Founded to support African-American literature and named after celebrated black writers Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright, the nonprofit Hurston/Wright Foundation marked its 25th anniversary with the appointment of a new executive director. The foundation also announced the winners of the annual H/W Legacy Awards, given for literary achievement.
Deb Heard, a former editor on the Washington Post Style page, has been named executive director of H/W, beginning in January 2016. She will succeed Marita Golden, a novelist and a cofounder of the Hurston/Wright Foundation. Golden is stepping down after two years in the position.
Golden noted that Heard began working with H/W as a volunteer, eventually becoming secretary of the board. Heard was chosen, Golden said, because of “her years working in the corporate world combined with her passion for literature.” Golden said she’s leaving the position because “I feel gratified by our track record and by the fact that I can step down and feel that the organization has in place a talented leadership team.”
Golden took the helm at H/W in 2013, when former executive director and cofounder Clyde McElvene abruptly resigned. In the wake of the resignation, Golden said H/W has made some changes. In particular, the foundation has “worked to rebuild the board and advisory board with a focus on bringing into the organization dedicated lovers of black literature who could bring the kinds of administrative, fund-raising, and development skills we needed.”
One of the foundation’s activities is sponsoring the H/W Legacy Awards, annual literary prizes presented to the best African-American-focused books of the year. The awards were presented last week at a gala ceremony at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Washington, D.C.
The 2015 Legacy Award for Fiction was presented to Laila Lalami for The Moor’s Account, the fictional memoirs of a 16th-century black explorer (Vintage); the nonfiction prize was awarded to Elizabeth Nunez for Not for Everyday Use, a probing memoir focused on Nunez’s Trinidadian parents (Akashic); and the poetry prize was awarded to Claudia Rankine for her much-lauded work of essayistic verse, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf), which was also the NBCC poetry winner and an NBA poetry finalist.
The Hurston/Wright Legacy Awards, Golden explained, were originated in 2002 by the late author and H/W board member E. Lynn Harris. The foundation also sponsors the H/W Award for College Writers, a cash prize for black college students, which has been presented to 70 emerging writers since 1990—including last year’s winner, Brittany Bennett, whose debut novel will be published by Riverhead next spring. Other writers recognized by the college award include Tayari Jones, Mitchell Jackson, and Pen-Faulkner nominee William Henry Lewis. The organization also sponsors H/W Writers’ Week, a multigenre summer workshop for back writers, whose alumni include novelists Dolen Perkins Valdez and Ravi Howard.
After 25 years, Golden said the H/W Foundation’s mission remains the same: “to discover, mentor, and honor black writers. In the largest sense we are committed to continually providing programs that provide a sustaining community for black writers at any point in their career.”