Mississippi writers receive Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration honors

Published 1:47 am Sunday, February 25, 2018

NATCHEZ — Two Mississippi authors joined the ranks of Eudora Welty, Barry Hannah and John Grisham Saturday as they received the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence on the last day of the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration.

The award celebrates writers with Mississippi connections who have created a noteworthy body of literary work.

This year’s awardees are Billy Watkins, journalist for The Clarion Ledger and Charles Reagan Wilson, Kelly Gene Cook Sr. Chair of History at the University of Mississippi.

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Both writers, moderator and previous Richard Wright award recipient David Sansing said, have created work that is iconic and representative of Mississippi culture.

Wilson, whose body of work includes “Baptized in Blood,” “Judgment and Grace in Dixie” and “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” taught in Germany and Texas before moving to the University of Mississippi, but said his heart has always been in Southern culture.

Sansing called Wilson’s “Baptized in Blood” a true primer on Southern culture.

“I have known scholars all of my life,” Sansing said. “But I know very few scholars who have written classics.”

Wilson said he grew up reading and respecting the work of Richard Wright, and that Wright’s book, “Black Boy” was an influencing factor in his fascination with Southern studies.

“To receive the Richard Wright Award to me is just so meaningful to me,” he said.

As a part of his acceptance speech, Wilson displayed his collection of church fans — the palm-style hand fans that were commonplace before air-conditioning.

The utility of the fan turned to novelty, Wilson said, corporations began mass producing the paddle-like objects.

Each fan had a different theme — from insignias of the Christian faith to Elvis to watermelon festivals.

Wilson said he finds himself fascinated with the fans because they are both material expressions of Southern culture and emblematic of his life’s work.

“These fans are icons of the South,” he said. “They sum up so much. We move a lot of Southern history and culture — from religion to festivals of the contemporary South. That’s what I study.”

Watkins, on the other hand, grew up in Mississippi and has spent the entirety of his career here.

Watkins, who authored “Apollo Moon Missions: The Unsung Heroes,” an expansive history of Ole Miss football and “Bo: A Quarterback’s Journey through an SEC Season,” said he was honored both by the award and the people who had come to watch him receive it.

“Time is the most precious gift you can give somebody, and it means so much to have you all here,” Watkins said, directing his attention to his editor and family, who sat in the audience.

Watkins, whose family owned a general store Noxubee County, said his love of storytelling began, perhaps, as he listened to old men telling stories in front of the shop.

“These were hardworking men, and I would just hang on every word,” he said. “There’s no doubt they are the reason I wanted to tell stories.”

Watkins attended the University of Mississippi, said though he grew up reading sports coverage in his home newspaper, The Meridian Star, he reached his senior year in college before deciding to become a sports journalist himself.

“Gracious goodness, as soon as I got into journalism, I loved it,” he said.

He began writing for The Meridian Star while still in college as he covered sports for the university’s newspaper, The Daily Mississippian, and took on a position with The Star after college.

Later, Watkins would be hired by The Clarion Ledger, where he has worked as a sports reporter and features editor for 30 years.

“Writing is torture and fun and misery,” Watkins said. “But when its right and it’s flowing, it’s mystical.”

The passion he found as a young man listening to the yarns and tales of old men, he said, never left him.

“When God calls me home,” Watkins said, “you can say this about me, ‘He lived his dream.’”