Chairman's Corner: October 15, 2020

Jo Reed: I'm Josephine Reed from the National Endowment for the Arts with The Chairman's Corner, a weekly podcast with Mary Anne Carter, Chairman of the Arts Endowment. This is where we'll discuss issues of importance to the arts community and a whole lot more.

In 2026, we’ll be observing the semiquincentennial of the United States of America, which is a mouthful, as well as the country’s 250th birthday.  Although that celebration is five years away and that seems like a long way off, the work has already begun through America 250, and Mary Anne, I think that’s a good place to begin.  What is America 250?

Mary Anne Carter: America 250 is an initiative of the U.S. Semiquincentennial Commission, established by Congress, and its goal is to engage all Americans in what will be the largest and most inclusive celebration and commemoration in our nation’s history, and Jo, what I want to talk about today is one of the ways that the agency is realizing the aspirations of America 250 through the Arts Endowment’s much beloved program, The Big Read.

Jo Reed: Well, I know we’ve talked about The Big Read before, but why don’t you just remind us briefly about the program?

Mary Anne Carter: Sure.  In a nutshell, The Big Read is a community read program that gives people the opportunity to come together, to read the same book, take part in meaningful discussions and enjoy various book-inspired events, and since the program began in ’06, the Arts Endowment has awarded more than 22 million to support book-based activities in every single congressional district.  Over the past 14 years, grantees have leveraged more than 15 million in local matching funds to support these reading programs, and more than 5.7 million Americans have attended one of the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read events.

Jo Reed: Well, I know yesterday we posted the guidelines and applications materials for the next round of Big Read funding, and I also saw there was a new lineup of books.

Mary Anne Carter: That’s right.  There is a new lineup of books that applicants can choose from to build their events on.  Some have been Big Read books previously, and some are new to the list, and the books are “An American Sunrise,” a collection of poems by Joy Harjo, the current U.S. Poet Laureate, “Beloved,” the novel by Toni Morrison, “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir,” by Thi Bui, “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and other stories by Jack London, “The Grapes of Wrath,” the novel by John Steinbeck, and “The House on Mango Street,” interconnected vignettes by Sandra Cisneros.  This selection of books will offer a platform to launch meaningful discussions about our nation’s past, present and our hopes for the future, providing insights into different aspects of our history and the incredibly rich diversity of our country.
Jo Reed: Well, let’s look at each book briefly.  Where do you think we should begin?
Mary Anne Carter: Well, let’s begin with Joy Harjo’s “An American Sunrise.”  Fundamental to understanding our history is to listen to the voices of first peoples, those whose ancestors inhabited our lands long before Western Europeans arrived. In “An American Sunrise,” by Joy Harjo, member of the Muscogee Nation, she revisits the homeland where her family was uprooted in 1830 as a result of the Indian Removal Act.  That homeland is near present day Dadeville, Alabama.  These poems will immerse the reader in the power of nature, spirituality, memory and the splintered history of America’s indigenous people.  From reflections on 1830 Alabama, we move to 1873, and Cincinnati, Ohio, where Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “Beloved” takes place.  The main character is Sethe, born an enslaved person who escapes to the free state of Ohio. But she is not freed from her horrifying memories and the family and ghosts that inhabit her present life.

Jo Reed: I see “Call of the Wild” listed, so I see.  We’re moving geographically as well as through time with this new list.

Mary Anne Carter: That’s right.  “The Call of the Wild,” “White Fang,” and other stories brings us a very different window into American history.  The collection of short and long tales of heroism and hardship by Jack London is set in the Pacific Northwest and the Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800s.  The nation’s eventual 49th state of Alaska is the backdrop for stories about both dogs and people who struggle to survive in a hostile environment, and then we move on to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”  It’s not simply a Great American Novel, but it also reflects an extraordinary moment in our nation’s history, the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression in the early decades of the 20th Century.  The book evokes the quintessential American themes of hard work, self-determination and reasoned assent, as illustrated by the Joad family.

Jo Reed: And there’s also a memoir on the list.  Tell us about that.

Mary Anne Carter: “The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir,” by Thi Bui, looks at the immigrant experience and the lasting effects of one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s, to a new life in America and the universal challenges of becoming a new parent, and finally, bringing us into the 1980s, stories from the perspective of Mexican Americans are captured in “The House on Mango Street,” a series of interconnected vignettes by Sandra Cisneros, a two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and Jo, I have to tell you, I’m so excited to see what kinds of programs communities come up with to explore really, I think, this great range of books.

Jo Reed: Oh, me, too, Mary Anne, and there are a few on here I have not read and I’m looking forward to delving into them as well.  Thank you so much.

Mary Anne Carter: Thank you, Jo.

Jo Reed: Talk to you next week.
That was Mary Anne Carter Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.  You can find out more about The NEA Big Read at
Keep up with the arts endowment by following us on twitter @neaarts.
For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe and thanks for listening.

Music Credit: “Renewal” composed and performed by Doug Smith from the cd The Collection.

This week, the chairman discusses the new National Endowment for the Arts Big Read titles.