“It all began when I was a teenager, and came to wonder about the name I’d been given by Papa Moupelo, the priest at the orphanage in Loango: Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko,” the novel opens. “A long name, which in Lingala means ‘Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors.’ ”
The judges called the book “a funny, efficiently-rendered picaresque tale” that “superbly traces the hero’s psychic collapse.” Mabanckou, who was born in what is now the Republic of Congo and is now a professor of literature at UCLA, writes about the “the perils of tyrannical government” in a setting that “is vivid and engrossing.”
Mabanckou’s writing was celebrated during a gala Friday in Northwest Washington, where a ballroom filled with literary stars — including powerhouse publishers, poets, editors, screenwriters and playwrights — celebrated “black excellence” in storytelling in the African diaspora.
“Black writers continue to push through the barriers that have limited our ability to speak our truth to the world,” said Melanie Hatter, chairman of the board of the Hurston/Wright Foundation, which is named in honor of Harlem Renaissance writers Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, and was founded more than 25 years ago with a mission to encourage writers of African descent and to ensure the survival of literature by black writers.
“As we navigate this political environment that pits white against people of color; against immigrants; against women, our voices are the stitching that weaves through the tapestry of America,” Hatter said. “This exceptional array of writers is leading the conversation on the black experience across the United States and throughout the world.”
More than 200 people attended the 17th annual gala, where poet and playwright Ntozake Shange, famous for her Obie Award-winning choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” received the North Star Award.
Charles Henry Rowell, founder and editor of the literary journal Callaloo, was given the foundation’s Madam C.J. Walker Award, which honors exceptional innovation.
“What I tried to do with Callaloo is to return to the South, where I knew my name and my voice,” Rowell told the audience. Rowell was presented the award by Natasha Trethewey, who was poet laureate of the United States from 2012 to 2014.
Trethewey described a call from Rowell when she was a student that encouraged her to publish her work. “Charles Rowell gave me permission to be the poet I was trying to be,” she said.
The 2018 Legacy Award for nonfiction went to “Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits,” by Tiya Miles.
Judges praised Miles for mining “scattered and long-forgotten accounts to reconstruct a stunning, surprising and often-horrifying account of Native Americans and African Americans in 18th century Detroit.”
The book, which won a 2018 American Book Award, “places Detroit at the center of histories of an empire and the theft of land and labor that defined the United States from its start,” the judges said.
The Hurston/Wright award for a debut novel went to “The Talented Ribkins” by Ladee Hubbard. The judges said Hubbard created a magical origin story “rooted in moments of African-American history and the supernatural.” The novel maps family secrets with rich dialogue, sharpened prose and humor that “mixes moments of lightness with broader questions about black life in tumultuous times.”
The poetry award went to Evie Shockley’s “Semiautomatic,” a collection of poems that the judges called an “experimentation with form that we find so striking.”
In her poetry, Shockley, who was a 2018 Pulitzer Prize finalist for poetry, “manages to make sense of the news reports, of the chatter online, of the debates in hair salons and in barber shops, and of the wailing in the streets,” the judges said. “Despite the ugliness of the violence around us, she has written a collection of poems that both chronicles it and decries it, all while offering us the beauty of her lines.”
Finalists in fiction were “The Woman Next Door” by Yewande Omotoso and “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward.
Nonfiction finalists were “Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education” by Noliwe Rooks and “The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South” by Michael W. Twitty.
Poetry finalists were “Ordinary Beast” by Nicole Sealey and “Incendiary Art” by Patricia Smith.