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When Isabel Wilkerson was researching “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration,” she came across poet Carl Sandburg’s reporting for the Chicago Daily News. He wrote that Chicago, among other Northern cities, was a “receiving station and port of refuge” for the 6 million Black Americans abandoning the Jim Crow South. He wrote, too, of Eugene Williams, a Black teenager who “swam across an imaginary segregation line” at 29th Street beach, igniting the Chicago race riots of 1919.
“The way (Sandburg) distilled the complexity of the migration itself and of what happened during the summer of 1919 gave us an early window into what would ultimately come,” Wilkerson said in a phone interview. “He spoke of ‘receiving stations’ of the great migration: That’s poetry.”
And so, when Chicago Public Library named Wilkerson the 2020 winner of its annual Carl Sandburg Literary Award, the honor carried particular weight. “It was very meaningful to me to discover (a man who) would become one of our beloved and renowned poets in the trenches writing,” said Wilkerson, whose latest book is “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “This is a profound honor for me.”
The Chicago Public Library and its Foundation announced Wednesday that its annual awards event will proceed this year — virtually, due to the pandemic — on Dec. 9. In addition to Wilkerson, poet Nate Marshall and Foundation board member Donna LaPietra will receive honors.
Marshall, author of the critically acclaimed collections “Finna” and “Wild Hundreds,” is the winner of the 21st Century Award, which recognizes an author with Chicago ties. In a phone interview, Marshall said he has many fond memories of the Library as a kid from West Pullman. He remembers spending time in the Walker and Woodson branches as well as Harold Washington Library Center.
“Libraries, in general, are one of the last truly public places we have,” he said, noting that his grandmother was a librarian at Manley and Fenger high schools. "You go to the library, and you see kids in there hanging out and spending time. And then you see homeless folks or you see folks on computers looking for jobs. You see professors looking in the archives. I don’t know if there’s another place in our society where that cross-section of folks is sharing space in that way.
“And there isn’t someone in that mix who’s being criminalized or who they’re trying to push out. That to me feels really important.”
As the mission of public libraries has evolved, LaPietra — who will receive the Library’s inaugural Civic Award — has helped the Foundation board to reframe its support. “We’ve had to make sure we were answering the needs of the total community. … It’s now a community center as much as it is a repository for great literature.”
LaPietra, a longtime producer, is a member of several nonprofit boards across the city and played a key role in the creation of Millennium Park.
The pandemic, LaPietra said, underscored the importance of the Library in the city.
“When you think of how many things were closed, the one institution that the mayor and all of us who were committed to the Library wanted to see opened were the libraries: a place where people could come free of charge,” LaPietra said. “The pandemic has underscored inequalities. … We’ve been delighted that the library has been open and safe.”
This year, the Library’s online awards presentation will be open to the public with a suggested donation starting at $10, Foundation President Brenda Langstraat said. The event, which is the Foundation’s headline fundraiser each year, typically raises about $2 million for the Library. Perks will be available to those who donate $100 or more, but the overall $2 million fundraising target remains the same, given the continuing support of donors, such as presenting sponsor BMO Harris Bank.
Longtime Chicago news anchor Bill Kurtis will host the event, while NPR’s Scott Simon will interview Wilkerson.
Wilkerson is the first author to receive a Sandburg Award after having been a One Book, One Chicago author — in 2013-14 for “The Warmth of Other Suns.” That program culminated with a talk at Harold Washington Library Center; afterward, the hours-long book signing morphed into something of a reunion, as people she interviewed for her book arrived, some in wheelchairs, with their families to see Wilkerson.
One woman had written earlier to tell her that her father had mentioned being interviewed for a book. She hadn’t thought much about it, until she picked up “The Warmth of Other Suns” and found her father’s story in its pages. He had died by then, but when Wilkerson saw the woman in line, she recognized her just by how closely she resembled her father.
“She shared with me how moved she was,” Wilkerson said, recalling the tears that flowed that day. "That’s the power of nonfiction: These are real people, and narrative nonfiction allows us to get inside. It’s the closest anyone will get to being another person. It requires you to go deep, that you hear their stories, that you take the time to understand their motivations and trials and tribulations and triumphs.
“You get to know them so well, you almost can imagine yourself as these people — real people who exist and move among us. That moment in the Chicago Public Library was a moment of narrative nonfiction.”
The Chicago Public Library Foundation Awards will livestream at 6:30 p.m., Dec. 9. For details, visit cplfoundation.org/2020/awards.
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