Dr. Osonye Tess Onwueme
Playwright   Novelist   Scholar   Cultural Activist   International Speaker   Performer


"Tess is a rare jewel in this country..." - Dr. K. Kendall, Smith College, MA.


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Literary and Publishing Legends Bag Awards at the 10th Anniversary of the Harlem Book Fair

by Christopher Nwapa and Marie Umeh

As the International Olympic Committee was preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XXIX Olympiad scheduled for Beijing, China, Max Rodriguez and his team were planning the 10th Anniversary of the 2008 Harlem Book Fair and the Philis Wheatley Awards from July 17th to July 20th at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York. The Philis Wheatley Awards and the Flora Nwapa Awards' Ceremony were marvelous cultural and literary awakening paying tribute to the dynamic authors and publishers of African descent diversifying mainstream America's book production and distribution in the wake of the 21st century.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. chronicles Philis Wheatley as African-American's first published poet in his biography of the Senegalese slave who rose to the status of a prominent writer and Black America's first published poet in 1776. And according to Chief Christopher Nwapa on July 18th 2008: "I was very conscious of the honor attributed to my family and in memory of my late sister, Flora Nwapa, who I vividly recall started her first novel, Efuru (1966), at my house in Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria in 1960. It was this work that launched Flora into the literary world of writers and placed her firmly as the first Nigerian woman novelist of our time."

The Philis Wheatley Awards and the Flora Nwapa Award Celebration commenced with a distinguished and international audience entertained with music provided by The Tyrone Birkett Group and dinner catered by African Kine, an exquisite Senegalese catering firm in Harlem, New York. Following this warm welcome, the guests were ushered into the Langston Hughes Auditorium of The Schomburg Center for Research in the Black Culture around 7:30 p. m. Relentless Aaron, a prolific author of 30 books and grassroots publisher was the Master of Ceremonies. Dominic Carter, New York's vibrant Newscaster and autobiographer hosted the August event. It was an awesome evening of New York's Africana Intelligentsia remembering their literacy ancestors and recognizing their gifted sons and daughters.

Haki R. Madhubuti of Chicago, Illinois was the first honoree. As founder of Third World Press established in 1967 and the author of 19 books, he paved the way for many Black writers and publishers to courageously enter the publishing market in America. Another trailblazer was the Eritrean publisher, Kassahun Checole, from North Africa. As President of Africa World Press, Inc. and The Red Sea Press established in 1983 in Trenton, New Jersey, Checole was acclaimed for publishing approximately 30 books annually and maintaining the reputation of Africana's Top Black Publisher and distributor of books and scholarly journals with offices in Eritrea, America, England, Ghana and South Africa, to name only a few. Cheryl Willis Hudson and Wade Hudson were celebrated as creators of the publishing firm, JUST US BOOKS, which specializes in children's books and learning materials that portray African-Americans in a positive light. W. Paul Coates, the founder and director of Black Classic Press, made an impact in book production by republishing obscure and significant works by and about people of African descent for over three decades. Amber Communications Group's Founder, Tony Rose, Publisher and CEO, was recognized for establishing the nation's largest African-American self-help, career-guided and commercial/pop book titles established since 1998 in partnership with mainstream American publishing companies. Osonye Tess Onwueme, a Distinguished Professor of Cultural Diversity in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and an acclaimed dramatist and author of fifteen plays, was awarded the 2008 Flora Nwapa Literary Award. Born in Nigeria and the winner of the Association of Nigerian Authors' (ANA) Award for the Best Play in 1985, she is presently an eminent scholar and a dynamic cultural ambassador of Africa.

C-Span, New York's Book TV, has estimated that over a quarter-of-a-million people attended the 10th Anniversary Celebration of the Harlem Book Fair. Most of the honorees were accompanied with their families. Professor Obika Gray, a Political Scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, escorted his wife, Osonye Tess Onwueme to the historic affair. Chief Christopher Nwapa, Flora Nwapa's brother, came to the book party with his wife, Lady Evelyn Nwapa. Dr. Marie Umeh, President of the Flora Nwapa Society, and a member of the Department of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, attended the gala with her daughter, Dr. Uchenna Umeh. Professor P. J. Gibson, a playwright and poet in the Department of English at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, introduced the honoree, Professor Osonye Tess Onwueme. Chief (Dr.) Howard Dodson, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, presented the honoree, Kassahun Checole, President and CEO of Africa World Press and The Red Sea Press, to the Harlem community. Max Rodriguez, Founder of the Harlem Book Fair and The Wheatley Awards was ubiquitous, with the support of his wife, sisters and nieces and nephews. Dr. Adeline Apena, a Historian at Sage College, drove downstate from Albany, New York, to witness her compatriot's laurels and to keep the memory of the late Flora Nwapa alive. The Nigerian Publisher and book distributor, Basil Njoku, of African Heritage Press in New York and Nigeria, was radiant, as one of his authors-Osonye Tess Onwueme-was the recipient of a prestigious prize.

Author Beverly Anderson Manley flew into New York from Jamaica, West Indies to launch her new book, Manley Memoirs (2008) detailing her life as the wife of the Prime Minister of Jamaica, Michael Manley, her ex-husband. Dominic Carter, author of No Mama's Boy and Relentless Aaron author of To Live and Die in Harlem, both made an impact with their topical themes which transcended boundaries of age, race, and geographical distances. Professor Chudi Uwazurike, a Professor of African Literature at City College, CUNY, graced the occasion with prominent Nigerian guests visiting New York-Directors of Nollywood-the spirited DVD and VHS producers from Abuja and Lagos, Nigeria, who are globalizing African life and culture. Kirk Thometz, author of a collection of stories, highlighting Onitsha Market Literature, entitled Life Turns Man Up and Down, and CEO of WORD, a private library in New York, also graced the literary event. George Ekwensi, the first son of the pioneer Nigerian author, Chief Cyprian Ekwensi, who made history with his popular urban novel, Jagua Nana, talked about The Cyprian Ekwensi Arts and Cultural Center dedicated to the memory of his father by the Federal Government of Nigeria in April 2008.

Professor Rashida Ismali Abubakr, a Founding Member of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA) attended the event. The Publisher and CEO of Afro-Heritage Magazine, Tosin Mustapha, also graced the occasion. The Convener of the 2008 Black Writers' Conference at Medgar Evers College, CUNY-Dr. Brenda Greene-also attended the sterling soirée. Author Walter Mosley, a New York best-selling author of thrillers, was greeted by Max Rodriguez and many of his fans. Dr. Fahamisha Brown, a scholar and former recipient of the Arthur Schomburg Post Graduate Fellowship was another one of the prominent invitees. Professor Amiri Baraka, author of the book, Tales of the Out and Gone (2007), as well as an award-winning poet, critic and author of many electrifying dramatic works, gave power to the story-telling tradition in Black oral and written literatures. New York Council Member, Larry Seabrook, representing his constituency, was among the politicians in support of Max Rodriguez's enterprising and cultural savvy.

Chief Christopher Nwapa recounts: "The Harlem Book Fair attracted very important visitors, prominent guests, media moguls, continental and international participants, students and scholars of literature and film specializing in Africana orature, autobiography, drama, poetry and culture." Equally impressive was the energetic drumming of Skott Hanna who accompanied Osonye Tess Onwueme onto the stage and heralded the good news that a significant event was taking place and everybody should come. The Senegalese cuisine catered by African Kine, a four-star restaurant in uptown New York, satisfied the taste buds of everyone present with an artistic spread of African salad, spicy jolof rice, cous-cous, and sorrel, to name only a few of the dishes and drinks served.

The stars of the 2008 Philis Wheatley Awards and the Flora Nwapa Award celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Harlem Book Fair proudly garnered their crowns of distinction, just as the Chinese, Americans and Russians topped the other countries and collected the most gold, silver and bronze medals with an illustrious display of talent at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. The powerhouse behind the 2008 Book Fair and Awards Ceremony-Max Rodriguez-in contextualizing and historicizing two African women writers whose shoulders we stand on, globalized and validated the vitality of the Black reading, writing and publishing culture.

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