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.
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