Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Winners Encourage Empathy

Andrew Delbanco, Sonia Sanchez, Tommy Orange and Tracy K. Smith
From left: Andrew Delbanco, Sonia Sanchez, Tommy Orange and Tracy K. Smith
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Racial diversity is at the heart of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, established here in Cleveland more than 8 decades ago. 

Whether it's revealing implicit racism or celebrating diversity, the writers who win the award each year offer a better understanding of race relations in America.

Named for Cleveland philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield Wolf, Cleveland's prestigious book award honors two poets, one novelist and a historian Thursday night in Playhouse Square.

Edith Anisfield Wolf [Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards]

Receiving this year's lifetime-achievement award is poet Sonia Sanchez, one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement and a pioneer of black studies programs in American universities.

Sonia Sanchez [Beacon Press]

"You don't know what it was to sit in a history class and to see us shown as eating watermelon and we were enslaved or we were slaves that they called us at that time," Sanchez said.

By establishing Black History classes, students of color could see their ancestors and therefore themselves in a different light.

"And this was not just for show, this was for America. America needed this, they needed to see the change that was happening," she said.

Reexamining history is what non-fiction winner Andrew Delbanco does in "The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War."

Andrew Delbanco [Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards]

For Delbanco, Abraham Lincoln's empathetic approach to ending slavery is something we can learn from today.

"We ought to cut the opposition a little bit of slack and try not to demonize the enemy, which was one of the elements of Lincoln's greatness. He never demonized slave owners. He hated slavery but not slave owners," Delbanco said. "If I can convey a little bit of that spirit through this book, then I hope I maybe have made a small contribution to the public discourse in our country today, which could certainly use some calming down and some element of mutual respect that right know I think is sorely lacking."  

Poet Tracy K. Smith, who wins the award for her collection "Wade in the Water," agrees that empathy is a much needed commodity today.

Tracy K. Smith [Rachel Eliza Griffiths]

"We're so habituated to making assumptions about other people's stories and their motives. We tell ourselves that we know where other people are coming from. I don't think that's the most healthy approach to relating to anyone. It's particularly unhealthy in a climate where there's so much tension and mistrust," Smith said.

Winning the fiction award is Native American novelist Tommy Orange, whose novel "There, There" is set in an urban setting: his hometown of Oakland, California.

Tommy Orange [Elena Seibert]

"I think it was wanting to represent the experience that I came from and not seeing it represented in literature or in film or very much anywhere in popular culture. It's reservation or historical. It's just not accurate to today's present conditions for Native people," Orange said.

Orange hopes readers come away from his book with more empathy towards Native people.

People can be condescending when they learn he's Native American. "It's just a slew of offensive things that they might not know is offensive, because it's just part of popular culture to think of native people a certain way," he said.

The Anisfield-Book Award has honored writers like these for decades. Names like Toni Morrison, Colson Whitehead, Mohsin Hamid, Maxine Hong Kingston and Martin Luther King, Jr. have all received the award for their writings about race relations in America.

For lifetime-achievement winner Sonia Sanchez, being added to that list is an emotional moment.

"When I got it I cried. Because I know that award, and I know the people who have been awarded that award. And I know that blacks who've been awarded that award also, too. I just said, 'What great company that I'm in,' and I hope I continue to live up to that great, great, great, great ideal that award brings," Sanchez said.

ideastream’s Mike McIntyre, David C. Barnett and Carrie Wise contributed to this report.

The 2019 Anisfield Wolf Book Awards ceremony is Thursday at 6 p.m. in the State Theater of Playhouse Square. You can watch a live internet broadcast of the ceremony at


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