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Hey, Hurston/Wright Foundation — What About Black Trans Lives?

Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images.
Updated September 24, 2021, 4:06pm ET:
In 1990, Marita Golden and Clyde McElvene created the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation as a supportive space for Black writers. Since its inception, the organization has provided workshops and classes to thousands of talented Black authors. And during its Annual Legacy Awards ceremony, the career achievements of its students — many of whom have gone on to publish some of the most influential books to date (Tayari Jones, Natalie Baszile, Brit Bennett, among others) — are honored for their prestige and impact. 
In the organization’s 2021 sponsorship booklet, they write that it is more important than ever to tell Black stories, celebrate Black culture, preserve Black heritage, and “speak to critical issues.” Which is why, for many, it is as baffling as it is infuriarting that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has openly made disparaging, transphobic and insensitive comments about transgender women on more than one occasion, would receive this year’s North Star Award. The Foundation proclaims this award as its highest honor that “celebrat[es] an individual whose career exemplifies achievement and inspiration to others in the field of literature.”
“The literary world truly does not care about trans people and makes it a point to let us know,” esteemed nonbinary author Akwaeke Emezi, who is a former student of Adichie’s, tweeted on Monday. “Imagine what the industry is like for Black trans people who cannot even expect support from Black literary spaces.”
This sort of neglect is not a solitary event; trans people face cruelty in the literary world all the time. This year, The American Booksellers Association was called out for their careless distribution of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, in which Shrier refers to gender dysphoria as an “epidemic” causing teens to misidentify themselves as transgender. While she has stated that she supports adults’ right to transition, she then goes on to argue that teenagers are too young to do the same. As noted by The Washington Post, multiple medical associations support children and adolescents medically transitioning (the ABA later apologized for what it called a “serious, violent incident”). Overseas, publishers, writers, illustrators and booksellers are calling for the British book industry to hold itself accountable for its allowance of transphobia and prevent its perpetuation. And in the Black transgender and gender non-conforming community, writers like Emezi continue to question how to move in an industry that, despite some recent progress, still neglects to protect them.
“I know it’s obvious to a lot of people that institutions are inevitably violent and will reward the tools of their violence,” Emezi continued. “I agree that we should bend our own worlds into being because this one wants us dead. I’m still wondering how to have a career in a space this hostile.”
R29Unbothered reached out to the Hurston/Wright Foundation and received the following statement:
"Since our inception, Hurston/Wright Foundation has supported the discovery, mentorship, and celebration of ALL Black writers.  The name of our organization honors two Black writers who held strong differences of opinion.  Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright were at odds over many issues. But our founders celebrated these differences, in an effort to make us a stronger voice for all Black writers.  No creative movement (no significant advancement for justice in the world) has proceeded without the inclusive participation of people, all people, who need their voice amplified. The history and future of Black writers depends on it. This is something we recognize, celebrate, and unequivocally affirm. 
We understand and respect the voices of our LGBTQ+ community over the last week. We are recommitting to apply an equity lens – which includes gender diversity – in our award selection process to ensure to the best of our ability that we do not contribute to any manner of systemic discrimination in the future. As we learn more, we will inform the Black literary community about our plan of action."
In June 2021, Adichie self-published an essay titled “It Is Obscene: A True Reflection in Three Parts,” in which she addressed transgender rights, freedom of speech, and fear of “cancel culture.” She particularly highlighted the backlash she has faced over the years from the many who found her publicly stated comments about trans women to be violently transphobic, including comments from a 2017 interview during which she stated that “trans women are trans women,” dismissing rather than avowing their status as women. “I think if you've lived in the world as a man, with the privileges the world accords to men, and then change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are,” she said during that interview
In response to criticism, she later told The Guardian, “Of course they are women but in talking about feminism and gender and all of that, it’s important for us to acknowledge the differences in experience of gender. That’s really what my point is.” She also told NPR that she supports the rights of trans and all marginalized people. “I have always been fiercely supportive of difference, in general,” she said. But her actions seem to state otherwise.
According to TIME, Adichie’s 2021 essay alludes to exchanges between Adichie and Emezi (Emezi’s name is not explicitly mentioned). The other unnamed former student Adichie mentions in her essay is queer writer Olutimehin Kukoyi. Kukoyi responded to Adichie in a damning essay titled “Your Power Ends Where Mine Begins,” which was published in the August/September 2021 issue of The Republic. Emezi responded via their Instagram story in June, stating that emails shared between Emezi and Adichie were published without their consent, and that Adichie “wrote an incendiary post that she knew would send hundreds of transphobic and homophobic people to [their] social media.”
“Like I said in November last year — I know nothing will happen to her because this world and the publishing industry value her more than the lives or wellbeing of trans people, which is something she knows as well,” Emezi concluded via Twitter on Monday. “I do appreciate when these literary spaces make it clear where their allegiance lies, like to the tokens of the empire, certainly not to the most vulnerable members of their communities.”
There have been at least 36 transgender or gender non-conforming people fatally shot or killed by other violent means in 2021, the Human Rights Campaign reports — and those are just the cases we know of. Last year, HRC tracked 44 fatalities, making 2020 the most violent year on record since HRC began tracking these violent incidents in 2013. But in June, 2021 was already on pace to top 2020 as the deadliest year for transgender and gender non-conforming people in the United States, and many of those killed were Black.
If we’re going to “celebrate our culture, preserve our heritage, and speak to critical issues,” the lives of Black trans and gender non-conforming people must be included in the conversation. Because right now, the message appears to be that their lives don't matter, and that heedlessness is dangerous.

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