I hope you follow me as I journey through and add, yet, one more (obvious) piece to this ever-unfolding W.A.R. puzzle.
While this post is longer than usual, it is substantive in that it provides a glimpse into some heated, ongoing, and much needed debate, that pertains to W.A.R.
Again, I ask that you follow me. And after reading this post, should you have any questions, comments, ideas, or just want to disagree with it, use the comment section. I won’t even post a picture, so not to distract your reading eyes.
Here we go…
I admit it. Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff have totally fascinated me beyond words. I hope you don’t mind my effusiveness, but they have really helped me to gain some much needed historical perspective as to the need to keep moving forward with the Writers Against Racism campaign. Which quite honestly started with George and Zetta.
George E. Stanley, "I think novels that promote tolerance and understanding of EVERYONE in our society should be required reading."
Zetta Elliot, "Literature gives us access to the inside lives of people we might otherwise dismiss or assume that we know; books counter the use of stereotypes as a kind of shortcut to truly knowing someone who’s different than us."
And while my question in this series has always been, why aren’t the K-12 reading lists, and new release catalogs diversified? (Those publicists -argh- STILL, have yet to respond to me, as to WHY!) There have also been questions about the elite book awards that are awarded each year to authors.
In Speaking Out, By Nikki Grimes, Nikki poses an even bolder question, which is also interesting for those – like me – who are NOT completely IN THE KNOW (but getting there). "But I have one burning question for Caldecott committees, past and present: if this nation can manage to put a black man in the Oval Office, why can’t the Caldecott committee see its way clear to give the Caldecott medal to an individual artist of African descent?
"…my hope is that sooner, rather than later, the Caldecott committee will find a way to help shatter the glass ceiling that seems to exist for illustrators of African descent. I will applaud that day. I wait for it with bated breath. "
Now, Virginia Hamilton, who described her own books as "liberation literature," took her own crusade for justice in literature, further, by publishing this letter (one of her last) DEFENDING the Coretta Scott King Awards and others. Which I can’t believe was even an argument to be made.
Here’s Virginia’s letter:
Letter to the editor of The Horn Book
May 24, 2001
From: Virginia Hamilton
To: Attn: Roger Sutton, Editor in Chief
The Horn Book, Inc.
Letter to the Editor:
Re: Article, “Slippery Slopes…”
That outdated argument is risen again. Who shall best tell the tales out of African American and Latino experience? Those who are African American and those who are Latino? And how should their excellence be rewarded? With the Coretta Scott King and Pura Belpré Awards, of course. Mark Aronson in his article, “Slippery Slopes and Proliferating Prizes,” May/June 2001 Horn Book, would have us believe he has a better answer: ALA should rid itself of these two troublesome awards which, apparently, he is certain are based only on identity factors and not the selection committees’ judgments of literary excellence in conferring their choices.
But no! By the end of the article we encounter the finish of a pseudo-intelligent “bait and switch” exercise. On the last page he states, after a long harangue as to why both awards would best be discontinued: “My suggestion is … keep the CSK, Belpré … awards, but honor content alone, not identity.”
The American Library Association clearly understands that having “house” Newbery/Caldcott along with “house” CSK and “house” Belpré awards in the same community of excellence, shines the light on all three all the more brightly. It does not take away from Newbery/Caldecott if “house” CSK selects its own award books based on criteria of its own making. As happened when Christopher Paul Curtis’ book, Bud, Not Buddy, won the John Newbery Medal, it was selected as winner of the CSK literature award as well. That both awards committees selected Curtis’ book as the best of the year simply demonstrates the committees’ comparable selection processes.
Certainly there will be people who will say, “We don’t need to give this or that African American or Latino a Newbery (or) Caldecott; they have their own awards! Similar excuses have been voiced since the start of the CSK Award. It was more than 50 years of Newbery Awards before an African American was awarded the Newbery Medal, with my M.C. Higgins, The Great in 1975.
There is a difference in the way a member of a Parallel Culture community writes about the community through her own experience from the way one outside of that community might write about it. Race and culture and social consciousness give Parallel Culture artists and writers unique insights.
Both the Newbery and CSK awards committees responded to the universality in Curtis’ rendering of a Black experience. Contrary to Aronson’s opinion, the CSK has always honored content. The integrated CSK awards committees have been responsible and reliable. The books they have chosen have been among the best. Occasionally, the committees have erred, as has the Newbery committee, but on the side of literary judgment and social awareness, the latter being of deep concern to CSK committees. While my M.C. Higgins, the Great won a John Newbery Medal, it did not receive the CSK Award for text. But to suggest, as Mark Aronson does, that CSK awards committees are not as competent as Newbery and Caldecott, and the books, not as well deserving, is outrageous. The committees often have different opinions about a book. And I believe it is wrong to besmear the extraordinary writing and art that has been and continues to be produced by Black artists and illustrators. It is unjust and the kind of biased thinking advocates, like Aronson, of cultural pluralism, pose as “the honest truth.” Rather than verity it reveals a fear of difference, and of Parallel Cultures providing their own views and appropriating manifestations of their considerable power through parallel awards. Do they really not understand that, rather than balkanization of art and literature, multiculturalism thrives on the equal opportunity of all peoples of color, to pursue their arts and awards on their own terms?
What is wrong with having an award based on African American experiences? It’s not that we need it, particularly. We want it. Perhaps Mark Aronson should turn in his Robert S. Sibert Award. After all, it is a new award for informational books, and likely contributes to stylistic balkanization of prose!
The fact of African Americans’ singularity in being the only group racial or otherwise brought here against its will has everything to do with how we think and respond, and what we see, write about and illustrate.
Our African American history and traditions entitle us to judge our own literary contributions, using an award system of our own making that is consistent with our Parallel Cultural views. To hold this belief in ourselves in no way takes away from our ability to judge the merits of our literature. Many times members of CSK have been members of Newbery Award committees. We should honor the tireless labor of both award committees.
Multiculturalism is the point of view of Parallel Cultures of which Blacks and Latinos are a part. The multicultural view is one of equality of all cultures in a parallel or equal stance with one another. The view from here is other than that of cultural pluralism—Mark Aronson’s view—which will recognize members of other cultures in the pluralistic literature as “minorities” remaining marginalized within a dominant culture, which culture is generally white.
The multi-culture view is that a Parallel Culture people will create stories and make illustrations in which the central characters are of that very culture and express feelings and experiences, hopes and dreams of that culture. I see nothing wrong with that.
African Americans have learned from generations of experience, the white culture imperatives as well—because we’ve lived and prevailed within their structure. We are capable of writing from more than one perspective. But the time has long since passed when we will even consider giving up hard-fought gains in the continuing struggle.
Virginia Hamilton, Honorary Chair of the three-year Coretta Scott King Awards Initiative.
From: Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays and Conversations…Edited by Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook…published by Scholastic/ Slue Sky…used by permission of Arnold Adoff and Kacy Cook….
Please visit Virginia Hamilton’s website for more on how to order her latest book.
My interview with Arnold is next…