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2018 CSK Author Award Acceptance by Renée Watson

Courtesy NCAAP.

I know what it’s like to feel invisible.

This is strange because in a place like Oregon you’d think a plus-size girl like me, with dark brown skin and natural hair, would stand out. But, growing up in Portland, so many times my white friends would tell me they didn’t see me as black, saying, “You’re just a regular person to me.” Boys would say, “You’re cute…for a fat girl,” and some of my teachers seemed shocked that I was smart because they assumed that kids from my neighborhood weren’t capable, intelligent, and hardworking.

I wanted and needed all the pieces of me to be seen, without disclaimer. To erase one part of me was to erase all of me.

As a child, it was rare to read stories about kids growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and the books that existed were about white characters. My teachers taught about the Great Migration to the North, but I did not learn how African Americans arrived in the Pacific Northwest. I learned about Lewis and Clark, but never about York. I was taught about segregation in Alabama, lynchings in Mississippi, but not about Portland’s sundown laws. When I was in the fifth grade, skinheads beat an Ethiopian man to death with a baseball bat. Only one of my teachers talked about it in class.

I wanted to talk about all of it. I needed a space to process what was happening in my neighborhood, in my world.

This isn’t to say all of my childhood memories are painful. Having grown up in Portland means I know the beauty of Mt. Hood towering in my rearview mirror as I drive through the city. It means I know the sour taste of huckleberries and the smell of a marionberry cobbler baking in an oven. My house, my elementary school, and my church were all nestled in the black community. It felt like everyone knew each other — kids who grew up on the same block or just around the corner from each other also went to the same school, the same church. The wide sidewalks of our streets were perfect for racing; the tall pine trees just the right size to sneak behind during a game of hide-and-seek. We spent weekends in the summer camping in Bend, Oregon, and taking day-long excursions to Seaside Beach.

In my neighborhood, with my family and friends, black was beautiful and was not something to be ashamed of. It was not limited to black sorrow and hardship. Instead, blackness was nuanced. Blackness was joyful.

At home, I was taught to be proud that my mother’s Southern heritage and my father’s Jamaican roots ran through me. In our house, there was always a gospel, R&B, or reggae record spinning. Stories were passed down from one generation to the next about how, as a people, we survived slavery and Jim Crow, and how I came from a people who made a way out of no way.

In my neighborhood and in my home, I was seen. I was whole. But there was a constant chipping away when I stepped out into the larger world.

And so the question for me became, How do I remain whole in a world that seems like it wants to break me? How do I make sure the story of my people and our experience is not erased?

I think about our young girls growing up today and I wonder if they have the same questions. I wonder how the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the call to #SayHerName are impacting what girls believe about their worth. How are they making sense of the world they inherited? Are they taught black history only through the lens of sorrow and pain? Are they allowed to be their whole selves and live at the intersection of their lives, not having to compartmentalize who they are at school, or in spaces that may not see them as whole beings? When the world chips away at their souls, breaks them into pieces because of racism, sexism, and classism, who will help them piece themselves back together?

In my life, women have been the ones to restore me, nurture me, and push me back out into the world, telling me to go and do what I was called to do. In our world, women have been the backbone of social change. Sometimes working behind the scenes, getting no credit. A lot of times working in plain sight and not getting any credit. Still, women do the work.

I want to acknowledge the women who have pieced me together again and again.

The first person who truly saw me was my mother, Carrie Watson. She listened to every story and poem I scribbled at seven and eight and nine years old. I’d interrupt her all the time saying, “Mommy, I have another poem. Want to hear it?” And she’d stop washing dishes or put the TV on mute and take in my words. She did not silence me because I was a child or because she was too busy. Her time and attention told me, I believe in you. You have something to say. Speak, child. Speak.

My sisters, Cheryl, Trisa, and Dyan, are lighthouses guiding me, always. To have sisters who are also your friends is a precious, precious gift. They know my shortcomings and my strengths. Their loyal support and care tell me, We love you unconditionally.

In high school, my English teachers Linda Christensen and Pam Hooten introduced me to myself through novels and poetry. We read Zora Neale Hurston and Lorraine Hansberry. We studied the poetry of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lucille Clifton. In our English class, books were not just something to read for entertainment, not something to skim through just to be able to write a book report or pass a quiz. Books were the catalyst for debates and discussions and became essential to our growth as human beings. These writers validated my very existence. They testified for me, showing me how to make something of this black-girl life. They left word-maps on record, showing me how to survive. Their books tell me, We’ve been there; follow our example.

Day after day, the women of I, Too Arts Collective tell me by their actions, I am with you. I got you. They work alongside me to preserve and restore the Harlem brownstone where Langston Hughes lived and created during the last twenty years of his life. They saw me, trying to do what felt impossible, and they dreamed big with me. They give so much of their time to ensure that young people and emerging writers have a space to create and build on “Langston’s Legacy.”

I, Too Arts Collective founder Renée Watson at the Langston Hughes House. Photo: David Flores.

I am thankful for my sister-friends. They are the kind of friends that no matter where we are in a room whenever something funny or awkward is happening, our eyes meet and we don’t have to say a word. All we have to do is give each other the look. You know that look — the Do-you-see-what-I’m-seeing? look. The What-is-happening-right-now? look.

What my friends and I are really doing in those moments is looking for validation, for a witness. For someone to say, I feel you, I see.

I believe this is true for so many of us — especially our young people. They just want to know that we see them. That we see them beyond stereotypes and assumptions. That we see them like the seeds they are, full of potential if planted and nurtured in fertile ground. They need to be loved without condition, they need adults to listen to them, to really hear them. They need to hear, I am with you. I got you. Follow my example.

I am so grateful and proud to work in a field that is committed to creating work that uplifts and inspires children. We have been given the great responsibility to see young people, to say to them, Your story matters, there is a place for you in this world, in this school, in this library, in this book.

Thank you to every librarian and educator who handpicks a book for that one reader you know needs to read it. Thank you for making our stories visible through the book displays and the book talks you give, thank you for advocating for author visits and for diverse books to be in your communities. Please keep handing young people books that will challenge them, heal them. Stories that will make them laugh and cry and ask questions and take action. Let them travel the world in the stanzas of poems. Let them tell their own stories and discover what it means to be recorders, responders, rebukers, rejoicers, and rebuilders of their world.

Thank you to my editor, Sarah Shumway, and my team at Bloomsbury for your commitment to publishing work that centers black girlhood.

And thank you to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. For almost fifty years you have made the invisible visible. Thank you for shining a light on black boys and the joy of their sacred trips to barbershops. Thank you for being a witness to black children, like Will, who are grieving the loss of a murdered loved one and grappling with the desire for revenge. Thank you for seeing Starr and young people like her who are living in a world where they are questioning if their lives really matter, who are marching and protesting police brutality. Thank you for honoring Jade and girls who relate to Jade’s story, who have to piece themselves together and make something out of their sometimes broken lives. You bring visibility to black characters who are bold and brave, beautiful and brilliant.

Thank you for seeing us, for seeing me.

Renée Watson is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Piecing Me Together, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans on June 24, 2018. From the July/August 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles click the tag ALA 2018.

Renée Watson About Renée Watson

Renée Watson is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Piecing Me Together, published by Bloomsbury Children’s Books. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in New Orleans on June 24, 2018.

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