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Hurston/Wright Foundation honors Ntozake Shange and Charles Henry Rowell at annual awards

Rowell’s ‘Callaloo Literary Journal’ gave black writers the space to write what they know

When Natasha Trethewey, who won a Pulitzer Prize in poetry a decade ago, first began writing about her experiences growing up as a black, mixed-race woman in the gulf of Mississippi, she shared them with a poet who was leading a workshop at the University of Massachusetts.

That poet, Trethewey said, told her she needed to “unburden [herself] of being black,” of the death of her mother, and write about “the situation in Northern Ireland.”

Apparently this unnamed poet was not a big proponent of “write what you know.”

It was Charles Henry Rowell, founder of the Callaloo Literary Journal, who gave Trethewey the permission she needed to write about the subjects that interested her, Trethewey revealed Friday night at the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation’s annual awards ceremony at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C. Trethewey paid tribute to Rowell, an English professor at Texas A&M University, and presented him with the organization’s Madam C.J. Walker Award for supporting and sustaining black literature. Powell is also the editor of Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry.

“When I told him about my life, where I come from, he code-switched then into something that had to come straight out of Alabama: ‘Oooh, girl, you need to write about your family!’ ” Trethewey recounted.

“There is no doubt that the black literary landscape would not be what it is today without Charles Henry Rowell,” Trethewey said.

The Hurston/Wright ceremony has been part of the fall literary awards season (the National Book Awards will be announced in less than a month) for nearly two decades. Founded in 1990 by author Marita Golden and Clyde McElvene, the foundation supports the work of black writers and honors those who carry on the tradition of Harlem Renaissance luminaries Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright. The two big awards of the evening went to Rowell and writer Ntozake Shange, best known for her choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. She received the foundation’s North Star prize to individuals whose writing or service to the writing community are an inspiration to others.

Shange’s mobility has been somewhat limited since she survived a stroke several years ago. Her sister and Some Sing, Some Cry co-author Ifa Bayeza accepted the award in her stead and assured the audience that there’s no need for alarm concerning Shange’s health, but that Shange had simply “triple-booked” herself.

“I have been telling her this resurgence in interest and enthusiasm for her career and her body of work, her much-deserved recognition, is really great. But you have to monitor yourself, and when it’s too much, make a new plan,” Bayeza said. “So on Wednesday, she called me and said, ‘You’re it.’ ”

Other finalists and winners:

Madam C.J. Walker Award

Charles Henry Rowell

North Star Award

Ntozake Shange

Legacy Award for Poetry

Winner:

Semiautomatic by Evie Shockley

Finalists:

Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey

Incendiary Art by Patricia Smith

Legacy Award for Nonfiction

Winner:

The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits by Tiya Miles

Finalists:

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education by Noliwe Rooks

The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty

Legacy Award for Fiction

Winner:

Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou

Finalists:

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Legacy Award for Debut Fiction

Winner: The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.