January 2007 Issue
In 1935, Edith Anisfield-Wolf, a Cleveland poet who wanted to encourage society to address racism and other social injustices, created an annual award to celebrate books that fostered racial understanding and cultural diversity.
Seventy-one years later, more than 170 authors, poets and lifetime achievers have joined the stellar lineup of recipients of the Edith Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. They include civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., poet-playwright-essayist Langston Hughes and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison.
"Edith Anisfield-Wolf grew up in a socially aware activist family," says Kathleen Cerveny, program director for arts and culture for The Cleveland Foundation, the nonprofit organization that has managed the award since Anisfield-Wolfâ€™s death in 1963.
"She thought of this award as a way to combine her love of literature with her desire to deal with the issues of race and social justice. She must have been an incredibly creative individual."
Cerveny says she knows of no other book award that focuses on social justice themes.
Current award-winners honored at a recent event at the Cleveland Play House are British novelist Zadie Smith, for On Beauty, which interweaves class, race and gender; Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore, for New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan; and novelist William Demby, who received a lifetime achievement award for novels including Beetlecreek, The Catacombs and Love Story Black, which confront racial issues in an unconventional and personal manner.
Each award-winner received a $10,000 prize, courtesy of the Cleveland Foundation, which supports a variety of community programs and initiatives.
"[Anisfield-Wolf] understood that fiction would be part of the key to understanding the turmoil of the future," says Demby. "In 1935, most black achievements were recorded only in black newspapers. Itâ€™s just amazing that she could conceive of an award of this nature."