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Comedian Larry Wilmore Hosts 67th National Book Awards Ceremony

Nov 17, 2016
Originally published on November 17, 2016 2:35 pm
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Celebration mixed with politics at last night's National Book Awards in New York City. The literary crowd was acutely aware that they were in the same city where President-elect Donald Trump is planning his transition. Joy is an act of resistance, said one of the winners. And that seemed to set the tone for the evening, as NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: About halfway through the award presentations, comedian Larry Wilmore who hosted the event came to a conclusion that seemed to surprise him.

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LARRY WILMORE: Let me tell you something - the National Book Foundation is woke.

(LAUGHTER)

NEARY: Woke - because in an industry known for its whiteness, most of last night's winners were black. And woke because some of those winners had no hesitation in calling out the racism they fear may be ushered in by the Trump administration. Even before the presentations began, Congressman John Lewis talked about his concerns for the future.

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JOHN LEWIS: The past week has made me feel like I'm living my life all over again - that we have to fight some of the same fights. To see some of the bigotry, the hate - I think there are forces that want to take us back.

NEARY: Lewis and his two co-authors, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, went on to win the Young People's Literature Award for "March: Book Three" of a graphic memoir, which tells the story of his life in the civil rights movement. In accepting the award, Lewis spoke about his childhood.

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LEWIS: And 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 library was for whites only and not for coloreds (sobbing). And to come here, receive this award...

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

LEWIS: ...It's too much.

NEARY: A special award for service to the literary community went to Cave Canem, an organization that has fostered African-American poetry. Co-founder Cornelius Eady encouraged the room to cherish the good feelings of the evening.

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CORNELIUS EADY: Hold on to this moment because right now, uptown, there are people in a building that are trying to write a narrative about who we are and who we're supposed to be and what to do about us. And when you lose that story - when you lose that narrative or you allow that narrative to be taken from you, bad things happen.

NEARY: Biographer Robert Caro also won a special award for lifetime achievement. And the award for poetry went to Daniel Borzutzky for his collection "The Performance Of Becoming Human." Ibram X. Kendi won the nonfiction award for "Stamped From The Beginning," a history of racist ideas in America. He told the audience that now, more than ever, is a time when we need faith.

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IBRAM X KENDI: I just want to let everyone know that I spent years looking at the absolute worst of America, its horrific history of racism. But in the end, I never lost faith. I never lost faith that the terror of racism would one day end.

NEARY: Slavery and the drive to flee it is the main narrative of the fiction award winner, "The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead. He said he's come up with a simple formula for dealing with the recent election.

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COLSON WHITEHEAD: Be kind to everybody, make art, and fight the power. That seemed like a good formula - for me anyway.

NEARY: But it was comedian Larry Wilmore who had the last word of the evening.

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WILMORE: Well, thank you, guys. This concludes "BET Presents The National Book Awards"...

(LAUGHTER)

WILMORE: ...(Laughter) With a special guest Robert Caro.

NEARY: Lynn Neary, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.