Boston's Museum of African American History Launches National Book Award


By Daniel Ford

Boston’s Museum of African American History recently announced its new national award honoring non-fiction literature that celebrates African American history and culture.

The first Museum of African American History Stone Book Award will be presented in 2018 at the African Meeting House in Boston, and will include a $25,000 prize for the winning title.

Marita Rivero, Executive Director at the Museum of African American History, graciously answered some of my questions about the museum itself and about the new book award.

Daniel Ford: For those who may not be familiar with the museum, can you give us a brief history and share some of the museum’s featured exhibits?

Marita Rivero: The Museum of African American History was founded in 1967, and centers on two preeminent historic sites: the African Meeting House (1806) and the Abiel Smith School (1835), both in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood; and the African Meeting House (c. 1820) and the Seneca Boston-Florence Higginbotham House (c. 1774), with its outbuildings on Nantucket Island. Both of these locations also anchor MAAH’s two Black Heritage Trails, which span the Colonial Period through Reconstruction. So if you visit Boston and/or Nantucket, you can tour the museum or the Boston-Higginbotham House where you can also pick up maps to walk the historic trails.

The buildings at both sites are closely linked to key leaders, institutions, and campaigns during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The museum recovers the voices, agency, networking and community building skills of black men and women who worked to end slavery. Joined by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, these men and women formed the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Frederick Douglass used the Boston buildings as recruiting sites for the famed black 54th Civil War Regiment.

Aside from the historic buildings, MAAH holds more than 3,000 objects, representing more than 250 years of American history, including documents and letters, newspapers, photographs, books, fine art, archeological artifacts, and other objects ranging from household goods to weaponry. If you were to visit our Boston site right now (at the Abiel Smith School), you'd see our current exhibition: Frederick Douglass, the Most Photographed American of the Nineteenth Century, which is co-curated by museum staff and guest scholars Professors John Stauffer, Harvard University and Zoe Trodd, University of Nottingham, England. The exhibit, which is drawn from their book, Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century's Most Photographed American, features objects from our collection, other institutions and private donors.

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DF: How did the idea for a book award originate?

MR: The idea for the Museum of African American History Stone Book Award originated in partnership with the James M. and Cathleen D. Stone Foundation. Cathy Stone is a member of our Board of Directors and currently serves as Chair. She and her husband, Jim Stone, felt it was important to have an award that recognizes exceptional nonfiction books that celebrate African American history and culture. Both the Stones and I felt strongly that the museum should present the award at the African Meeting House which was built in 1806, largely by the labor of free blacks, and which served as the center of the free black community in the 19th century. The building is the oldest surviving black church structure in the United States and a National Historic Landmark.

The book award is a natural fit for the museum’s programming as well as an important means of highlighting the museum’s long emphasis on scholarship and research. We are able to add new stories and an enlarged understanding about the contributions of black people to the creation of what we recognize as our American democracy. This award was designed to encourage writers and promote the importance of reading—two American rights fought for and won by the supporters and activists of the anti-slavery movement in 19th century America.

Additionally, we hope that this book award—at $25,000 it will be one of the largest in the field—will help increase MAAH's visibility on the local and national stage. We're trying to draw more attention to the museum's historic buildings, collections, and programs, and spark conversations about African American history and culture among and between communities, within families, and across generations. By showcasing and promoting an accessible yet edifying, exciting new work of literature that bears the museum's "stamp of approval," we hope we can do just that.

DF: Who are some of the African American nonfiction authors that should be on our radar?

MR: With our public programs, the museum has presented writers, scholars, poets, and public readings of historical documents. In the past year, MAAH hosted Manisha Sinha, who spoke at our African Meeting House as well as our Nantucket Meeting House about her most recent book, The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. The book was awarded the 2017 Frederick Douglass Book Prize.

Our scholar lecture series is one way in which we focus on the history of African American life and culture. We also embrace and receive the support of faculty and scholars in our exhibitions and programs—John Stauffer, David Blight, as well as the late James O. Horton, author of Black Bostonians: Family Life and Community Struggle in the Antebellum North, are just a few historians, past and present, closely associated with the museum.

We also just hosted "AM Joy" host and MSNBC correspondent Joy Reid and author and Columbia University Professor Dr.  Jelani Cobb for the first in a series entitled “Race in the Public Dialogue.” Public historian, scholar and author Dr. Lois Brown presented and participated in our education programs in 2017. These are a few of the many authors and scholars of African American and American history and culture that have partnered with us over the past 50 years—all should be on your radar.

DF: What are your plans for the award going forward?

MR: Right now we are focused on a successful launch in year one, but after that, we hope to expand the award by considering other genres, e.g., fiction, poetry, and children's literature.

DF: Do you have any idea who will be on your panel of judges yet?

MR: In addition to recruiting the jury, we are currently enlisting Honorary Committee members, and are thrilled to announce that noted sociologist and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Emily Hargroves Fisher Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has agreed to serve as our inaugural Honorary Committee Chair. Dr. Lawrence-Lightfoot is the award-winning author of 10 books and a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Prize, as well as a 2017 honoree at the museum’s annual Living Legends Gala. 

DF: What has the response from your community been like since you announced the news?

MR: When the creation of the award was announced at the museum's annual Living Legends Gala on Dec. 4, the response in the room was overwhelmingly positive. We've also received positive feedback and lots of support from other organizations that present book awards, including friends at PENAmerica and the Massachusetts Center for the Book. And we've already received inquiries from interested authors and publishing houses.

DF: What's your advice for aspiring authors who want to write about African American issues?

MR: There are yet many stories to be explored, problems to be examined, and books to be written about African American history and culture. We ask writers and scholars to be diligent in their research, curious in their endeavors, and to stay the course. Their work will be greatly appreciated in the future. We look forward to reading about their discoveries and viewpoints.