Congratulations to poets Nikki Giovanni, Gregory Pardlo, and Tracy K. Smith. They are finalists for the first annual Essence Literary Award in the category of Poetry. Their books are: Acolytes by Nikki Giovanni; Totem by Gregory Pardlo; and Duende by Tracy K. Smith. All three books are exceptional, and I urge you to read them.
Essence Magazine, founded in the late 1960s, a fashion, lifestyle and entertainment magazine originally geared towards African American women, the first of its kind to do so, has long supported and featured African American writers in its pages and through its annual fiction-writing contest. The Essence Literary Awards comes at an important time, in which, educators, politicians, and parents should stress the importance of literacy, as all indicators and federal reports suggest reading is promptly becoming an obsolete activity of American life.

I have always thought American literature as well as the other humanities deserving of their own televised awards show, much like cinema and music. Would such a high-profile attention render a substantial change to our country? I should think so. Oprah’s book selections are such an example of what can occur in the life of an author but also in the cultural life of a country when media machines gently nurture mainstream consumers towards the finer arts.
Essence magazine has 1.1 million subscribers, 6,000 of whom are registered members of the online Essence monthly book club. Essence currently dedicates at least 3-1/2 pages to authors and books each month, second among women’s fashion/beauty/ lifestyle magazines only to O: the Oprah magazine.
In 2000, Essence Communications, Inc. became a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc. In 1995, Essence produced its first musical festival, which has become a highly anticipated, annual event in New Orleans.
With its Literary Awards, Essence will honor a Storyteller of the Year, selected by visitors of its website, but will turn to a panel of professionals to select winners in the categories of Fiction, Inspiration, Memoir, Poetry, Non-fiction, Children’s Book, Current Affairs, and Photography. Additionally, fiction writer Terry McMillan will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Countee Cullen Regional Library in Harlem, a branch of the New York City Public Library system, will be the first recipient of the Save Our Libraries campaign. The Awards Ceremony will take place in New York City on February 7, 2008 and will be emceed by Today’s Show host Hoda Kotb and Dr. Ian Smith.
The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples) decided to host its first Image Awards in 1968, the same year Essence Commnications, Inc. was founded, a time in which African Americans stressed self-determination, positive self-image, and political independence. The aim of the NAACP was to acknowledge and honor African Americans in the entertainment fields of the film and musical arts; much like the Oscars or the Grammys. Eventually, the Image Awards would seek to honor African American writers, but, for a long time, the organization lumped all the genres into one category, the Literary Arts. Fiction writers such as E. Lynn Harris went up against poet Maya Angelou or public intellectual Cornel West. This year, the NAACP Image Awards decided to honor each individual genre.
All of these awards ceremonies will have a positive impact on publishing and bring much needed light on African American literary artists, marginalized by the more populist writers -- at least one hopes; the industry will notice the extent to which African Americans consume serious literature as well as mainstream authors.

Originally Published: December 22nd, 2007

Major Jackson's books of poems are Holding Company (2010, Norton) and Hoops (2006, Norton), both finalists for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literature-Poetry, and Leaving Saturn (2002, University of Georgia Press), which was awarded the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book of poems and was a finalist for the National Book...

  1. December 23, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    It is absolutely exceptional that any general interest magazine should have literary awards, much less with a Poetry category! This makes my day. Brava Essence!