Thursday, November 20, 2008

NBA Winner Annette Gordon-Reed on Obama, Texas

The National Book Awards is the book world's equivalent of the Oscars. Last night, the annual black-tie ceremony in New York City took place at the Cipriani Wall Street restaurant – a luxe upgrade over the previous venue of the somewhat threadbare Times Square Marriott Marquis. With tables going or as much as $25,000 each (or about the same annual salary as an editorial assistant makes in a year) there were no cheap seats. From the sound of the speeches, it could have passed for an Obama fundraiser, with most of the speeches invoking the President elect’s name.

This year, 200 publishers submitted 1,258 books to compete for the awards honoring the year's best works of fiction, nonfiction, young people's literature and poetry. Of those, 20 finalists were selected, five in each category. What surprised me is that four of the nominees that graced the list were Texans. Kathi Appelt, Reginald Gibbons, Annette Gordon-Reed and Mark Doty – were all Texans (two native Houstonians, one by proxy, and another from 40 miles north.). And what’s more, Mark Doty and Annette Gordon-Reed won.

That Doty took the prize isn’t a surprise – his book, Fire to Fire: New and Collected Poems, culls the best from more than two decades of Doty’s exemplary work. He’s a great poet and more than deserving of the award.

Annette Gordon-Reed is a more interesting case. She won in the nonfiction category for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family, a group biography of one family of slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson. It covers Jefferson's relationship with Sally Hemings, who became a lover and bore him children, as well as the rest of her family.
Her timing couldn’t have been better.

“The book examines the origins of American’s way of dealing with race through the eyes of this mixed race family. We’re able to do that by looking at the family of a man who was president,” she wrote to me in a pre-prize interview. “It’s amazing to contemplate that the president I write about held black people as slaves, and we will now inaugurate a black president.”

Ms. Gordon-Reed was raised at a time when Texas cities were still, by and large, segregated:

"I can remember as a little girl going to separate waiting rooms at the Sadler Clinic and sitting in the balcony at the Crighton Movie Theatre. I integrated our school district, which wasn’t the easiest thing for a 6 year old, but it gave me an early sense that blacks were on a journey of sorts, from worse to better, I hoped and still hope.”

She told me, “Obama’s ascendancy doesn’t solve all problems, but it is a major step in the right direction,” adding, “Although the majority of whites did not vote for him, I can take some comfort in the fact that huge numbers did not go out to vote against him, to prevent the election of a non-white person to the presidency. I think that would have happened in years past.

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