Veteran watchers of the National Book Awards will note the first black writer to receive the prestigious award: Ralph Ellison, author of Invisible Man (1954). The award was a boon for Ellison financially: as he writes in his Introduction to Invisible Man, he had to catch work whenever he could. And the National Book Award also raised his status reputation-wise — he would become a literary eminence grise, collecting awards and courtesy professorships and sitting as a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters. It was less a boon for his writing: Ellison never wrote a major novel again. Subsequent winners of the National Book Awards have not suffered, presumably, from Ellison’s tragic writer’s block. But neither have they written — as Ellison had with Invisible Man — the novel of their era, or a book quite so articulate about the dilemma of individuality on such broad human terms, written with pathos and comedy.
This year’s most highly publicized winner, writing on the topic of race and winning in the “Non-Fiction” category, is Ta-Nehisi Coates. His book Between the World and Me is a fiery polemic and personal testimony about a black man’s struggle to come terms with a country that hates and exploits and violates his very being and that of his people. It’s frightful at the visceral and psychological levels. Coates along with this year’s other black winner (an unusual fact: two black NBA winners at the same time), poet Robin Coste Lewis, and past black winners, say, novelist Jesmyn Ward are doing the hard work of making us conscious of the black experience in its tragedy, joy, and meaning. Though only a handful—14 black NBA winners since 1990—we still rejoice. We rejoice!