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Introducing Lit Bits: Colson Whitehead, winner of 2020 Library of Congress Prize for American Literature

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This post was written by Katya Soto, an intern in the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress under the mentorship of Guy Lamolinara, researched by Sasha Dowdy

Welcome to Lit Bits! This is the second in a new series of book-related blog posts featuring video snippets from your favorite authors, many of whom have appeared at the Library of Congress National Book Festival. Our first post was on the Minerva’s Kaleidoscope blog, featuring children’s author and current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature Meg Medina. Below is the first Lit Bit on the Bookmarked blog. Each blog will take turns publishing one Lit Bit per month.

This month’s feature is Colson Whitehead as he shares how he researched the background for his 2021 novel “Harlem Shuffle.”  This clip is excerpted from his 2021 conversation with the director of New York’s Empire Center of the Book, Rocco Staino.

New York City. The 1980s.

Photograph of Brooklyn Bridge from a low angle
Brooklyn Bridge, New York City. 1983. Bernard Godfryd, photographer. (Prints and Photographs Division)

This is the backdrop of Colson Whitehead’s childhood, and the circumstances could not have been better curated for this award-winning novelist to draw his inspiration from. Being raised in the city gave him a perspective that is reflected throughout his novels.

1980s New York was a city of the Radio City Rockettes, Gordon Parks and Keith Haring:

Radio City Rockettes, New York. Created between 1970 and 1990. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer (Prints and Photographs Division)
Black and white photograph shows Gordon Parks reclined on a chair at a desk, smoking a pipe
Gordon Parks. Oct. 1991. Nancy Lee Katz, photographer (Prints and Photographs Division)

Keith Haring, in a white t-shirt and paint splattered jeans, faces the camera and kneels on the floor while holding a paint brush next to a bucket, ready to continue his painting.
Keith Haring, painting Palladium backdrop [Palladium night club, New York City]. May 1985. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer. (Prints and Photographs Division)
It was also the New York with a skyline that included the World Trade Center, a city that saw the ups and downs through many societal changes.

World Trade Center Towers and the New York City skyline, New York, New York. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection/Library of Congress)
Trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange, New York City. (Carol M. Highsmith Collection/Library of Congress)
About a dozen people are on their backs on a city street, lined up with each other, holding posters. Some people stand around them, a few also holding posters.
[Anti-nuclear demonstration, Wall St., 1982, New York City]. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer. (Prints and Photographs Division)
Photograph of Desmond Tutu and David Dinkins holding up a yellow t-shirt that says "End Apartheid June 14," standing in front of a mic, surrounded by a crowd of people
Desmond Tutu and David Dinkins, anti-apartheid rally, New York City. June 14, 1986. Bernard Gotfryd, photographer. (Prints and Photographs Division)

Most of Whitehead’s work pays tribute to the city’s distinctive history throughout various decades. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to live in a lot of different places where people I’ve idolized have walked or slept,” he said. His novels, “The Underground Railroad” and “The Nickel Boys” are Pulitzer Prize-winning novels influenced by real-life events that help illuminate the difficult realities of racism in America.

In “Harlem Shuffle,” he switches genres to write a crime story, exploring Harlem through the decades with a focus on the 1960s. Explore that world  through these collection items in the Library’s digital repository:

Black and white photograph shows marchers carrying banner "We march with Selma!" on street in Harlem, New York City, New York.
Marchers carrying banner lead way as 15,000 parade in Harlem / World Telegram & Sun photo by Stanley Wolfson. March 1965. (Prints and Photographs Division)
Newspaper article clipping titled "Crime: The Big Show."
The Sunday Star, (Washington, D.C.). Sept. 29, 1963. (Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers/Library of Congress). Read the continued story here.

In 2018, Whitehead became a part of the New York State Writers Hall of Fame. Two years later he was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. His most recent novel is “The Harlem Shuffle.” He continues the acclaimed Harlem saga with his upcoming novel, “Crook Manifesto,” due in July, 2023.

See the full video of the conversation here

(Bonus image ) a dip into the vibrant 1930s Harlem:

Black and white map of Harlem's night clubs with points of interest and illustrated features of each spot.
A night-club map of Harlem. 1933. E. Simms Campbell, cartographer. (Geography and Map Division)

Explore the collections and resources below for more immersion into the decades of Harlem and the world of crime fiction:

What city is most familiar to you? How has it changed through the decades?

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