In 2007, with the help a few anonymous key donors, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation created the largest prize in the U.S. for African-American fiction writers. They christened it the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence to honor the influential novelist and short story writer. Each year the $10,000 award is given to an African-American author with an exceptional book of fiction published the previous year. The award is expressly designed to "inspire and recognize rising African-American writers of excellence as they work to achieve the literary heights for which Ernest J. Gains is known for."
Gaines is, of course, the author of the modern classic The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning A Lesson Before Dying. Among other achievements, he's also a Guggenheim and MacArthur fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The award that bears his namesake is given each January, with travel, accommodations, and meals provided for each winner, and Gaines in attendance at the ceremony. Self-published books are even considered, provided they have substantial sales and have been reviewed in well-known journals.
The one thing that's more than a little disconcerting about the award is that there is only one African-American on the current five judge panel. This should raise more than just a few eyebrows. The judges are all most certainly luminaries in their own right. Besides African-American author Anthony Grooms, there is Thomas Beller, Phillip Lopate, Francine Prose, and Patricia Towers. All great writers to be sure. But to have only one African-American on a panel bestowing the highest literary honor for African-American writers? It's perplexing to say the least.
Despite this obvious bit of tone-deafness, the prize has gone to some amazingly deserving authors, including Victor LaValle (2010), Dinaw Mengestu (2011), and Stephanie Powell Watts (2012). The accompanying exposure and book sales the award brings is also a nice supplement to the $10,000. Perhaps the judging panel will be a bit more diverse the next time around. Regardless, this award is a welcome addition to give exposure and reward where it's due.