Northeast Ohio's Prestigious, Yet Under-Appreciated Literary Gem

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Indiana poet Adrian Matejka embodies America’s diversity. His birth father was black, his mother is white, there is some native American in his family tree, and his step-father is Polish

ADRIAN MATEJKA: My last name throws everything off --- it’s hard to spell, it’s hard to place, and when you see me, it’s even more complicated.

The complicated story of race and identity in this country is explored in Matejka’s most recent book, The Big Smoke --- a collection of 52 poems about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Matejka was out to correct what he sees as the inaccuracies in how Johnson has been previously portrayed – especially in the stage and film productions of The Great White Hope.

ADRIAN MATEJKA: Jack Johnson would quote poetry, he would recite Shakespeare, he trained himself classically on the viola --- he would do all these things that he imagined a gentleman was supposed to do, but none of that appears in The Great White Hope. It was just this kind of country, black guy who’s got a thing for white women and can box.

The Big Smoke was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, but it won an equally distinguished literary honor --- the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created this prize nearly 80 years ago. Noted Cleveland book seller, Richard Gildenmeister, recalls her as a formidable presence.

RICHARD GILDENMEISTER: She was sort of a tall woman and very imposing --- when she came into a room, you knew she was there. She was good at what she was doing and she knew what she was doing. And she had the money and the brains to do it.

Former awards manager Mary Louise Hahn says Wolf was looking to honor her father John Anisfield’s passion for social justice.

MARY LOUISE HAHN: She knew she wanted to do something in his memory and she had decided that the most important issue facing the United States in the 20th century was the issue of Race.

And in 1934, Anisfield-Wolf established an annual book award in her father’s name that honored works devoted to the subject of racial relations. This was 20 years before civil rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery Alabama. It was nearly 30 years before Martin Luther King, Jr. made his “I Have a Dream” speech. In fact, King was a recipient of the Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1959 --- four years before he rose to national prominence. Speaking at last year’s awards ceremony, Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates reflected on the award’s unlikely roots.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: You know every time I think about this prize, I think, “How anomalous” --- a poet in the 1930s, who happened to be a white woman, endows one of the first --- if not the first --- prizes in celebration of what today we would call “excellence and diversity”.

The roster of winners reads like a who’s who of African American writers, ranging from Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes, to Toni Morrison and August Wilson.

HENRY LOUIS GATES: “So many black people won it, that it used to be nicknamed the “black Pulitzer Prize” --- at least “uptown”.

But, in more recent years, the award has expanded from race relations in the US, to global issues of cultural diversity. For instance, one of this year’s lifetime achievement honorees is 93-year-old Sir. Wilson Harris, a native of Guyana whose fiction uses a dense, almost mystical writing style to explore the subtleties of racism.

SIR WILSON HARRIS: Some oppression is subtle, some oppression is dominant. There is a mystery to freedom, there is a mystery to truth, there’s a mystery to knowledge. And one has to pursue this all the time with an awareness that what one is getting at can never be absolutely defined.

While grateful to be honored, Harris admits that he had never heard of this award. That’s an issue that the Anisfield-Wolf prize has struggled with for years. Although the Cleveland award matches the $10,000 dollars given to winners of the New York-based National Book Award and the Pulitzers, those east coast honors seem to get all the press. But, Adrian Matejka says he’ll take the long history of Anisfield-Wolf over the buzz of the Big Apple

ADRIAN MATEJKA: I have several of the winners on my shelves. I had them on my shelves mostly before they had won it. I never thought I had a chance to win it, and now, I’m still doing cartwheels.

Adrian Matejka, Wilson Harris and three others will join an eight-decade roster of winners tonight in a ceremony at the Ohio Theater in downtown Cleveland.

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