanco: Delbanco’s “The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War” is a “brilliant historical analysis” and “a course for strength for the road ahead," said jury chair Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in a release. 

Delbanco has authored several books and is the Alexander Hamilton Professor of American Studies at Columbia University.

Sonia Sanchez [photo: Jim Alexander]

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT- Sonia Sanchez: "She has been a force for literature and for a good swath of the 20th century," said Long, who added that the native of Birmingham, Alabama, will be 86 when she comes to Cleveland for the awards ceremony in September. "She has more than 12 poetry collections and was a central figure among a group of politically oriented African-American artists of the 1960s and ‘70s, known as the Black Arts Movement. She’s credited as the first person to teach black studies at a majority white institution, San Francisco State University, in 1966."


The literary prize was founded in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf to honor books that explore issues of race and human diversity. For the past few weeks, the awards jury has weighed the relative merits of an assortment of poetry, fiction and nonfiction.

"We have an unusual system in that we’ve had the same five jurors for more than 20 years," Long said.  The jury consists of historian Henry Louis Gates, poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, art historian Simon Schama and psychologist Steven Pinker.

"Each year, Edith Anisfield Wolf has allowed us to think again about the American table, which started with only white men with property sitting down, in the sense of being able to vote," said Long, who compared the evolution of U.S. history to adding leaves to that table.

"And I think of the awards as paralleling that history," Long said.  "When Edith started the prize in 1935, she was thinking mostly black, white, Jewish. But now, we have LGBTQ literature, we have Asian identity novels, we have books that address Islam, and each year, I want to see where the new leaf of the table will land."

2015 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award winner Jericho Brown signs autographs at the 2019 winners announcement [David C. Barnett / ideastream]


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