In 2011, the National Book Foundation awarded book awards in poetry and fiction to Nikky Finney and Jesmyn Ward, respectively. I go back to that moment in 2011 because it is and was a rare occasion when not one, but two black women received one of the premier prizes for writers. Furthermore, it was the first time that I—a young black man tuned in to watch what became an interesting moment in history.
In addition to Finney and Ward, Yusef Komunyakaa and the late Manning Marable were also nominated for The Chameleon Couch and Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. With the exception of Jesmyn Ward, all of the writers/scholars mentioned above were already established and successful prior to the nominations. Of course, it never hurts to win a National Book Award!
Prior to the publication of her second novel Salvage the Bones, Ward had all but decided to give up writing and go to nursing school. Where the Line Bleeds had received little fanfare and was dead in water.
With the recent publicatin of her memoir Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward's career appears to have taken off. Similar to Salvage the Bones, her memoir wrestles with the forces of nature, death, poverty, and the seemingly disposability of black men. The New York Times observed that it was a book about scars. If by scars they mean deep existential wounds and catastrophic narratives that promise no escape or slave, then they have thoroughly captured Ward's project.
The literary community, black stuies scholars, and the town of DeLisle, Mississippi may have never talked about or "discovered" Jesmyn Ward had it not been for the National Book Award prize in 2011. What does it mean that a young black writer may have been lost in the literary world had it not been for fellowships, national awards, and the right publicity at the "right" time? More importantly, it says something about the nature and trajectory of awards and their ability to dramatically increase the visibility of a particular writer at a particular time.