The 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards | A Continuing Commitment to Social Justice

The 84th annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards reflect the founder's goal of honoring books that confront racism and celebrate diversity.

Established in 1935 by Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf and presented by the Cleveland Foundation, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards are unique among national juried awards in honoring books that confront racism and celebrate diversity. This year’s 84th annual awards Anisfield-Wolf Logowere announced on April 14 by distinguished poet Jericho Brown, himself a past winner. Titles honored include nonfiction winner Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War (Penguin Pr.), fiction winner Tommy Orange’s There There (Knopf), and poetry winner Tracy K. Smith’s Wade in the Water (Graywolf), and Sonia Sanchez was given a lifetime achievement award. Says Karen Long, manager of the book awards at the Cleveland Foundation, “[Wolf] intuited that a commitment to civic justice through literature would be as important now as it was during the Great Depression.”

Delbanco’s The War Before the War, also a Mark Lynton History Prize winner and New York Times Critics' Best Book of 2018, examines the brutal reality cover of Delbanco's The War Before the Warof slave flight, the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the consequences of that act, exposing the hollowness of America’s boast of freedom. In Wade in the Water, Pulitzer Prize winner Smith, the current U.S. Poet Laureate, uses found poems, historical correspondence, and astringent lyric to deepen our understanding of the African American experience. 

Orange’s There There, a multi-award-winning, multi-voiced debut, delineates the Native American experience and particularly that of urban Native Americans, setting his book in Oakland, CA. In an interview with LJ, he argued passionately for the recognition of Natives as a largely urban group, contrary to mythic expectations: “For at least ten years, 70 percent of Natives have lived in cities, and if we aren’t getting a real, modern, factual account of this experience, it’s another way of disappearing.” Complementing last year’s lifetime achievement award to Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday, Orange’s award highlights the continuing need to acknowledge Native American life, woefully underrepresented in literature.

Recent winner of the Wallace Stevens Prize from the American Academy of Poets, Sanchez is not just a poet and playwright but a dedicated activist cover of Orange's There Therewho was instrumental in founding and promoting the Black Arts Movement, which in the mid-20th century reenergized African American creativity. She was particularly influential in encouraging recognition of the performative aspect of the written word, a  feature that now figures so largely in the artistic landscape.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., who directs the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, where he is also the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, is chair of the Anisfield-Wolf jury, which includes poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker, and historian Simon Schama. The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored September 26 at the KeyBank State Theatre in Cleveland, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates, and will be part of the fourth annual Cleveland Book Week. For additional information, and a complete list of the recipients since 1935, visit


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Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Book Review; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, to which she has just been reelected.

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