Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book “Between the World and Me,” a memoir and historical analysis of racism and white supremacy in America, drew Toni Morrison to compare the author to James Baldwin this year and was published a few months before Coates won a MacArthur “genius” grant. It received a new honor on Wednesday as the recipient of a National Book Award in the nonfiction category.
The other winners of the 66th annual awards, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the U.S., were Adam Johnson, for fiction; Robin Coste Lewis, for poetry; and Neal Shusterman, for young people’s literature.
Coates, a writer for The Atlantic whose widely-read essay “The Case for Reparations” catalogued America’s history of enslavement and systemic oppression as an argument for reparations, wrote “Between the World and Me” in the form of a letter to his teenage son. The book was published amid a national conversation on the relationship between police violence and race in the U.S.
In his acceptance speech, Coates dedicated the award to Prince Carmen Jones, his friend who was shot by a police officer in 2000 when the officer misidentified him as the suspect of a crime. “I’m a black man in America. I can’t punish that officer. ‘Between the World and Me’ comes out of that place,” he said.
Johnson won for “Fortune Smiles,” a short story collection that covers a wide span of topics, from surrealism to futurism, technology and politics. Watch the NewsHour’s chief arts and culture correspondent Jeffrey Brown talk to Johnson about his book “The Orphan Master’s Son” (2012), an account of a young man’s travels through North Korea.
In the young people’s literature category, Shusterman won for his novel “Challenger Deep,” named for the lowest point of the earth in the Mariana trench, which depicts a young protagonist’s experience with schizophrenia. Shusterman’s son was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16, and Shusterman has said his experiences informed the plot and title of the book.
“When my son was in high school, he began to show signs of mental illness,” Shusterman told Horn Book Magazine. “In the depths of it, when he couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what was in his mind, in a moment of despair, he said to me, ‘Sometimes it feels like I’m at the bottom of the ocean screaming at the top of my lungs and no one can hear me.'”
Lewis’ debut collection “Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems” won the prize in poetry. The collection’s title makes reference to an 18th-century engraving that celebrated the slave trade; throughout the book, Lewis “recast[s] history in her own brilliant, troubling terms” with poems that explore racial stereotypes and depictions of black women, The New Yorker’s Dan Chiasson said in a review.