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Hurston/Wright Foundation awards black writers

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

Haki Madhubuti was a teenager when his mother demanded he go to the public library in Detroit to check out the novel "Black Boy," by Richard Wright. The year was 1956, and the country was still segregated. Haki refused, saying he had no desire to go to a "white library" and ask "a white librarian" about a book written by "a black man who was critical of white America."

"We had been taught by society to be anti-black, and I was ashamed," Madhubuti recalled. But his mother insisted. "She said, 'You will do it.'" And so Haki went, passing by the librarian without asking for assistance. He searched the shelves and found the book. From the start, he was enthralled. The pages, he said, were like mirrors reflecting his life.

"It was the first time in my life I was reading literature that was not an insult to my personhood," Madhubuti said. "I was reading sentences and paragraphs that empowered me as a black person. That was the start of my becoming a poet and a writer."

Madhubuti, who was born Don L. Lee but chose to change his name, has become a literary icon - a poet, a writer and one of the founders of the black arts movement. On Monday night, Madhubuti was awarded the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Poetry.

"I am honored for a number of reasons," said Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press, an independent publisher. "Richard Wright had a profound effect on me as a young boy. Zora Neale Hurston had the same kind of effect. To have an award in their names is an important part of my life as a writer and poet."

The Hurston/Wright Foundation, based in the Washington area, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In addition to Madhubuti, who won the annual prize for his book "Liberation Narratives: New and Collected Poems 1966 - 2009," Rita Dove won in the poetry category for "Sonata Mulattica." It was the first time in the foundation's history that two poets shared first prize.

In the nonfiction category, Robin D.G. Kelley won for "Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original." (Wil Haygood, a staff writer at The Washington Post, was a nonfiction finalist for "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson.") Author Percival Everett won in the fiction category for "I Am Not Sidney Poitier."

The foundation was created in 1990 by novelist Marita Golden and Clyde McElvene, a marketing executive with a passion for books. Golden said the mission was to "discover, encourage and honor writers of African descent and to ensure the survival of literature by black writers that reflects the black experience."

At the time, there was a void in the literary world, which tended to honor very few black writers, Golden said. The Legacy Awards were created in 2002 and, at that time, came with a cash prize of $10,000. (Monday's winners received $500 each.) Past honorees include Junot Diaz, Edwidge Danticat, Kwame Dawes and Edward P. Jones. The foundation - whose board of directors and advisory board includes Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Terry McMillan and Chinua Achebe - also sponsors workshops for high school students and awards for college writers.

"We are both inspiring a whole generation of writers and creating a place for writers to be trained and honored," said Golden, who has written more than a dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including the bestseller "Migrations of the Heart."

McElvene said fulfilling the foundation's mission is imperative. "Show me a people who can't tell their story, who don't have their own literature, and I will show you a people who don't exist anymore because they will disappear," he said. "The question we have in the black community is: 'Who is going to tell our story? And will that story lift us or lower us?'

"If we let only someone else tell our story, we will disappear, because they will tell the story from their perspective. It's like asking a cowboy about the Indian. The European has one story about Wounded Knee; the Indian has another story, another perspective."

That question - of the bearing a storyteller's race or ethnicity has on the story - has long prompted intense debate among writers and some readers. A similar debate has roiled the film world. This year's literary subject of controversy was the New York Times bestseller "The Help," a novel written by white author Kathryn Stockett about black domestic workers in white households during the civil rights era. Critics have questioned the authenticity of the novel's black characters and their dialect.

"What really surprises me is how the American public has embraced that story," with little discussion about whether its depictions are accurate, said McMillan, author of the bestseller "Waiting to Exhale" and, most recently, "Getting to Happy."

"I find it a little insulting how eager white readers are to embrace this book by a young white woman who is writing about black women - as if it were a part of history they missed and almost as if she were an authority," McMillan said. "But when we write about the black experience, they don't seem to be as fascinated or as intrigued. I find that insulting."

Stockett has every right to tell her story, McMillan said, "but I don't think she got it right."

McMillan added: "The bottom line is there is no way that black women who were domestics - my mother included and most of the women I knew in the '50s and '60s in my home town - would have ever confided in a 23-year-old white girl about what it was like cleaning house, cooking and caring for white families. Had these women told the truth, it would have been a different book."

Furthermore, she asked, "what did they stand to gain by telling the protagonist how they felt? It's like the slave master asking what it is like being a slave. You think a slave would have told a master the truth? That it is horrible? Most of the women I knew didn't take their jobs seriously. They didn't think about these families after they got home. They were tired. It was a job. And without an education, it was what they did to feed their kids."

Stockett's publicist said positive reader responses to the book have been "overwhelming." She said Stockett was traveling and was not immediately available for an interview.

Marie Brown, a literary agent, says the central question in the debate is: "Who is going to tell the story, and what story is being told? The problem I have with much of what is being published now, and what is not published, is that we are suffering from omission."

"Our experience is unique in this culture," Brown said. "I am not saying others cannot write about their observations. What I am saying is there is a lot of doubt in my mind about how authentic their interpretation of our experiences are."

Tayari Jones, author of "Leaving Atlanta," which won the Hurston/Wright Award for Debut Fiction in 2003, said writers should shift the focus of that conversation. "It is not us against 'The Help.' Our tradition is so much older than this book that came out last year. . . . People buy black writers because our books are delightful and diverse."

Jones, 39, said the importance of black literature is what it reflects. "When we read our own stories, we want to look in a true mirror and say, 'That is me.' "

Jones wrote for years without receiving much encouragement until she was recognized by the Hurston/Wright Foundation. "It felt like I was sending out messages in a bottle. When I heard from them, it was like someone had received my message in a bottle."

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