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Jerry Pinkney’s 2016 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award speech

Jerry Pinkney Author Photo_300Good morning, and congratulations to my fellow honorees. Let me begin by saying how special this morning is to me and my family. Over the years, I have attended many of the Coretta Scott King breakfasts, and these events always leave me feeling filled to the brim with admiration for the CSK Book Awards Committee. All of us here this morning celebrate your hard work in bringing attention to books by and about people of color. Thank you for presenting me with the Virginia Hamilton Award. It’s an honor.

I knew Virginia Hamilton well, and over the years we would often share thoughts about the state of Black books, as well as our own work. In 1980, we collaborated on the book Jahdu, which is still a favorite of mine. After that, I would go on to illustrate covers for five of her novels, and we became close. Virginia, her husband Arnold, my wife Gloria Jean, and I often shared meals together, and our conversations would turn toward each other’s lives — our children, our marriages. As it turns out, we shared the same wedding date: March 19th. I felt there was a kind of kinship between us, and this award is a great tribute to those times that I hold in my memory bank. I miss Virginia deeply, and I know Gloria Jean feels the same.

I’ll share a little of my backstory. I was born in Philadelphia in 1939 and raised and educated in the city. There were no African American Studies classes back then. However, my mother thoughtfully enrolled me in an all-Black elementary school, and because of limited opportunities for people of color, Hill Elementary attracted the best Black teachers. I had the good fortune to be taught by an elite faculty of dedicated educators. They would help me navigate the rough waters of being a person of color in Philadelphia in the 1940s and, most importantly, teach me about Black pride.

After graduating with honors from Hill, I attended Roosevelt, an integrated junior high, and then made the decision to attend Dobbins Vocational Technical High School, majoring in commercial art. It was there that I met Gloria Jean.

This past March, Gloria Jean and I celebrated fifty-six years of marriage. During our high school courtship, did I read in her eyes a willingness to venture into an unknown future together? At the time, neither of us had the slightest inkling of what our lives would shape up to be, that’s for sure.

I received a full scholarship to the Philadelphia College of Art, but dropped out after two and half years, as Gloria Jean and I decided to marry and start a family. After leaving PCA, I went back to share my portfolio with a professor, in the hopes of getting some advice on how I should pursue my art. In the meantime, though, I had to provide for my new family, and so I was driving a flower delivery truck, still blind to what might open up for us.

One year later, I received a call that changed the trajectory of my life. The professor I had met with at PCA remembered me and wanted to see about my interest in a job interview at Rust Craft Greeting Card Company. It was in Dedham, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Gloria Jean and I jumped at the opportunity to poke holes in our old expectations, and we moved our family hundreds of miles up the coast to pry open a new future.

How fortunate we were to be living in Boston in the 1960s, when the country was on the verge of change. The civil rights movement was well on its way, bringing to light a need for social justice, and art became one of its many voices. In Boston, I met fellow artists of color who were making work that sprang from being Black, using their gifts to interpret the deep, textured community of people of African descent. Through them, I discovered the ways that visual arts could help change perceptions. Seeking an understanding of our past and what was needed to move forward, I joined the Boston Action Group. There, I became an advocate for open job opportunities and fair housing, for inclusion in all areas, and for recognizing the contributions of people of color. This meant getting folks out to vote, having face-to-face conversations, engaging my neighbors and my community.

The connections I was making in the visual arts community led to other prospects as well. After two years, I left Russ Craft to begin working at Barker-Black, a design and illustration studio, where I would go on to illustrate my first picture book, The Adventures of Spider by Joyce Cooper Arkhurst.

As it turned out, picture books would become my way to make my artistic gifts useful. I thought of the book as a vessel that could hold my interests, passions, desires, and hopes for my children and their children. Between its covers, it would hold histories as well as futures, truths and flights of fancy, my mother’s smile and my father’s pride. Books also enlarged and enhanced my interest in Black culture, allowing me a way to express my artistic impulses while sharing the adventures of John Henry and the courage of Harriet Tubman.

I have collaborated with some of the very best authors, including Valerie Flournoy, Eloise Greenfield, Virginia Hamilton, Patricia McKissack, Julius Lester, Gloria Jean Pinkney, and many others. Thank you all for your spirited narratives, which became springboards and inspiration for my visual storytelling.

Thank you to the publishers and editors for your guidance, trust, and care, especially Phyllis Fogelman Baker and Anne Schwartz. Phyllis, a talent well known by the CSK Book Awards Committee, was publisher of Dial Books early in my career, and she was ahead of the curve in seeking out and publishing Black writers and artists. I worked with Anne on my first full-color picture book, The Patchwork Quilt, in 1984, and it was that milestone that truly placed me in the landscape of publishing.

Thank you, Shelly Fogelman, for your friendship and guidance, and for that memorable day in your office when you asked if there was a project that I felt needed to be part of my body of work. I’d always loved hearing the legend of John Henry growing up, and thanks to your nudge, my version, with Julius Lester’s text, was born. John Henry became that core project that pushed me to reimagine other stories that had fired up my imagination as a young boy.

Many of my books celebrate the Black family, and I would not be where I am without my family. Thank you Andrea, Brian, and Gwen Davis for your support, and for being here to celebrate with me this morning. Gloria Jean, again, thank you for your role in my body of work being recognized this morning, for always being there for me, and especially for your willingness to take risks.

Lastly, I want to thank the Hamilton committee and the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee of ALA once more for this recognition. When I was a child, stories were everything to me. They were my bus ticket, my subway token to a larger place. You are the community that allows me to continue to travel back and forth to that place where dreams live. Thank you.

Jerry Pinkney is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal. His acceptance speeches were delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Orlando, Florida, on June 26, 2016. From the July/August 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2016. For more on Jerry Pinkney, read these Horn Book articles by and about him.

To commemorate Black History Month, we are highlighting a series of articles, speeches, and reviews from The Horn Book archive that are by and/or about African American authors, illustrators, and luminaries in the field — one a day through the month of February, with a roundup on Fridays. Click the tag HBBlackHistoryMonth17 and look for #HBBlackHistoryMonth17 on Facebook.com/TheHornBook and @HornBook. You can find more resources about social justice and activism at our Talking About Race and Making a Difference resource pages.

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Jerry Pinkney About Jerry Pinkney

Jerry Pinkney is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2016 Laura Ingalls Wilder Medal.

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