We are pleased to announce the winner of the 2020 Book Prize:


Darby English, To Describe a Life: Notes from the Intersection of Art and Race Terror (Yale 2019)


Darby English asks, “how do you do representation in a crisis?” Taking on the fraught subject of police killings of Black people, English explores the foundational violence of the United States, capturing the urgency of our historical conjuncture. He reckons with the hypervisibility and obliteration of Black life, but chooses, counter-intuitively, to ask for a pause that allows artworks to unsettle us at moments of intense political engagement. Eschewing blanket solutions as well as a simple though righteous anger, English centers on ruminative objects and projects to expand our sense of what the future might hold beyond the impasses of the present. In doing so, he reckons with the unfolding of a “massively demoralizing tragedy without the comfort of consoling narratives or satisfying conceptualizations.” English slows down our ready mobilization of polarizing categories (us/them, good/bad) in order to stage a real relationship with particular qualities rather than a relationship between abstract preconceptions which seem only to be able to clash violently.


Exploring Zoe Leonard’s Tipping Point, Kerry James Marshall’s untitled 2015 portrait of a Black male police officer, Pope.L’s Skin Set Drawings, and a replica of the Lorraine Motel (the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968), English urges us to rethink the work of art in relation to love, judgment, difference, and violence.


The committee found his formal analysis of Kerry James Marshall in “The Painter and the Police” especially outstanding. English lets Marshall’s picture be challenging and weird, in relation to the perceived critique of the command “Stop Killing Us” generated by the Black Lives Matter movement. That English cannot orient himself in relation to the figure of the Black policeman with any composure becomes for him a meaningful starting place for analysis. He then takes very subtle observations about the artist’s choices – with regard to color, spatial illusion, whether and where the surface would be smooth or textured – and makes them have real consequences for his argument. He in effect has a lengthy relationship in writing with the particular qualities of the picture, demonstrating his point about what is needed, or what would be better than our reigning tendencies. Finding Marshall’s difficulty salutary rather than stifling, English asks us to attend to the irreducible in matter and space, thought and feeling.


The committee for the 2020 Book Prize was: Yogita Goyal (Chair, Professor, African American Studies and English, University of California, Los Angeles), Elise Archias (Associate Professor, Art History, University of Illinois at Chicago), and Kenneth Warren (Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor, English, University of Chicago).


The committee thanks the authors, editors, and publishing staff who submitted their works to be considered for the ASAP Book Prize. We hope you’ll join us in celebrating the achievements of everyone who had a book come out last calendar year.