The National Woke Awards

By Shaun Tan

By Shaun Tan

Founder, Editor-in-Chief, and Staff Writer


Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship in 2017 and the Pulitzer Prize in 2020 for her work on the rather dubious 1619 Project (Picture Credit: Associação Brasileira de Journalismo Investigativo)

This week, the finalists for this year’s National Book Award were announced.


Amongst the finalists in the fiction category are The Prophets, “a Black queer love story of two enslaved men on a Deep South plantation who find tenderness in the face of oppression,” and Hell of a Book, which is about a black child growing up in the rural south, exploring issues like George Floyd’s killing and what it means to be black in America. Finalists in the non-fiction category include A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance, “a reflection on how Black performance is inextricably woven into the fabric of American culture,” and All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake, “the story of an enslaved woman’s cotton bag.” Finalists in the poetry category include What Noise Against the Cane, which “mines the complexities of home for a Black woman in contemporary America,” and Sho, which “plays with Black vernacular and performance to investigate race, masculinity, and current events.”


Are you starting to notice a pattern here?


Books on race, or focusing on the theme of race, completely dominate the list of finalists. In case anyone’s wondering if I’m cherry-picking these examples, here are the specifics: 2 out of the 5 finalist books in the fiction category are on race; in non-fiction, it’s 4 out of 5; in poetry, it’s 3 out of 5; in young people’s literature, it’s 2 out of 5.


The National Book Awards aren’t unusual. This year’s Pulitzer Prizes are similarly fixated on race. The Pulitzer for biography was awarded for a book on Malcolm X, the Pulitzer for breaking news reporting was awarded for “coverage of the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and of the reverberations that followed,” the Pulitzer for commentary was awarded for “columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city’s monuments to white supremacy,” the Pulitzer for general non-fiction was- well, you get the picture. In fact, the majority of the Pulitzer Prizes this year – 12 out of the total of 23 – were awarded for work focusing on race, specifically race in America (and I’m not even counting the “special award” given to Darnella Frazier, the bystander who recorded George Floyd’s killing on her phone)[1]. Check out the full list here if you don’t believe me.

The majority of the Pulitzer Prizes this year – 12 out of the total of 23 – were awarded for work focusing on race, specifically race in America.

Of course, race is an important issue that’s worthy of discussion, and I don’t begrudge minorities their day in the spotlight. But when such a wildly disproportionate number of these awards and honors – and sometimes even most of them – are given for works on race, this suggests not recognition, but obsession. Are there truly no other topics as important – or even half as important – today as race? Yes, since the US and a few other countries were roiled by the Black Lives Matter protests/riots last year and are still reckoning with its reverberations, it’s to be expected that work on race will be “trendy.” But institutions that purport to promote excellence, like the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes, should resist fads in favor of timeless standards of quality – they should be more than barometers of what’s trending on Twitter. And, incidentally, if we’re talking about hot topics, how many Pulitzer Prizes were awarded this year for writing on COVID – you know, the once-in-a-century pandemic that’s spread across the world, killing millions of people and upending life in just about every country? Two.[2] How many National Book Award finalists this year were books on COVID (or even infectious disease in general)? Zero.

Black Lives Matter protestors in 2020

This race-obsession can also be seen in this year’s MacArthur Fellowships, also known as the “MacArthur Genius Grants.” 13 out of the 25 recipients this year were awarded MacArthur Fellowships for their work on race. This year’s recipients include film-scholar Jacqueline Stewart, who “ensures that the contributions of overlooked Black filmmakers and communities of spectators have a place in the public imagination,” historian Monica Munoz Martinez, who “brings to light long-obscured cases of racial violence along the US-Mexico border and their reverberations in the present,” and famous racist huckster Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist (who in 2016 won the National Book Award for non-fiction for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America). The work of some others, like essayist Hanif Abdurraqib and art historian Nicole Fleetwood, at first glance seem to not be about race…until you click on their bios and discover that the former’s essays are on “the continued suffering inflicted on Black bodies at the hands of police and others,” and that the latter focuses on “representations of Blackness in art, performance, and popular culture, particularly how assumptions within American culture about Blackness are disrupted or reinforced by Black artists and public figures.” As before, the pandemic is a useful control to use here. How many people this year received MacArthur Fellowships for their work on COVID, a far more important issue today than race (or infectious disease in general)? Two: computational virologist Trevor Bedford and microbiologist Victor J. Torres.

Ibram X. Kendi, who won the National Book Award for non-fiction in 2016 and a MacArthur Fellowship this year (Picture Credit: Montclair Film)

Increasingly, the recipients of America’s most illustrious awards nowadays seem to fit a certain mold. Not only do they tend to work on race, they tend to look at it in the same way: addressing racial oppression – past, present, or imagined – from the perspective of a supposedly oppressed race (usually black or Hispanic) suffering at the hands of (usually white) villains, and/or the celebration of said oppressed race in a society that’s stacked against them. Which would be fine if that’s what these awards are meant to be recognizing. But they’re not. The National Book Awards claim to honor the best writing published each year in general. The Pulitzer Prizes claim to “honor excellence in journalism and the arts” – there is no qualification that this excellence should chiefly be on racial issues. The MacArthur “Genius Grants” are meant to reward, well, genius, not genius primarily in the field of race.


This is not to say that those who’ve received these awards for their work on race are unimpressive people – I’m sure many of them are very accomplished in their fields. But what are the chances that they’re all more deserving than all the other authors who chose to write on topics other than race, or all the other candidates working on infectious disease or climate change or genetics or robotics or number theory or human rights or countless other things? What are the chances that the bulk of the most impressive work being done now just happens to be on the same topic, and that that topic is race? Extremely unlikely.

What are the chances that the bulk of the most impressive work being done now just happens to be on the same topic, and that that topic is race?

The most likely explanation is that these institutions have been swept up in the same race-mania that has consumed so many others in the United States in recent years. It’s difficult to exaggerate just how far this obsession has gone. Nowadays, even an article in The New Yorker on a 50-year-old series of science-fiction novels has to contain a lament about “the dearth of any characters of color.” Almost every single email newsletter I get from my alma mater, Yale, now includes something on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as if the university’s main purpose is to promote these things rather than, you know, generate and disseminate knowledge.


If, as the numbers strongly suggest, the selection committees of the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and the MacArthur Fellowships have jumped on this bandwagon and are giving preferential treatment to candidates who address race in a certain way, they’re doing everyone a grave disservice. They rob more deserving candidates of the grants and honors that are rightfully theirs. They also demean the awards themselves. Can we still assume that someone who won a Pulitzer for his work on race did so because he was the most impressive candidate, or was it because race-hysteria tipped the scales in his favor – and what does that mean for the prestige of the prize itself henceforth?


If that is indeed the case, these institutions should at least be honest about it. Maybe they should rebrand – the National Woke Awards, perhaps, or the Pulitzer Race Writing Prizes, or the MacArthur Grievance Grants – and dispense with the pretense that they actually reward the best work.


It’s a real shame, though. I adore great journalism and great literature, as, I suppose, anyone in my profession must, and, as an elitist, I adore genius. We will have considerably less of all three if the most prestigious intellectual awards in America increasingly recognize only one field and only one kind of view on it. I shudder to think of the degeneration in intellectual life and the flood of godawful writing on race that is sure to result. By betraying their stated commitment to excellence to chase a trend, the selection committees of the National Book Awards and the Pulitzer Prizes might have made their institutions more “relevant” to the minority of people who are as race-obsessed as they are. But they’re becoming less and less relevant to the rest of us who just want to find a good read.

The organizers of the National Book Awards, the Pulitzer Prizes, and the MacArthur Fellowships have not responded to requests for comment.

[1] I’m also not counting the Pulitzers awarded for coverage of the closely-related issue of police misconduct.

[2] I count the Pulitzer for public service journalism awarded to the New York Times this year for its “sweeping coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequities” as recognizing work on both race and COVID, since this coverage was on both these topics.