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Dr. Imani Perry, John Keene win at 2022 National Book Awards

African Americans won two out of the five top prizes in the National Book Awards this year. Both were raised Catholic.

Dr. Imani Perry has been named the winner of the 2022 National Book Award for nonfiction, for her groundbreaking text released earlier this year, “South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation.”

The Black Catholic author, a 2021 Guggenheim fellow and professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, received the honor from the National Book Foundation on Wednesday at a ceremony in New York City.

“Well, ‘Bama has a National Book Award. All right,” she said to begin her speech from the stage, after celebrating with her two sons.

“As I have remained steadfast in moments of disappointment, may integrity and grace be my familiar in this moment of recognition.”

The well-known professor and columnist, known for her explorations of race and law, was among five winners named in this year’s awards. “South to America,” her eighth published book, had generated buzz throughout the literary world since its release and was named a finalist for the National Book Awards in October.

The book explores her journey into the Deep South to explore the “history, rituals, and landscapes” of a region often overlooked in reckonings of modern US history and culture. It hones in significantly on her native Alabama, where she was born in Birmingham to a former Black nun before moving to Massachusetts as a young child.

With her win this week, Perry has become the fourth Black woman in a row to take home the National Book Award for nonfiction.

One of Perry’s fellow winners this year, St. Louis native John Keene, is also African American, and took home the prize in the poetry category for his “Punks: New & Selected Poems,” which also won a Lambda Literary Award earlier this year. He serves as a professor of English and African American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark.

Like Perry, Keene was also raised Catholic, and he has been known throughout his career for uplifting writers from marginalized communities—including his own.

“I want to dedicate this award to all the readers out there and to my ancestors on whose shoulders I stand. Ancestors by lineage and association, including the several generations of writers, particularly the Black, gay, queer, and trans writers, especially those whom we lost to HIV-AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said during his acceptance speech.

“Let's return to their words and the words of so many vital writers and artists we may have forgotten.”

The National Book Awards, existing in their current format since 1950, field submissions annually and this year chose from among 1,772 books submitted for consideration.

Perry and Keene were selected from among 25 nominees in their respective categories, and for their wins received a $10,000 award along with a bronze sculpture.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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