U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Natasha Tretheway presents the Madam C.J. Walker Award went to Charles Henry Rowell during the annual Hurston/Wright Merit and Legacy Awards at the Washington Plaza Hotel in D.C. on Oct. 19. (Photo by Stephanie Williams)
U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Natasha Tretheway presents the Madam C.J. Walker Award went to Charles Henry Rowell during the annual Hurston/Wright Merit and Legacy Awards at the Washington Plaza Hotel in D.C. on Oct. 19. (Photo by Stephanie Williams)

The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, a prestigious literary organization, honored late choreopoet Ntozake Shange with the coveted North Star Award at its recent annual ceremony in D.C., just days before her death.

Shange, author of the classic choreopoem “For Colored Girls who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” was not able to attend the Hurston/Wright Merit and Legacy Awards ceremony at Washington Plaza Hotel on Oct. 19 because of health problems that had plagued her over the past several years. Her sister accepted the award on her behalf.

Shange died Oct. 27, days after her 70th birthday.

“In 1976, I was 26 when ‘For Colored Girls’ came out,” said Marita Golden, who founded the organization along with Clyde McElvene in 1990 and is the author of many bestsellers including “Migrations of the Heart,” “Long Distance Life” and “Do Remember Me.” “Ntozake Shange showed me how. I saw Black writers push the door open, and Ntozake Shange opened the door wide enough for other Black women writers whose tongues were on fire to come through too.”

It was a night of camaraderie, mutual support and appreciation for all writers, even if they did not take home the highest prize in their categories. According to several of the nominees, Hurston/Wright is a place where Black writers are recognized as such by their peers.

Ladee Hubbard, who won the highest honor of the Debut Novel Legacy Award for her novel “The Talented Ribkins” had already received the Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence earlier this year, but, as she said, “I took a workshop at Hurston/Wright, so to be recognized and be standing here is incredible.”

Her book was inspired by W.E.B. DuBois’ classic “The Souls of Black Folk,” where he introduced the concept of the “Talented Tenth.” Hubbard used it as a launching board for her tale rooted in African-American history and the supernatural.

Historian Tiya Miles won the Legacy Award for Non-Fiction for her book “The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits” which sheds light on the little-known history of slavery in Detroit, which also enslaved Native Americans initially.

“I’m so filled up, so inspired to be among so many great writers,” she said.

“When I was 15 years old, I got into ABC [A Better Chance, a program for underprivileged students] to go to a boarding school in Massachusetts. I found a book in the school library, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ and I realized I was not alone,” Miles said of Hurston’s iconic novel.

She also noted that the awards brought her awareness back to the fact that historians are writers, and should be recognized as such.

Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou won the prize for fiction with his novel “Black Moses,” although he was not present to receive the honor. But other nominees, such as Kenyan writer Peter Kimani, whose “Dance of the Jakaranda” did not win, traveled from Africa for the privilege of attending the awards and presenting his work at the pre-awards reading held the night before at Politic and Prose bookstore.

The Madam C.J. Walker Award went to Charles Henry Rowell, bestowed on him by U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Natasha Tretheway. The award was given to him for his literary journal Callaloo, which was often the first to recognize and publish the works of Black writers.

“Callaloo is the first journal to publish my work 20 years ago,” Tretheway said, beaming from ear to ear. “One day I got a phone call and Rowell was on the line. He wanted to publish my poem ‘Flounder,’ which was about being mixed race on the Gulf Cost of Mississippi. That phone call from Rowell gave me the permission to be exactly who I was meant to be! He also published an early version of ‘Native Guard,’” which won the poet the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.

Rowell accepted the prize graciously, noting the struggles that it entailed to keep publishing the journal.

“I wanted to return to the South,” said Rowell, an Auburn, Alabama native. “I went back to Southern University where I founded Callaloo. I thought, why not do something for Southern writers and that’s what Callaloo was. It has evolved to include writers from across the diaspora. This award is for me to hold in trust for all those writers.”

The Callaloo journal, which proclaims itself as “the premier journal of literature, art and culture of the African diaspora,” was founded in 1976 at Southern University and has traversed several academic institutions in order to keep it publishing. Rowell has also published and edited important written works that give voice to minority and marginalized communities. His most recent work is “Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African-American Poetry.”

The Hurston/Wright Foundation also awarded college level writers in poetry and fiction, giving budding writers support for their voice and art form.

While the Legacy Award for Poetry went to Evie Shockley, who could not attend to receive the honor for her book of poems, “Semiautomatic,” runner-up Nicole Sealey was present to receive recognition for her book of poetry, “Ordinary Beast.”

“As a Black writer, to win an award from a Black literary organization means everything,” she said.

Nominations for the 2019 Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards opened for submissions just hours after the gift bags, which rightfully contained hardback copies of Richard Wright’s opus “Native Son” and a much-coveted copy of the posthumously published Zora Neale Hurston book, “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo’” which came out this spring, were handed out to ceremony attendees.

For more information, go to www.hurstonwright.org.

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