Baltimore native Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for nonfiction Wednesday for “Between the World and Me,” his best-selling meditation on race and police violence in the United States, written in the form of a letter to his 15-year-old son.
It was the latest honor in a year of accolades for Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine. In September, he was awarded a $625,000 “genius grant” as a 2015 fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
In July, 600 people packed Baltimore’s Union Baptist Church to see Coates speak during the launch of “Between the World and Me.”
“I wrote this book because when people talk about the African-American community, what they never talk about is fear,” he told the audience. “They never talk about how afraid we are for our bodies, how afraid we are for our children and how afraid we are for our loved ones on a daily basis.”
It was only two months after the death of Freddie Gray ignited protests and unrest in West Baltimore and beyond. Coates grew up in West Baltimore, the son of a former Black Panther, publisher and librarian and a teacher.
The National Book Foundation called “Between the World and Me” a “powerful indictment of racial politics in America.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison said it was “required reading,” and declared Coates the intellectual successor to James Baldwin.
Coates told The Baltimore Sun in July that he wrote the book with a black audience in mind.
“I wanted to say to the community: “I see your pain, and you're not crazy.” There's racism, and then there's the mind tricks people play on you by telling you that the racism isn't real.”
Coates said he was against “race supremacy and all of its flaws.”
“I'm not against any one group of people,” he said. “It's a question of power. A woman could have written the same book about men and made the same arguments. The system is larger than all of us, and even those of us men who don't want to be involved in the system are involved.
“The point I'm making in the book is that the whole notion of race, of whiteness and blackness, can't be divorced from the notion of power.”
In accepting the National Book Award, Coates paid tribute to his friend and former Howard University classmate Prince Jones, “who was 'killed because he was mistaken for a criminal,'“ the National Book Foundation tweeted.
Jones, 25, was shot to death in 2000 by an undercover Prince George’s County police officer in Fairfax County, Va.
Earlier this year, Coates was a visiting fellow at the American Library in Paris. He won the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice for “The Case for Reparations,” his June 2014 cover story in The Atlantic. That piece also won a George Polk Award for commentary.
Coates’ 2013 essay, “Fear of a Black President,” won a National Magazine Award.
Starting next spring, Coates will be writing a new Black Panther series for Marvel Comics, which was originally created in 1966 and featured the first black superhero. He’s also working with Taylor Branch, David Simon and James McBride on the upcoming HBO series “America in the King Years.”
Coates described eradicating racism as a long-term project.
“I think you have to understand that the history of enslavement in this country is older than America itself,” he told The Sun. “It's older than emancipation. We have a large task in front of us, and it probably won't get completed in our lifetimes. Hopefully, in three, four or five generations we will see a world that has purged itself of racism.
“But for now, we can do one very basic and tangible thing. We have to stop arresting people just because they see a police officer and run.”
The National Book Award for fiction went to Adam Johnson's story collection “Fortune Smiles.” The prize for young people's literature went to Neal Shusterman's “Challenger Deep” on Wednesday night. Robin Coste Lewis' debut collection “Voyage of the Sable Venus” was the winner for poetry.
All winners received $10,000.
Don DeLillo received a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to American letters. James Patterson was honored for his advocacy of reading and literacy.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.