Quick: can you name three writers who are in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame?
Did you guess well-known writers like Pat Conroy or Carson McCullers or Henry W. Grady? How about former president Jimmy Carter (the second best-selling former president in our history) or maybe the poet Sidney Lanier? While those are among the many “household” names in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame’s 66 honorees, there are other honorees whose contribution to American literature we should not forget.
Can you name three famous Georgia Writers Hall of Fame inductees that are African American?
As Black History Month concludes, let’s explore what black writers from Georgia have contributed to our literary heritage. The list of names and their works is singularly impressive.
While we think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a civil rights icon and one of Georgia’s most famous citizens, he was also a gifted writer. King, who grew up in Atlanta and earned a Ph.D. in Theology at Boston University, wrote three books, including “Why We Can’t Wait,” about the famous Birmingham civil rights campaign he led in 1963.
If you have not read King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” you owe it to yourself to get a copy. It’s one of the most inspiring pieces you will ever read about the civil rights movement.
Dr. King may be among the most well-known members of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, but there are so many others.
W.E.B. DuBois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. at Harvard, and a man King said “dedicated his brilliant talents to demolishing the myth of [black] inferiority.” His book “The Souls of Black Folk,” published in 1903, was recently named one of the Modern Library’s 100 Most Influential books of the twentieth century. DuBois spent more than 25 years at Atlanta University as a professor and head of the sociology department — and nearly that long editing Crisis, the primary publication of the NAACP which, according to the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, he helped to found.
But the Hall also has honored the writings of Alice Walker, who grew up in Eatonton, Ga., the daughter of a sharecropper, who went on to write “The Color Purple,” for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Walker wrote six novels and three volumes of short stories.
Equally as gifted as Walker is the great contemporary poet Natasha Trethewey, the former two-term Poet Laureate of the United States. A University of Georgia graduate and former professor at Emory University, Trethewey also earned a Pulitzer Prize (while there are many Pulitzer winners who attended UGA, she is the only non-journalism student to do so.)
Trethewey, born to a white professor and a black social worker in Mississippi, recounts the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross in her family’s yard, and her writing in “Native Guard” is full of vivid images. I heard Trethewey speak once at an event in Atlanta, and her presence is as compelling as her verse.
One of the youngest members of the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame is the prolific writer Kevin Young, a graduate of both Harvard and Brown and a former UGA and Emory professor, who has won numerous national awards, including the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize. His poetry collection “Book of Hours” “exemplifies what poetry can do in the world when language works at its full power,” according to the judges who honored him with that prize. That book combined his grief over his father’s death in a hunting accident “…weighed against the joy of his own son’s birth four months afterward.”
Of course, there are many other black writers in the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame, including Savannah’s James Alan McPherson, another Pulitzer Prize winner; Raymond Andrews, a sharecropper’s son who became the recipient of the prestigious James Baldwin Prize for fiction; Georgia Douglas Johnson, an Atlanta native and well-known poet and playwright in the early part of the 20th century; and Tayari Jones, a Spelman graduate whose parents were Clark College professors, and whose second book “The Untelling,” won the Southern Regional Council’s Lillian Smith Book Award for fiction in 2005.
The Georgia Writers Hall of Fame is housed at the University of Georgia and accepts public nominations which are turned over for consideration to a board of judges…[including] academics, civic leaders, librarians, leaders at the University of Georgia press, the Georgia Review and recent Hall of Fame recipients.
We should be studying the work of these literary greats as part of our American heritage, not just recognizing their contributions as a part of Black History Month.
Georgia Writer Hall of Fame inductee Kevin Young told students at Saint Mary’s College of California that the secret to writing is opening yourself up.
“It’s important to let in all of the different voices that influence your life. In one’s work, you really want to be able to capture everything from your grandmother’s voice, to your ancestors and otherwise. How do you write about now and … also about history? You have to be brave. Being brave is the best thing that you can be.”