Virginia Hamilton book and award— Curating legacy of American writer
- Published: February 18, 2010
For many years after her death in 2002, the glass door to Virginia Hamilton’s writing office remained closed. Every day Arnold Adoff, her husband and writing partner, passed the office at their home in Yellow Springs, but he didn’t want to open it. Then in 2007 fellow children’s book writer Kacy Cook helped crack the vault, and out poured 35 years of research, notes, speeches and manuscripts that formed the gritty trail of an American intellectual and her life as mother, wife and prolific writer.
Busily living the working life and raising children, Adoff never stopped to assess the volume of work he and Hamilton were producing. But the mass of reference and original materials that went into creating and promoting the 40 books she wrote added up to a body of nearly 150 pieces of nonfiction, 32 of which appear in a new book, Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations, edited by Adoff and Cook and published this month by Blue Sky Press/Scholastic Inc.
During a recent interview, Adoff, who has also published 30 books of poems and anthologies, recalled the life he led with Hamilton and the running political and social commentary they had between their work as writers and running a household together. Her nonfiction work represents those conversations and her views on issues such as race, politics, gender and working women in society, all of which formed the foundation for her stories for children and young adults.
As an African-American woman who grew up on a truck farm in Yellow Springs, Hamilton felt that she had a different voice to add to American literature that was and continues to be dominated by white culture, Adoff said. Hamilton was the first African American to win the Newberry Medal and one of the few African Americans who were taken seriously as writers, Adoff said. And even while she was part of the development of black consciousness in America, she also felt it was important to break into the mainstream literary circles, Adoff said. Hamilton felt she had gained some ground when she won the universally respected Hans Christian Andersen Medal in 1992 for the body of her work and then the MacArthur Fellowship “genius award” in 1995.
Hamilton and Adoff agreed that “the enemy is ethnocentricity,” he said. “We felt, and I still feel, that the mainstream culture has still not opened up to all aspects of the American mosaic.”
And even then, Hamilton never wanted to be narrowly identified by her association to one group or another. Though she proudly claimed the stories of her roots, she didn’t like being boxed into anything less than her identity as an American.
“Virginia never wanted to be made less or marginalized because she wrote for children or because she was black or because she was a woman,” Adoff said.
She and Adoff chose to write for children because as the source of change and growth in America, the youth “were the only place that allowed us a sense of optimism for the future,” he said. They felt their job was partly to help young readers break free from the labels that bound them. Hamilton called her work “liberation literature.”
“We always liked to say that it wasn’t necessary to isolate race just because America has a history of slavery,” Adoff said of the most pressing intellectual issues of the time. “There’s gender, culture, even geography — we would debate about whether Ohio was the Midwest or not — and it was always within the context of being a human being.”
Similarly Hamilton criticized the narrow categorization of books written and marketed for children. In an essay written in 1973, entitled “Nonwhite Literature as American Literature: A Proposal for Culture Democracy,” Hamilton wrote that books should not be defined by rigid categories, and that readers should not expect to complete a quota of books that fulfill those categories.
“Always, the attempt should be made to startle and surprise children with the allure of totally different books in order to generate awareness of the enormous possibility of their American heritage,” she wrote.
This year’s appointment of Katherine Paterson as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Librarian of Congress gives Adoff hope that the literary world is starting to see things their way. The post was created in 2008 to raise awareness of the importance of young people’s literature and to teach children about people from other religions, races and countries.
Having won nearly every literary award in the industry, Hamilton now has an award in her name to offer others who have followed her lead as an author of children’s and young adult literature that does not apologize for but meets the world the way real life people live it. The Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement is a new award of the American Library Association. Last month the ALA named the first recipient, Walter Dean Myers, whose works of mostly fiction are focused on the youth community of Harlem and deal with subjects such as war, incarceration and love. Some of his books include Dope Sick, Sunrise Over Fallujah and the “rhapsodic rap” of Amiri & Odette: A Love Story.
This year’s establishment of Hamilton’s literary award and the publication of her collected writings coincides with the opening in April of the Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff Resource Center at the Bolinga Black Cultural Center at Wright State University. The center is a permanent gift of the couple’s extensive research library, which contains volumes of history, sociology, biography, poetry and folklore.
Adoff has also agreed to donate all of Hamilton’s manuscripts to the Library of Congress, which the ALA describes as a “tribute to Hamilton’s contribution to literature and focus on African-American life, history and consciousness.”
The gifts are the couple’s way of spreading ideas for consumption by the general public, not just the intellectual elite, and with it the message that oppression can be overcome through the power of thought.
“She knew where she had come from, but her idea was that she would bring other kids along with her,” Adoff said.
Hamilton wrote over a 35-year period until her death at the age of 67. Her first book, Zeely, was published in 1967, and opened the gate for a flood of stories from the eyes of young people experiencing their real world challenges with issues such as obesity, single-parent families, life on the Underground Railroad, and sex, drugs and rock and roll. Hamilton also wrote biographies on black intellectual leaders Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, who taught at Wilberforce University. She has won over 25 awards, including the National Book Award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award.
Adoff and Cook will present their collection of Hamilton’s work in April at the 26th annual Virginia Hamilton Conference at Kent State University. In 1988 Adoff received for the body of his work the Excellence in Poetry for Children Award from the National Council of Teachers of English.