Over the years, in addition to paying attention to the content of African American poems, I have kept an eye on the distribution of prizes, awards, and fellowships in the field. Some years ago, I dimly began recognizing that the prizes and awards had become more integral to developments taking place among poets than I initially realized.
The significance of awards is not a new phenomenon. After all, Margaret Walker became widely known when she earned the Yale Series of Younger Poets award, paving the way for the publication of her book For My People (1942). Gwendolyn Brooks definitely gained more prestige and national recognition when she became the first African American poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950.
To be clear, poets do not need awards in order to produce substantial work. Yet, that kind of recognition does open many doors. As one observer put it, awards and prizes serve as "megablurbs." The awards raise the chances that a volume of poetry and poet will receive buzz and attention in a culture that increasingly makes it difficult to be heard and recognized.
What I've learned too is that often one award, fellowship, or prize raises the chances of a recipient receiving yet another award, fellowship, or prize. And the cycle persists. For example, Natasha Trethewey won the first Cave Canem poetry awards in 1999; she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003; she won a Pulitzer for poetry in 2007; and she was appointed Mississippi Poet Laureate and U.S. Poet Laureate in 2012. Her awards and fellowship were central to her ability to earn such prestigious appointments. Her prestigious appointments will likely lead to future recognition.
Overall, what's notable about the ongoing history of the awards is how much they have increased for African American poets during the 21st century. That increase is related to at least three major developments.
For one, there are simply more awards available today than in the past. Second, judging committees, for various reasons, are more willing to value compositions by African American poets than they were in the past. (It's depressing to think about how biases and straight-out racism prevented countless talented African American poets from gaining recognition). Finally, contemporary African American poets and their supporters are far more cognizant of the value of awards; thus, they are frequently placing themselves or being placed in positions to compete.
There are indeed some downsides to the awards. As I've noted on a few different occasions, although more African American poets are winning today than ever before, that also inevitably means African American poets are losing more than ever before. But given the rewards of winning these days, many poets simply must keep competing.
• A Notebook on prizes, awards & fellowships