The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award- Gods of the Upper Air


Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards -The Cleveland Foundation

  • Who: Founded by Edith Anisfield Wolf- a poet and philanthropist 
  • What: Books that “have contributed to our understanding of racism and human diversity” (from their website)
  • When: founded in 1935
  • Categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry
  • Prize: $10,000
  • Other winners:

Novel 2020 winner in non-fiction

How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century by Charles King, is the perfect non-fiction book. My mom bought the book for me because she knew I would be interested in the topic. She didn’t even know it won one of the book awards I had already chosen to use for my project. I love to read non-fiction and this is totally in my wheel house because I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology.

This was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. While I know non-fiction isn’t for everyone I would recommend this anyway. I also know it’s hard to read a non-fiction book if you aren’t interested in the topic, but I feel like anyone can find this interesting and educational. We could all benefit from learning how anthropologists started a new way of thinking. They wanted to show how people that reside outside of our personal views are not primitive or savage, but simply just humans with a different set of perspectives and learned behavior.

By making Americans in particular see themselves as sightly strange—their tenacious belief in something they call race, their blindness to everyday violence, their stop-and go attitudes toward sex, their comparative backwardness on women’s roles in governance—Boas and his circle took a gargantuan step toward seeing the rest of the world as slightly more familiar. They taught that no society, including our own, is the endpoint of social evolution.

Non-fiction books can be dry and too full of facts that after you read it you kind of just forget what you read, or the author gets too scientific and you feel like you are stupid because you can’t understand it. At least that is how I feel about it. When an author makes a topic easy to understand it becomes very memorable to me and the author gets my admiration.

With the formal end of Reconstruction, these leaders launched a new wave of race-oriented legislation. Legally enforced segregation, prohibition on interracial marriage, voting restrictions, and other policies introduced from the 1980’s forward created a race-based system of politics and social relations—the authoritatian apartheid scheme eventually known as Jim Crow.

As a person of color I’m always lumping white people together but I found it fascinating that even white people tried to quantify which white people were better than others depending on where they came from (i.e a German man is a better white person than an Irish man.) It must be a tiring way of life to go on thinking of yourself as being better than anyone else. This book felt very well rounded and touched upon some of the most famous anthropologists in the world like Franz Boas (father of anthropology), Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston. It’s not a deep dive into their ideas or research but it gives you an idea of what they wanted to accomplish, what they did accomplish, and the obstacles they faced.

People talk about how reading about our past can really teach us how we got to where we are and that is no joke. It’s easy to think of things in terms of what is happening at the time you are alive, but learning about how we got to where we are will help us change the future. Sometimes the future seems bleak, but to know that positive strides have been made is reassuring. And always keep the hope alive that we will learn more and become better people.

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