Black Men And Women Of Their Words

From left, Mary Frances Berry, Mindy Chateauvert and S. Epatha Merkerson at the Legacy Awards ceremony.
From left, Mary Frances Berry, Mindy Chateauvert and S. Epatha Merkerson at the Legacy Awards ceremony. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

Literary awards were bestowed on a new generation of black writers last night, heavy awards given in the heavy names of Zora and Richard.

Nancy Rawles won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in the fiction category for "My Jim," a first-person account of Sadie, the wife of the runaway slave in Mark Twain's "Huckleberry Finn."

Historian John Hope Franklin won in nonfiction category for his autobiography, "Mirror to America."

Clyde W. Ford won in the contemporary fiction category for "The Long Mile." And Denise Nicholas, who starred in television's "Room 222" and "In the Heat of the Night," won in the debut fiction category for "Freshwater Road."

At the National Press Club last night, the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation -- created in 1990 to recognize current black writers and honor their work with the first awards of their kind given to writers of African descent, judged by writers of African descent -- celebrated writing that its founders said met the high standards set by Zora and Richard.

Meaning Zora Neale Hurston, the lyrical modernist, whose writing reflected her passion for people; who wrote: "The sun, the hero of every day, the impersonal old man that beams as brightly on death as on birth, came up every morning and raced across the blue dome and dipped into the sea of fire every evening."

Zora didn't reduce her characters to portray a single social or political point. Instead she delved into metaphors, explaining a different level of knowledge among black people that white people called superstition, explaining in her stories black justice that lingered behind jasmine trees in "Negro yards" parted by clean-swept sidewalks.

And Richard Wright, who produced Bigger Thomas and left us haunted by his words: "Maybe they did not despise him? But they made him feel his black skin by just standing there looking at him, one holding his hand and the other smiling. He felt he had no physical existence at all right then; he was something he hated, the badge of shame which he knew was attached to a black skin. It was a shadowy region, a No Man's Land, the ground that separated the white world from the black that he stood upon."

And you wonder who writes like that anymore.

But Clyde McElvene, co-founder and executive director of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, says writers today produce this kind of quality in literature as they tell stories that incorporate the old and the new, as they continue to tell the stories of black people.

"We are recognizing and rewarding the kind of literature that will be here long after we are gone," McElvene said. "The kind of literature that Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright produced, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, W.E.B. Du Bois. That is the criterion by which we measure the quality of the writing. That is the standard by which we measure the quality of the nominees."

The finalists in the fiction category were Tayari Jones, whom Essence called "a writer to watch," for "The Untelling," a story about "familial myth-making"; and David Anthony Durham, who began writing as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, for his third novel, "Pride of Carthage," about the Second Punic War.

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