For years now, I've tracked awards, prizes, fellowships, and special appointments earned by black poets. I recently provided an update with awards by title as well as a list of recipients 1987-2021.
There's more work to do, but for now I took a look at 246 total awards and prizes won by 120 poets. There are 32 different awards on the list I'm currently considering.
64 of the poets are men, who are the recipients of 129 of the awards.
54 of the poets are women, who are recipients of 114 of the awards.
2 of the poets are nonbinary, who are recipients of 3 of the awards.
Here are the top six organizations that granted awards:
Guggenheim Fellowship (31 awards)Cave Canem Poetry Prize (22)Whiting Award (22)Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships (19)Hurston-Wright Legacy Award for poetry (15)NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Poetry (13)
Increasing numbers of black poets have won major awards since 2000. To take one example, three black poets won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in the 20th century, and already five black poets have won the prize in the 21st century. How do we account for the increase in black award recipients?
Several factors come into play. First, and of course, there's so much good writing out there. Yet, I want to quickly add that many black poets have been really good writers for many decades. So why relatively few awards back in the day? That's where some new factors come into play.
For one, today instutitions that grant awards are more diverse and accepting of black poets than in the past. They are more accepting in part because they are more diverse.
The Academy of American Poets, for instance, now has, after considerable struggle, a sizable number of black and other non-white poets on the Board of Chancellors, who get to make decisions about recipients. When the Board was all-white, they only selected white recipients. Now that organization has black poets, and they've awarded black poets.
Related, several other organizations such as the Whiting Foundation, Guggenheim Fellowship, National Poetry Series Winner, Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships, began to bestow more awards to black recipients over the last two decades.
Another factor is there are more awards and thus possibilites to win for black poets today than 20 years ago. Caven Canem began offering its first poetry prize in 1999, and then began an additional one in 2009. In 2007, the NAACP began offering a poetry award, and in the same year, the Hurston-Wright Legacy Foundation began offering a poetry award. Also in 2007, Poets & Writers, Inc. began offering the Jackson Poetry Prize.
Yet another factor, which is a little less visible, is judging. When poets when win awards or when they are finalists, groups hire them to serve as judges. An increase in black poetry judges has understandably contributed to an increase in more diverse recipients.