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Hurston/Wright Foundation

15th annual Hurston/Wright Foundation Legacy Awards ceremony diary

Ernest J. Gaines, Junot Diaz and others were honored for their pioneering literary work

There are years that ask questions, and years that answer. Zora Neale Hurston’s unforgettable line from Their Eyes Were Watching God inspired many honorees Oct. 21 at the 15th annual Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation Legacy Awards ceremony. Named after two of the most beloved American writers — documentarians of the black American experience — the ceremony honored those following in the footsteps of Hurston and Wright. The ceremony was a beautiful black experience, and brought to mind one of Master P’s interludes on Solange Knowles’ new album: If you don’t understand my record, you don’t understand me, so this is not for you. This was a space for black writers and poets to gather, to celebrate each other and be celebrated.

The night began on a poignant note, with opening remarks from Dolen Perkins-Valdez, who made sure to remove any doubt in the room as to why we were all there: “Tonight, I say to you, that I believe the impact of Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright on literature has been immeasurable, causing so many of us to utter words we never thought we’d utter. Not just ‘she is my sister’ or ‘he is my brother,’ but words like, ‘I am forever changed by your work. I am grateful. I am here tonight because of you, and yes, because you are black — because you are black, but also because you are so much more.‘ ”

“[Junot Diaz] was going to be trouble like Zora Neale Hurston, and trouble like Richard Wright. Like them, he was going to trouble the waters of our conventional sense of what a story is.”

Ernest J. Gaines was awarded the North Star Award, which “pays homage to the significance of the North Star for enslaved Africans, who looked to it as a guide to freedom.” Gaines’ works of course include A Lesson Before Dying, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Gathering of Old Men. He was there to accept in person.

Ernest Gaines holds his - while posing for photo with Mitchell Jackson.

Ernest Gaines holds his North Star Award while posing for a photo with Mitchell Jackson.

Courtesy of Hurston/Wright Foundation

Junot Diaz was awarded the Ella Baker Award, named for the behind-the-scenes civil rights activist who helped found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The Ella Baker Award “recognizes writers and arts activists for exceptional work that advances social justice.” Marita Golden, founder of Hurston/Wright and longtime friend of Diaz, recalled in her presentation of the award that when she first met him, she knew “this young man was going to be trouble. He was going to be trouble like Zora Neale Hurston, and trouble like Richard Wright. Like them, he was going to trouble the waters of our conventional sense of what a story is, who gets to tell it, what it sounds like, what it feels like, what it smells like.”

From his books The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Drown to essays such as MFA vs. POC, Diaz has been a champion of the quiet ones, the ones society often chooses not to hear. When I asked what it meant to him to be honored by such a decidedly black organization, he had this to say: “I appreciate all that they have done for our community, and when I consider that Hurston/Wright has been perhaps the most important champion of African-American diasporic letters in this country, I’m deeply gratified that they would acknowledge me in any way.”

Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers

What was really nice about this ceremony was their dedication to lifting up younger writers, and those at the cusp of their writing careers. While debut fiction is set apart from fiction, undergraduate and graduate writers are in a league of their own.

Fiction — John S. “Jay” Wilson III of Princeton University for his story 4, 6, 8

Fiction Honorable Mention — Clynthia Burton Graham of the University of Maryland-Baltimore for Miss Sage’s Anniversary Celebration

Poetry — Joy Priest of the University of South Carolina for her collection Elegy for Kentucky

Poetry Honorable Mention — Vanity Hendricks-Robinson of Manhattanville College for her collection Pig Latin

Poetry Honorable Mention — Latasha D. Johnson for her collection Idiosyncratic

The Legacy Awards

The Debut Fiction Award went to Sanderia Faye for her novel Mourner’s Bench. The other nominees were Naomi Jackson for The Star Side of Bird Hill and Chigozie Obioma for The Fishermen.

The Fiction Award went to James Hannaham for Delicious Foods. Angela Flournoy for The Turner House and Caryl Phillips for The Lost Child were finalists for the award.

The Nonfiction Award went to Pamela Newkirk for Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga. Elizabeth Alexander for The Light of the World and Gerald Horne for Confronting Black Jacobins: The United States, The Haitian Revolution and the Origins of the Dominican Republic were honored as finalists.

The Poetry Award went to Vievee Francis for her collection Forest Primeval. The poetry finalists were Kyle Dargan for Honest Engine and Ross Gay for Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Upon accepting her award, Francis confessed that she is a “bit of a recluse,” and then admonished us to remember the power of those we cannot hear: “Some of us are quiet, but an undercurrent can’t be seen, it can be felt.”

Tierra R. Wilkins is an associate editor for The Undefeated. She likes to eat fries with her ketchup.