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The 2021 National Book Award Nonfiction Longlist

9 Books | by Likewise User verified icon

This year's finalists include cultural criticism, history, and more.

A Little Devil in America

A Little Devil in America

Hanif Abdurraqib

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • “A masterpiece” (Minneapolis Star Tribune), a “devastating” (The New York Times) meditation on Black performance in America from the MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and bestselling author of Go Ahead in the RainWINNER OF THE GORDON BURN PRIZE • “Gorgeous essays that reveal the resilience, heartbreak, and joy within Black performance.”—Brit Bennett, author of The Vanishing HalfAt the March on Washington in 1963, Josephine Baker was fifty-seven years old, well beyond her most prolific days. But in her speech she was in a mood to consider her life, her legacy, her departure from the country she was now triumphantly returning to. “I was a devil in other countries, and I was a little devil in America, too,” she told the crowd. Inspired by these few words, Hanif Abdurraqib has written a profound and lasting reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture. Each moment in every performance he examines—whether it’s the twenty-seven seconds in “Gimme Shelter” in which Merry Clayton wails the words “rape, murder,” a schoolyard fistfight, a dance marathon, or the instant in a game of spades right after the cards are dealt—has layers of resonance in Black and white cultures, the politics of American empire, and Abdurraqib’s own personal history of love, grief, and performance.Abdurraqib writes prose brimming with jubilation and pain, infused with the lyricism and rhythm of the musicians he loves. With care and generosity, he explains the poignancy of performances big and small, each one feeling intensely familiar and vital, both timeless and desperately urgent. Filled with sharp insight, humor, and heart, A Little Devil in America exalts the Black performance that unfolds in specific moments in time and space—from midcentury Paris to the moon, and back down again to a cramped living room in Columbus, Ohio.

Tastes Like War

Tastes Like War

Grace M. Cho

FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTIONThis evocative memoir of food and family history is "somehow both mouthwatering and heartbreaking... [and] a potent personal history" (Shelf Awareness).Grace M. Cho grew up as the daughter of a white American merchant marine and the Korean bar hostess he met abroad. They were one of few immigrants in a xenophobic small town during the Cold War, where identity was politicized by everyday details—language, cultural references, memories, and food. When Grace was fifteen, her dynamic mother experienced the onset of schizophrenia, a condition that would continue and evolve for the rest of her life.Part food memoir, part sociological investigation, Tastes Like War is a hybrid text about a daughter’s search through intimate and global history for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia. In her mother’s final years, Grace learned to cook dishes from her parent’s childhood in order to invite the past into the present, and to hold space for her mother’s multiple voices at the table. And through careful listening over these shared meals, Grace discovered not only the things that broke the brilliant, complicated woman who raised her—but also the things that kept her alive.“An exquisite commemoration and a potent reclamation.” —Booklist (starred review)“A wrenching, powerful account of the long-term effects of the immigrant experience.” —Kirkus Reviews

Covered with Night

Covered with Night

Nicole Eustace

On the eve of a major treaty conference between Iroquois leaders and European colonists in the distant summer of 1722, two white fur traders attacked an Indigenous hunter and left him for dead near Conestoga, Pennsylvania. Though virtually forgotten today, this act of brutality set into motion a remarkable series of criminal investigations and cross-cultural negotiations that challenged the definition of justice in early America.In Covered with Night, leading historian Nicole Eustace reconstructs the crime and its aftermath, bringing us into the overlapping worlds of white colonists and Indigenous peoples in this formative period. As she shows, the murder of the Indigenous man set the entire mid-Atlantic on edge, with many believing war was imminent. Isolated killings often flared into colonial wars in North America, and colonists now anticipated a vengeful Indigenous uprising. Frantic efforts to resolve the case ignited a dramatic, far-reaching debate between Native American forms of justice--centered on community, forgiveness, and reparations--and an ideology of harsh reprisal, unique to the colonies and based on British law, which called for the killers' swift execution.In charting the far-reaching ramifications of the murder, Covered with Night--a phrase from Iroquois mourning practices--overturns persistent assumptions about "civilized" Europeans and "savage" Native Americans. As Eustace powerfully contends, the colonial obsession with "civility" belied the reality that the Iroquois, far from being the barbarians of the white imagination, acted under a mantle of sophistication and humanity as they tried to make the land- and power-hungry colonials understand their ways. In truth, Eustace reveals, the Iroquois--the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, as they are known today--saw the killing as an opportunity to forge stronger bonds with the colonists. They argued for restorative justice and for reconciliation between the two sides, even as they mourned the deceased.An absorbing chronicle built around an extraordinary group of characters--from the slain man's resilient widow to the Indigenous diplomat known as "Captain Civility" to the scheming governor of Pennsylvania--Covered with Night transforms a single event into an unforgettable portrait of early America. A necessary work of historical reclamation, it ultimately revives a lost vision of crime and punishment that reverberates down into our own time.

All That She Carried

All That She Carried

Tiya Miles

A renowned historian traces the life of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women to craft an extraordinary testament to people who are left out of the archives."A history told with brilliance and tenderness and fearlessness."--Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose faced a crisis, the imminent sale of her daughter Ashley. Thinking quickly, she packed a cotton bag with a few precious items as a token of love and to try to ensure Ashley's survival. Soon after, the nine-year-old girl was separated from her mother and sold. Decades later, Ashley's granddaughter Ruth embroidered this family history on the bag in spare yet haunting language-- including Rose's wish that "It be filled with my Love always." Ruth's sewn words, the reason we remember Ashley's sack today, evoke a sweeping family story of loss and of love passed down through generations. Now, in this illuminating, deeply moving new book inspired by Rose's gift to Ashley, historian Tiya Miles carefully unearths these women's faint presence in archival records to follow the paths of their lives--and the lives of so many women like them--to write a singular and revelatory history of the experience of slavery, and the uncertain freedom afterward, in the United States. The search to uncover this history is part of the story itself. For where the historical record falls short of capturing Rose's, Ashley's, and Ruth's full lives, Miles turns to objects and to art as equally important sources, assembling a chorus of women's and families' stories and critiquing the scant archives that for decades have overlooked so many. The contents of Ashley's sack-- a tattered dress, handfuls of pecans, a braid of hair, "my Love always"--are eloquent evidence of the lives these women lived. As she follows Ashley's journey, Miles metaphorically unpacks the bag, deepening its emotional resonance and exploring the meanings and significance of everything it contained.All That She Carried is a poignant story of resilience and of love passed down through generations of women against steep odds. It honors the creativity and fierce resourcefulness of people who preserved family ties even when official systems refused to do so, and it serves as a visionary illustration of how to reconstruct and recount their stories today.

The Black Civil War Soldier

The Black Civil War Soldier

Deborah Willis

A stunning collection of stoic portraits and intimate ephemera from the lives of Black Civil War soldiers Though both the Union and Confederate armies excluded African American men from their initial calls to arms, many of the men who eventually served were black. Simultaneously, photography culture blossomed—marking the Civil War as the first conflict to be extensively documented through photographs. In The Black Civil War Soldier, Deb Willis explores the crucial role of photography in (re)telling and shaping African American narratives of the Civil War, pulling from a dynamic visual archive that has largely gone unacknowledged. With over seventy images, The Black Civil War Soldier contains a huge breadth of primary and archival materials, many of which are rarely reproduced. The photographs are supplemented with handwritten captions, letters, and other personal materials; Willis not only dives into the lives of black Union soldiers, but also includes stories of other African Americans involved with the struggle—from left-behind family members to female spies. Willis thus compiles a captivating memoir of photographs and words and examines them together to address themes of love and longing; responsibility and fear; commitment and patriotism; and—most predominantly—African American resilience. The Black Civil War Soldier offers a kaleidoscopic yet intimate portrait of the African American experience, from the beginning of the Civil War to 1900. Through her multimedia analysis, Willis acutely pinpoints the importance of African American communities in the development and prosecution of the war. The book shows how photography helped construct a national vision of blackness, war, and bondage, while unearthing the hidden histories of these black Civil War soldiers. In combating the erasure of this often overlooked history, Willis asks how these images might offer a more nuanced memory of African-American participation in the Civil War, and in doing so, points to individual and collective struggles for citizenship and remembrance.

Running Out

Running Out

Lucas Bessire

"This book-the first ethnography of water conservation on the Great Plains-provides an account of High Plains aquifer decline through an exploration of the different ways in which heartland residents inhabit and understand the imminent depletion of groundwater. This literary ethnography offers a vividly sketched look into the lives and stories of this community, based on interviews with members of the community such as fellow farmers and state regulators, woven together with historical data, journalistic documentation, and Bessire's personal reflections of his family's lived experiences. (Five generations of the author's family have lived in the region as farmers and ranchers.)"--

The Ground Breaking

The Ground Breaking

Scott Ellsworth

** Chosen by Oprah Daily as one of the Best Books to Pick Up in May 2021 ** 'Riveting ... Ellsworth deserves our thanks for his patient efforts to bring to light the history of the Tulsa Race Massacre' Eric Foner, London Review of Books ‘Fast-paced but nuanced ... impeccably researched ... a much-needed book’ The Guardian '‘[S]o dystopian and apocalyptic that you can hardly believe what you are reading. ... But the story [it] tells is an essential one, with just a glimmer of hope in it. Because of the work of Ellsworth and many others, America is finally staring this appalling chapter of its history in the face. It’s not a pretty sight.' Sunday Times A gripping exploration of the worst single incident of racial violence in American history, timed to coincide with its 100th anniversary. On 31 May 1921, in the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, a mob of white men and women reduced a prosperous African American community, known as Black Wall Street, to rubble, leaving countless dead and unaccounted for, and thousands of homes and businesses destroyed. But along with the bodies, they buried the secrets of the crime. Scott Ellsworth, a native of Tulsa, became determined to unearth the secrets of his home town. Now, nearly 40 years after his first major historical account of the massacre, Ellsworth returns to the city in search of answers. Along with a prominent African American forensic archaeologist whose family survived the riots, Ellsworth has been tasked with locating and exhuming the mass graves and identifying the victims for the first time. But the investigation is not simply to find graves or bodies – it is a reckoning with one of the darkest chapters of American history. Praise for The Ground Breaking: ‘[A] riveting, painful-to-read account of a mass crime that, to our everlasting shame ... has avoided justice. Ellsworth’s book presents us with a clear history of the Tulsa massacre and with that rendering, a chance for atonement ... Readers of this book will fervently hope we take that opportunity.’ Washington Post

The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us

Heather McGhee

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • LONGLISTED FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD • One of today’s most insightful and influential thinkers offers a powerful exploration of inequality and the lesson that generations of Americans have failed to learn: Racism has a cost for everyone—not just for people of color. “This is the book I’ve been waiting for.”—Ibram X. Kendi, #1 New York Times bestselling author of How to Be an Antiracist Heather McGhee’s specialty is the American economy—and the mystery of why it so often fails the American public. From the financial crisis of 2008 to rising student debt to collapsing public infrastructure, she found a root problem: racism in our politics and policymaking. But not just in the most obvious indignities for people of color. Racism has costs for white people, too. It is the common denominator of our most vexing public problems, the core dysfunction of our democracy and constitutive of the spiritual and moral crises that grip us all. But how did this happen? And is there a way out?McGhee embarks on a deeply personal journey across the country from Maine to Mississippi to California, tallying what we lose when we buy into the zero-sum paradigm—the idea that progress for some of us must come at the expense of others. Along the way, she meets white people who confide in her about losing their homes, their dreams, and their shot at better jobs to the toxic mix of American racism and greed. This is the story of how public goods in this country—from parks and pools to functioning schools—have become private luxuries; of how unions collapsed, wages stagnated, and inequality increased; and of how this country, unique among the world’s advanced economies, has thwarted universal healthcare.But in unlikely places of worship and work, McGhee finds proof of what she calls the Solidarity Dividend: the benefits we gain when people come together across race to accomplish what we simply can’t do on our own. The Sum of Us is not only a brilliant analysis of how we arrived here but also a heartfelt message, delivered with startling empathy, from a black woman to a multiracial America. It leaves us with a new vision for a future in which we finally realize that life can be more than a zero-sum game.

How the Word Is Passed

How the Word Is Passed

Clint Smith

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks - those that are honest about the past and those that are not - that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping America's collective history.It is the story of the Monticello Plantation in Virginia, the estate where Thomas Jefferson wrote letters espousing the urgent need for liberty while enslaving more than four hundred people. It is the story of the Whitney Plantation, one of the only former plantations devoted to preserving the experience of the enslaved people whose lives and work sustained it. It is the story of Angola, a former plantation-turned-maximum-security prison in Louisiana that is filled with Black men who work across the 18,000-acre land for virtually no pay. And it is the story of Blandford Cemetery, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers.A deeply researched and transporting exploration of the legacy of slavery and its imprint on centuries of American history, How the Word Is Passed illustrates how some of America's most essential stories are hidden in plain view - whether in places we might drive by on our way to work, holidays such as Juneteenth or entire neighbourhoods like downtown Manhattan, where the brutal history of the trade in enslaved men, women and children has been deeply imprinted.Informed by scholarship and brought to life by the story of people living today, Smith's debut work of non-fiction is a landmark of reflection and insight that offers a new understanding of the hopeful role that memory and history can play in making sense of the United States and how it has come to be.

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