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A platform for nurturing new literary talent: the Hurston/Wright foundation and its cofounder Marita Golden discover and groom emerging writers of African descent.

It is a fall night at a suburban Washington, D.C., hotel where authors--some decked out in artistic and Afrocentric variations of "black-tie"--are arriving for the Oscar-like ceremony. The occasion is the 2004 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, the third annual bestowing of the first major prize for published authors of African descent, Marita Golden, president of The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, slips through the elegant crowd, fielding reporters' questions while greeting members of the black literati and their supporters.

Golden, swathed in a red stole, spots Legacy nominee Wil Haygood (In Black told White: The Life of Sammy Davis Jr.) and rushes over to greet him. She is the grand hostess on this night, introducing newly printed authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Purple Hibiscus) to more seasoned writers like Paule Marshall (Brown GM, Brownstones), all while fielding inquiries about the program and dinner.

At the reception before the awards program at the Inn and Conference Center at the University of Maryland College Park, writers and guests sip wine and mineral water. Author and poet asha bandele (Daughters), wearing a long, black silk skirt and lavender headwrap is escorted by her young daughter, Nisa, who is four. A'Lelia Bundles, author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, chats with legendary children's author Eloise Greenfield, who was honored at the 2003 Legacy Awards.

When the socializing ends, the crowd moves into a cushiony theater for the awards program, which Golden opens by announcing, "I can't think of a time when we have needed literature more--literature as refuge, literature as restoration ... literature that reminds us in the end, we can overcome our own folly."

Actress S. Epatha Merkerson, lover of literature and star of NBC's Law & Order, hosts the 2004 Legacy Award Program. There are awards for: fiction, debut fiction and nonfiction. Two finalists in each category receive $5,000 and the winner in each genre receives $10,000.

On this night, when Adichie receives the Legacy Award for Debut Fiction, she says, "This is a wonderful thing because I'm African and this is African American, and it is important we continue the bond that unites us. This prize is not just a good thing, it is a necessary thing."

The Foundation's Roots

For years, Golden, who has authored or edited 12 books, taught at universities where she saw how few black students were enrolled in the writing programs. In 1990, she started the Hurston/Wright Foundation, named after two premiere black writers of the Harlem Renaissance, to fill that void. Her first offering was a writing award for college students. Next came a summer workshop for unpublished writers.

In 2002, the foundation added the Legacy Award. The prize honors literary works and not "popular" or "commercial" writing, something about which Golden says, "We make no apologies. We're looking for stories that also chart new ground.

"Literary fiction has always had a hard time, even in the white community, but in our community, literary fiction is gasping for air," Golden adds. "Yet literary fiction offers the most complex illustration of our lives. Many of the works we shine a light on have been orphaned--published, but forgotten."

The Hurston/Wright Foundation has become the predictor of success for emerging black writers, and Golden has earned the respect of the publishing world as a discoverer and nurturer of new talent.

"Marita Golden is one of the grande dames of African American literature," says Manie Barron, a literary agent in New York. "She has been a word warrior for longer than most of us were reading. She is the black Athena"

An Early Start

One afternoon, Golden sat in the living room of her home in suburban Washington, D.C., recalling the moment her mother deemed her a writer.

"When I was fourteen, my mother said I was going to write books," Golden says. "Some people try to kill their children's fire. She loved me enough to nurse it. I was called to write at an early age, and I guess, since a young age I've also been an activist."

In her latest book, Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex (Doubleday, April 2004), she describes growing up "in a black middle-class neighborhood of three-story, stately Victorian brownstones. Her mother worked as a domestic and owned several boarding houses. Her father was a taxi driver who also ran numbers.

At Washington American College (now the American University in Washington, D.C.), Golden joined the movement to push for black studies courses. Her first poem was published while she was a student, in an anthology edited by Nikki Giovanni.

She was working as an editorial assistant at Doubleday in New York City when she began taking writing classes in the evening. Then at age 24, in 1973, she married a Nigerian and returned with him to his homeland.

When the marriage didn't work out, she moved to Boston, with a year-old son. She followed her agent's suggestion to write about her experiences in Africa, thus giving birth to the best-selling memoir, Migrations of the Heart (Doubleday, 1983). Both Don't Play in the Sun, a hard-hitting meditation on the role that color plays among African Americans, and Migrations of the Heart are due out in paperback in January. Meanwhile, there's also major buzz building on Golden's novel due out in 2006. It represents four years of intensive work that she feels really good about, and her close colleagues say it is "her best writing yet."

Golden returned to Washington in 1984, and later founded her first organization, The African-American Writers Guild. She was on a radio show talking about her idea for such an organization when Clyde McElvene, a self-described "bibliophile for life;' heard her. He joined her as cofounder and the two have worked together ever since. Today, he serves as executive director and chief financial officer of Hurston/Wright.

"She has the big picture. I make sure all the pieces are there," says McElvene.

Golden donated $750 of her own money to give the first annual Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. Later, the foundation added the Hurston/Wright Writers' Week, its multigenre summer workshop in which participants are taught by noted authors.

The Award for College Writers is now $1,000 or first prize and $500 for two finalist prizes. Over the years, the awards have become a barometer for success. Winners Nelly Rosario and Tayari Jones had their debut novels, Song of the Water Saints (Pantheon, 2002) and Leaving Atlanta (Warner Books, 2002) respectively, published after receiving their awards. Ravi Howard, the 2001 college award winner, received a six-figure publishing contract for a novel based on his Hurston/Wright Award-winning story. Gabriel's Story (Doubleday, 2001), David Anthony Durham's winner in the debut fiction category, has been optioned for a film (see Durham profile, page 50).

David Wright, who won a college award for a short story he wrote, says the award opened up doors to publishing. "I sent out stories to publishers but was getting rejections mostly. Then I listed the award in my query letters and started getting published," says Wright.

Stephen Rubin, president and publisher of Doubleday Broadway Publishing Group, says: "Marita knows what's needed and goes about it in a no-nonsense way. As a writer, she's been around the block for a long time and knows the turf well and sees from all points of view."

Russell Banks, a prolific writer who is white and whose works include best-selling novels The Sweet Hereafter and Continental Drift, said of Golden: "She reminds me of some of the movie producers, a person who puts together diverse talent. She has the extraordinary, gift for identifying people for one thing they can do and putting them together."

Borders Books & Music has been the foundation's major supporter since 1995, providing scholarship funding and prize money. The books of the 18 Legacy winners are prominently displayed in all Borders bookstores for a month each fall at awards time. That display has increased sales for the books by 30 percent to 90 percent.

Tami Helm, president of Borders, says Golden "has nurtured and educated, encouraged and cheered the efforts of numerous young and unheralded writers; providing them with not only the tools for their craft, but with the belief that they and what they write matters...and that their voices should be heard."

Meanwhile, Golden is sustained by the joy of the work. "I get excited three times a year--when I get the applications for the college awards, submissions for the Legacy Awards, and applications for the workshop" she says.

"We will give them something priceless," she declares. "They don't know they are going to be transformed and become part of a community.

"Our mission is to empower black writers and create successful black authors," adds Golden. "By doing that, in the long run we will create a critical consciousness about the significance of black writing and about the value and importance of black literature as a gift to the world."

RELATED ARTICLE: Workshopping for success.

The nine-year-old annual Hurston/Wright Foundation Writers' Week has launched a new generation of writers.

Sonsyrea Tate

More than 500 writers have participated in The Hurston/Wright Foundation Writers' Week workshops since they began in 1996; and more than a dozen participants have gone on to publish books with established publishers. The 2005 Hurston/Wright Writers' Week will be held at American University from July 17 to 23; and the application deadline is April 15, 2005.

During an intense week of writing, networking and panel discussions, there are workshops for high-school students, and for emerging as well as advanced nonfiction writers, novelists and screenwriters. They are taught by published authors, accomplished writers and writing teachers.

"I think that being accepted into Writers' Week was a watershed moment for me," says Shawna K. Richards, a workshop alumna, who was accepted for Writers' Week in 2000. "It was almost a feeling of validation, although at that point I had been writing for years," added Richards, whose short story was included in an anthology published by the foundation in the summer of 2003 that featured the works of 35 workshop alumna. The anthology, The Hoot and Holler of the Owls, features short stories, poems and essays. It also features a foreword by Patricia Elam, author of Breathing Room, (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2001). Elam is also a workshop alum.

Some who have participated in the foundation's workshops consider the week of immersion in African American literature life altering. "The foundation has buoyed my career from the start. Before anyone else thought to, they took me seriously as a writer," says David Anthony Durham, one of the workshop students who went on to become a published author. His most recent work is Pride of Carthage (Doubleday, January 2005, see page 50).

Other workshop participants who have gone on to publish include Michele Andrea Bowen, author of Church Folk and Second Sunday (both by Walk Worthy Press), Carol Parrott Blue, author of The Dawn at My Back (University of Texas Press), and Anita Diggs, whose books include Mighty Love and A Meeting in the Ladies' Room (both from Dafina).

Durham, who also enjoyed an opportunity to read from his novel at the Folger Shakespeare Library in the nation's capital in 2003, says, "I never imagined that I would be reading for the PEN/Faulkner Foundation so early in my career. "I'm sure I wouldn't have done so if not for their partnership with The Hurston/Wright Foundation."

For more information, please visit www.hurston-wright.org.

Sonsyrea Tate is a journalist living in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Little X: Growing Up in the Nation of Islam (University of Tennessee Press, reprint, November 2004).
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:spotlight
Author:Gaines, Patrice
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Words:1963
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