Novelist Colson Whitehead won the 2017 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Fiction Award for "The Underground Railroad," a novel that documents the life of a 15-year-old enslaved girl named Cora who escapes from a cotton plantation in Georgia, where life is horrendous. With a slave catcher hunting her, she makes a harrowing flight north in search of freedom, traveling on a literal underground railroad made up of secret tracks, tunnels, engineers and conductors.
The Hurston/Wright judges described "The Underground Railroad," which also won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, as a book of "remarkable craft and imagination."
His award was among those presented Friday by the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, which was founded in Washington in 1990 with a mission to ensure the survival of black writers and their literature.
Whitehead's attention to the pain of slavery and "the current state of race in this country is unprecedented," the judges said. The novel, which was a New York Times bestseller, "confirms Whitehead's place in the African American canon" of great authors.
The Washington Plaza hotel in Northwest Washington was bustling Friday with literary stars, publishing icons, writers, poets, editors and essayists. More than 200 people attended the annual gala, including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who won the Ella Baker Award that honors writers and arts activists who advance social justice. Lewis said he was honored to receive the award named after Ella Baker, a civil rights and human rights activist who helped organize the Freedom Movement and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
"I wish Ella Baker could be here to see what we've been able to accomplish and to see there are forces trying to take us back to another place and another time," Lewis told the gala attendees. "But Ella Baker, if she could speak to us ... she would say we must never, ever give up or give in. If we see something not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation to find a way to get in the way."
Carla Hayden, who made history in 2016 when she became the first woman and first black person sworn in as librarian of Congress, was presented with the North Star Award. Poet Haki Madhubuti won the Madam C.J. Walker Award, which honors exceptional innovation in sustaining black literature.
The 2017 award for nonfiction went to "Hannah Mary Tabbs and the Disembodied Torso: A Tale of Race, Sex, and Violence in America," by Kali Nicole Gross.
The book focuses on a "whodunit" murder case in 1887 Philadelphia, after a beheaded torso was discovered in a pond. The mysterious torso defied race, appearing neither white nor black. Gross researched detectives' notes and trial transcripts to unravel the story of Hannah Mary Tabbs, a black woman who refused to live within the confines of stereotypes.
"Dubbed a 'murderess,' Tabbs and the torso case would be front-page news for months because it unearthed otherwise forbidden subjects such as adultery, sex and domestic violence," Gross wrote. "The victim was thought to be her lover, but Tabbs blamed an 18-year-old mixed-race teenager named George Wilson for the crime. Their fates became intertwined within the brutally racist criminal justice system of the time."
The Legacy Award for debut fiction went to "Damnificados," by J.J. Amaworo Wilson, who the judges said created a "fabulist and gritty dystopia that is nearly allegorical in its portrayal of the dispossessed."
The award for poetry went to "Bestiary," by Donika Kelly, whose "plain-spoken way of proceeding is a guise for sharp truths that leave readers wounded," the judges said.
"What beast/ will your blade free next?" Kelly wrote. "What call will you loose/ from another woman's throat?"
The Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers went to Shakarean Hutchinson, an MFA student at Cornell University, who won in the fiction category for her story "How to Kill Pigs."
Cheswayo Gabriel Mphanza, an MFA student at Rutgers University, won the college writers poetry prize for his collection of three poems.
Finalists in the legacy awards fiction category were "The Loss of All Lost Things," by Amina Gautier and "Another Brooklyn," by Jacqueline Woodson.
Nonfiction finalists were "The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome," by Alondra Nelson and "In the Wake: On Blackness and Being," by Christina Sharpe.
Poetry finalists were Francine J. Harris for "Play Dead" and Phillip B. Williams who wrote "Thief in the Interior."