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2016’s National Book Award winners grapple with America’s legacy of racism

The 2009 New Yorker Festival: Fiction Night
Writer Colson Whitehead reads his work at The 2009 New Yorker Festival: Fiction Night at DGA on October 16, 2009 in New York City.
Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images for The New Yorker
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

If the winners of the 2016 National Book Awards are sure about one thing, it’s that America is a violent, racist dystopia of a country — and always has been. All of this year’s awards, announced on Wednesday night, went to books that explore and condemn America’s legacy of racism.

The fiction winner was no surprise: Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is also an Oprah’s Book Club pick, and it’s been celebrated for its combination of propulsive plotting and complex philosophical ideas. It’s about a slave woman named Cora who’s trying to escape the antebellum South on the Underground Railroad — only here, the railroad is a literal railroad, and as Cora travels across state lines, she’s also traveling through time. The result is a vivid and visceral exploration of how much the legacy of slavery continues to haunt America today.

The nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which features similar themes. Tracking racist ideas and speech throughout our history, Kendi shows how racism has been fundamentally entwined with American institutions since before the founding of the republic, and how so many of our most brilliant thinkers worked to keep it there — not out of ignorance, but because it was convenient for them to do so.

And don’t worry: If anyone starts to think that reading a book about racism absolves them from complicity with the system, the poetry winner will set them straight. In Daniel Borzutzky’s The Performance of Becoming Human, poetry is just another cog in the violent, racist machine of capitalism. There can be no redemption through art, because art, like everything else, is part of the monstrous system.

If there’s any hope to be had, it comes from the winner for young people’s literature, Congress member John Lewis. The last surviving member of the Big Six of the civil rights movement, Lewis has spent the past three years recounting his experience through a series of graphic novels (written with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell).

The books delve into the inner workings of the movement: the grueling training in nonviolent resistance, the harrowing bus rides through Klan-controlled towns, the humiliating fire hoses, the jail time, the tear gas. The final volume and now National Book Award winner, March: Book Three, is organized around Bloody Sunday, the day police officers violently beat peaceful protesters as they tried to march to Selma. It serves as a kind of manual for how to resist racism and fight hate, even when the world is at its darkest and most frightening.

As America grapples with its recent choices, and as President-elect Donald Trump installs quasi-white-nationalists in positions of power, the winners of the National Book Award feel shockingly timely. They teach us how our history led us to this political moment, and they show us the way forward.

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