2021 National Book Awards Longlist for Nonfiction

September 2021

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The ten contenders for the National Book Award for Nonfiction

The National Book Foundation announced the Longlist for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The Finalists in all five categories will be revealed on October 5.

The 2021 Nonfiction Longlist includes emerging and established writers, and represents an exceptionally wide range of subjects and genres, from American culture and politics, environmentalism, history, current social issues, to works of memoir, and beyond. Hanif Abdurraqib is the sole author who has been previously honored by the National Book Awards. The Longlisted authors have earned numerous recognitions, including a MacArthur Fellowship, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Kirkus Prize, and the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing, among many others. In addition, their writing has previously appeared in a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Chicago Tribune, BuzzFeed, and O: The Oprah Magazine.

Two books on the list tell the story of American culture—who creates it, who benefits from it, and its impact around the world. Hanif Abdurraqib layers personal experiences, sociopolitical critiques, and celebration of Black genius in A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance. Reflecting on decades of culture, Abdurraqib considers how Black artistry is viewed, consumed, and exploited both by non-Black Americans and communities outside of the United States. Pulitzer Prize–winner Louis Menand explores music, art, and literature from 1945 to 1965 in The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. Menand details how the United States’ democracy, diversity of ideas, and liberty transformed our culture and fueled a creative movement that influenced the world.

In a journey to his ancestral home of southwest Kansas, Lucas Bessire reckons with his family’s legacy and the impending loss of a natural resource in Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains. Bessire addresses the depletion of the Ogallala aquifer, a source of water and life in the American Great Plains across millennia, and demands we all take responsibility for a more sustainable future. Grace M. Cho’s Tastes Like War is part food memoir and part sociological study. In search for the roots of her mother’s schizophrenia, Cho cooks her grandmother’s recipes to nourish her ailing mother, examines the long-term and far-reaching effects of mental illness, and documents how the body carries the effects of war, colonialism, xenophobia, and the immigrant experience.

Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together combines data-driven research, history, and stories from Americans across demographic backgrounds. An economist and political commentator, McGhee identifies the racism at the core of the United States’ most pressing societal problems and provides optimistic solutions to inequality that will benefit all Americans.

Several Longlisted titles are concerned with moments in our past that inform our present. Nicole Eustace recounts the 1722 crime that led to tense confrontations between colonists and Indigenous peoples in Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America. The overlooked murder case of a Native American hunter and eventual trial illuminate dynamic debates about forgiveness and reconciliation that challenged the meaning of justice in the pre-Revolutionary War era. The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship by Deborah Willis tells the often-unacknowledged stories of Black Union soldiers through photographs, handwritten captions, letters, and other artifacts. Willis creates a visual narrative that connects themes of love, loss, bondage, and patriotism, and fills a necessary gap in our understanding of Black American contributions during the Civil War. On the centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, Scott Ellsworth documents how the murder of hundreds of Black Americans and the destruction of their homes, churches, and businesses in Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Greenwood District was deliberately excluded from United States history. In The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice, Ellsworth uncovers missing records and photographs, recounts the search for the unmarked mass graves of the murdered, and voices the need for recognition and reparations for the victims, survivors, and their descendants.

Two titles on the 2021 Longlist explore the legacy of slavery in the United States, from institutional and personal perspectives. Tiya Miles’s All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake is the emotionally rich story of a cotton bag that Rose, an enslaved woman who was sold and ripped away from her daughter, filled with mementos. The artifact provides a jumping off point for this meticulously researched exploration of ecology, history, survival, and familial love. In How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, Clint Smith visits nine sites linked to slavery, from Angola Prison in Louisiana to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello Plantation, to Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal to the financial district of New York City. Smith reckons with how to educate visitors about these institutions, and grapples with the ongoing vestiges of slavery.

Publishers submitted a total of 679 books for the 2021 National Book Award for Nonfiction. The judges for Nonfiction are Nell Painter (Chair), Eula Biss, Aaron John Curtis, Kate Tuttle, and Jerald Walker. Judge’s decisions are made independently of the National Book Foundation staff and Board of Directors and deliberations are strictly confidential. Winners in all categories will be announced live at the National Book Awards Ceremony on November 17.

2021 Longlist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction:

Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance
Random House / Penguin Random House

Lucas Bessire, Running Out: In Search of Water on the High Plains
Princeton University Press

Grace M. Cho, Tastes Like War: A Memoir
Feminist Press at the City University of New York

Scott Ellsworth, The Ground Breaking: An American City and Its Search for Justice
Dutton / Penguin Random House

Nicole Eustace, Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America
Liveright / W. W. Norton & Company

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together
One World / Penguin Random House

Louis Menand, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / Macmillan Publishers

Tiya Miles, All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake
Random House / Penguin Random House

Clint Smith, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America
Little, Brown and Company / Hachette Book Group

Deborah Willis, The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship
New York University Press

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