Updated at 9:50 a.m. ET
At a gala ceremony in New York City, the 67th National Book Awards gathered many of literature's leading lights in celebration of just a few authors: Colson Whitehead, who won in the fiction category; Ibram X. Kendi, in nonfiction; Daniel Borzutzky, in poetry; and Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell in young people's literature.
On an evening in which many of the winners were black, the speeches were filled by turns with celebrations of great literature, and with condemnations of the racism many of the authors fear from the incoming Trump administration. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, Rep. John Lewis spoke of his concerns for the future, even before the presentations began.
"The past week has mad me feel like I'm living my life all over again — that we have to fight some of the same fights," Lewis said. "To see some of the bigotry, the hate, I think there are forces that want to take us back."
When he later accepted his medal for young people's literature, for his work with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell on March: Book Three, Lewis drew from memories of his own childhood for a tearful speech.
"I remember in 1956 when I was 16 years old, going down to the public library, trying to get library cards, and we were told that the libraries were whites-only and not for coloreds," Lewis said.
But Lewis, whose work in the civil rights movement is chronicled in the March trilogy of graphic memoirs, said he would not relent.
"I had a wonderful teacher in elementary school who told me, 'Read my child, read!' And I tried to read everything," Lewis said.
"To come here and receive this award — it's too much."
The fiction prize went to Whitehead's Underground Railroad, a novel that was 16 years in the making. As Whitehead told Fresh Air's Terry Gross earlier this year, his idea was born first of a childhood misunderstanding: that the Underground Railroad was, in fact, a literal locomotive.
He nurtured that idea into his adulthood, turning it into an exploration of the United States. The novel traces a slave's journey to freedom as a kind of American Gulliver's Travels, "rebooting every time the person goes through a different state," Whitehead told Gross.
The nonfiction prize went to scholar Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi's comprehensive study finds the threads of racism as they wind throughout U.S. history and traces them from their origins. Even as he delved deeply into some of this country's bleakest moments, Kendi said in his acceptance speech, he kept his belief in that country and its people.
"I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, its horrific history of racism," Kendi said. "But I never lost faith. I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end."
Daniel Borzutzky took home the prize for poetry, for his book The Performance of Becoming Human. A bleak, often dystopian book, it is a work that came out of "the idea that literature and poetry can serve as a means of producing a social and historical memory," Borzutzky said.
One medal, however, came as no surprise: Robert A. Caro had already been announced the winner of the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters, the National Book Foundation's version of a lifetime achievement award. The journalist and biographer, who is perhaps best known for his multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, has won more literary awards than would be feasible to list here — including another National Book Award, in 2003 for The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate.
In accepting his medal, Caro made the award less about his own work than those who have supported him over the decades.
"The most important thing about a journey is your companions," he said, and one companion especially: his wife, Ina. Other historians may have a team of researchers at their disposal, he said, and "I have a team of researchers, too: It's Ina. She is the whole team."
Still, even amid the glitz, one figure in particular seemed to cast a long shadow over the evening — and he wasn't even in attendance. Donald Trump, both explicitly and implicitly, served as a focal point of many of the night's speeches.
Host Larry Wilmore set the tone early, taking aim at the president-elect with a series of quips and barbs in his opening monologue. Of Trump's election last week, Wilmore noted: "It's exciting in the way that an asteroid hurtling toward Earth is exciting."
Later, he added the that the election was having its own effect on bookstores across the country: "They're moving all copies of the Constitution to the fiction section."
Others, however, responded to the events of the past week in more somber tones. Poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady — who accepted the literarian award for service to the literary community on behalf of their organization Cave Canem — spoke of the role that poets have in shaping the narrative around minority communities.
"Right now, uptown, there are people in a building trying to write a narrative about who we are, and who we're supposed to be, and what to do about us," Eady told the crowd. "When you allow that narrative to be taken from you, bad things happen."
The nonprofit Cave Canem, the 12th recipient of the literarian award, has spent 20 years dedicated to supporting and promoting the work of African-American poets nationwide. And, in a declaration to close out his speech, Eady explained the group's work — and the work of so many of the authors present — this way: "Our job and duty is we get to say who we are — to write our story, who we are, in our own language in our own way."
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