Tayari Jones had been writing her novel for years — in isolation, diligently tapping out each chapter. Each winter, she would print out a copy and send it off to the writing competition sponsored by the Hurston/Wright Foundation, a D.C.-based literary think tank that celebrates writers of African descent.
“I would send in my little story every year and hope,” Jones said.
Rejection, she said, became a rite of passage. But one year, January passed into February and Jones still had not gotten her rejection letter. She was a bit perturbed that this one acknowledgment of her writing — albeit negative — had not come. She was home in her pajamas when the phone rang.
“I thought it was my mother calling,” she said. But it was the Hurston/Wright Foundation.
“I want you to know you are this year’s winner,” the caller said.
“That was in February. By July, I had a book contract,” said Jones, who won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction in 2003 for “Leaving Atlanta.” “When I sent the manuscript to publishers, I could say I was a Hurston/Wright award-winning author. When I won this award, suddenly I was being celebrated.”
This celebration of black writers continues with the 2011 Hurston/Wright winners. For fiction, Danielle Evans has won for “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.” Elizabeth Alexander won for poetry, with “Crave Radiance.” And Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” won the nod for nonfiction.
The North Star Award went to Amiri Baraka for “relentless telling” of the story of black people. The Ella Baker Award went to Roberta McLeod for “civic support of black literature.”
Wilkerson said she was overjoyed when she got the call. The foundation is named for writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, and Wilkerson quotes both in her book about the Great Migration. Hurston’s work translated the culture of the South; Wright was forced to leave the South and spent years reconciling what that meant.
“The book was a nameless, orphaned child for so long,” Wilkerson said, until she came across a footnote in Wright’s annotated autobiography. It read: “I was leaving the South to fling myself on to the unknown. . . . I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
The passage became her epigraph. To win the Hurston/Wright award, she said, “feels like a coming home. The book itself has come home to the people who inspired it.”
Celebrating black writers is the mission of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, created in 1990 by novelist Marita Golden and Clyde McElvene. Golden said the goal is to discover, encourage and honor black writers and ensure the survival of black literature.
The foundation plucks authors from obscurity and honors established writers.
Black writers are producing literature today that rivals that of the Harlem Renaissance, said McElvene, the foundation’s executive director. “The award gives lasting credibility and prestige to these books,” he said.