The Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation was started with $750 and a dream. The dream was to create an institution that nurtured and mentored Black writers. The dream was to create a vibrant space where the legitimacy of the narratives of Black life and the brilliance of Black writers were taken for granted. The $750 of my own money provided the cash award to the first winner of the inaugural Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers in 1990.
Like most dreams, this one was personal. I was a Black woman who had been baptized by the political activism in the late sixties and witnessed the then-burgeoning new Black literary renaissance. As an undergraduate at American University, I read The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s debut novel, the early poems and short stories of Alice Walker, and the rollicking, incendiary novels of Ishmael Reed. While attending the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York City, I interviewed politicians by day and attended book parties for poets and novelists at night.
Early on, I was encouraged to write by Nikki Giovanni, who included one of my poems in an anthology she edited called And Night Comes Softly, and by Audre Lorde and June Jordan. I would soon find, however, that fiction and nonfiction were the genres that gave me the room I needed to tell my particular truth. As an aspiring, and then published writer, I walked through the doors these Black writers opened. All of them modeled a dedication to the highest standards of craft, wedded to engagement with big ideas, social justice and making a positive difference in the world.
Once I knew that there was no turning back, that writing was for me calling and destiny, the Hurston/Wright Foundation became the vehicle through which I found community and, as a literary and cultural activist, I helped create community for others. Working with co-founder Clyde McElvene and, over the past 25 years, scores of writers, readers, donors, board members, publishers, arts agencies, and corporate supporters, I have been dedicated to expanding opportunities and possibilities for Black writers.
The Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers was our inaugural program. A writing workshop that would honor the unique literary aesthetic of Black writers and offer a haven for the intellectual and artistic creative process was the natural next step. In 1996 Hurston/Wright Writers Week debuted on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University and became the nation’s first multi-genre workshop focusing on Black writers. The response was enthusiastic, with writers attending from all over the country. For several years now, Howard University has served as the home of the summer workshop.
As the foundation’s programs have expanded to include initiatives that support readers, adult writers, and the annual Legacy Awards, we have maintained a vision of impacting Black writers one at a time. This work is deeply personal for me. Each year when we honor college writers, I remember my yearning for affirmation as a college writer. Today’s emerging Black college writers honored by the Hurston/Wright Foundation at the annual Legacy Awards ceremony immediately find a supportive family.
Because I have always been dedicated to creating a new generation of leadership for Huston/Wright, I am enormously gratified by the commitment and talent of our new leadership team, with Deborah Heard as executive director and Darlene R. Taylor as Chair of the Board of Directors.
I am a believer in the power of the stories Black writers gift to the world. Sometimes, yes, dreams do come true.