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Red-Letter Day For Black Authors: Hurston/Wright Awards Honor 9

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page C01

The black literary community lavished its writers with love and money last night.

Amid supportive applause, occasional whoops and warm laughter, the 2004 Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards were handed out at a black-tie celebration in College Park.

Washington Post staff writer Wil Haygood won the nonfiction award for his biography of Sammy Davis Jr. (Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

Sponsored by the Hyattsville-based Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation and Borders Books, the annual event is designed to "celebrate and honor literature by published black writers."

And the winners were . . .

In the debut fiction category, "Purple Hibiscus," the story of a Nigerian teenager growing up in a rich and troubled family, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; in nonfiction, "In Black and White: The Life of Sammy Davis, Jr." by Wil Haygood; and in the fiction category, "Hunting in Harlem," the tale of three ex-cons in contemporary New York, by Mat Johnson.

"Writers don't get a lot of attention," said Johnson, choking back tears.

A writing professor at Bard College, Johnson said that a majority of literary prizes are awarded by white people. "The amazing thing about the Hurston/Wright award is it gives us the first chance to transcend that," he said in his acceptance speech. "It's the only way we're ever going to be able to choose our own heroes."

Haygood, a staff writer at The Washington Post, said, "To all the girls who turned me down for the high school prom, I'm glad I kept on pushing."

Foundation President Marita Golden said, "There's always a need for a community of people to recognize its geniuses and creative artists."

The judges chose from "a very strong roster of books," Golden said before the event. "This is the first year we've had this many books of this level."

The soiree, held at the Inn and Conference Center at the University of Maryland University College, opened with a reception and silent auction. Golden, who is the author of "Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex" and "Migrations of the Heart," welcomed everyone. Then came the awards ceremony, emceed by "Law & Order" actress S. Epatha Merkerson.

"When I'm around writers," Merkerson said, "I feel like I'm around celebrities."

Actors read snippets of the winning books.

David Levering Lewis, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of W.E.B. Du Bois, received the group's lifetime achievement prize, the North Star Award. He was not among the more than 125 people who attended.

After the last award was given, people bought books and chatted with the writers. Folks dined on chicken breast with ginger and listened to live music.

This is the third year for the awards. "It's a prestigious award," said Marilyn Ducksworth, a senior vice president in communications at Penguin Group publishing company. Publishers submit the books for consideration.

The Hurston/Wright Foundation, started in 1990, also gives awards to black college writers and offers workshops for high school students.

Each category winner received $10,000 and two finalists in each category took home $5,000 apiece.

The other nominees were:

In debut fiction:

"A Place Between Stations" by Stephanie Allen (finalist)

"Knee-Deep in Wonder" by April Reynolds (finalist)

"Daughter" by Asha Bandele

"Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" by ZZ Packer

"Getting Mother's Body" by Suzan-Lori Parks

In nonfiction:

"Mandela, Mobutu and Me" by Lynne Duke (finalist)

"Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity" by E. Patrick Johnson (finalist)

"Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston" by Valerie Boyd

"Always Wear Joy" by Susan Fales-Hill

"Somebody's Someone" by Regina Louise

In fiction:

"The Polished Hoe" by Austin Clarke (finalist)

"A Distant Shore" by Caryl Phillips (finalist)

"Hottentot Venus" by Barbara Chase-Riboud

"The Salt Roads" by Nalo Hopkinson

"The Known World" by Edward P. Jones

© 2004 The Washington Post Company