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2018 CSK–Virginia Hamilton Award Acceptance by Eloise Greenfield

Eloise Greenfield, winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King-Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award

Thank you, Deborah Taylor and members of the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award Jury, for this honor. Virginia Hamilton was a writer of great power, dedicated to creating outstanding literature for children, and this award, in her name, is very special.

This is going to be a speech of gratitude for the people who have contributed to my journey and made it possible for me to be here today. I have so very many people to thank. First, I am grateful to my parents for the love and encouragement they gave to all of their five children and for filling our lives with laughter, books, and music. I don’t think that I could have become a writer without having heard and internalized the power of music and the musicality of spoken and written language.

When we were very young, my father drove us to the library every two weeks, to return books we had borrowed and to borrow others. Later, when we moved to Langston Terrace, a new low-rent housing project in Washington, DC, on my ninth birthday, and a branch of the DC Public Library was opened there, going to the library became a deeply entrenched habit for me. I spent so much time there that when I graduated from high school, the librarian, Althea Howard, offered me a part-time job. I worked there for three years.

I was born in the little town of Parmele, North Carolina, and moved with my parents to Washington, DC, when I was three months old. The Washington of my childhood, in the 1930s and 1940s, is often maligned when it’s described by people who never lived there. It’s called “segregated Washington” by some people, as if that’s its name, and “a bourgeois town” by others. True, it was both of those extremes, but it was also much more.

There were activists working for change, there were good black theaters and good black schools, and there was so much love for the children. I remember playing outdoors with friends, playing hopscotch or jumping rope, and stopping for a moment to let the grownups pass on their way home from work. They would make little jokes or pleasant comments, showing their affection for us. I remember the warmth of many teachers, such as Miss Patterson in first grade, giving us all affectionate nicknames. I remember good schools, good teachers, good neighbors, and friends.

At the typewriter in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Eloise Greenfield.

My earliest ambition was to be a wife and mother. Later, in fifth grade, at Charles Young Elementary School, where students began changing classes in second grade (it was called a platoon school), I expanded my goals. I wanted to be a combination of two teachers at Charles Young — the music teacher, who directed the glee club; and the auditorium teacher, who directed the plays.

I attended Miner Teachers College but left in my junior year because of a severe affliction. In their junior years students had to spend time at a school, teaching under the watchful eyes of the regular teacher, and I was terrified. I never, ever, wanted to be the center of any attention, favorable or unfavorable.

It took me years to conquer that affliction, but I finally did it, or I would be miserable here right now instead of enjoying spending this time with all of you, with people who are engaged in this exciting venture/adventure and have the same commitment to children.

Many people would disagree with the way my parents handled my problem. Many feel that children should be forced to speak on programs beginning at an early age. That works for some children, but I am happy that my parents handled it gently. I had taken years of piano lessons, and although I didn’t love playing in recitals, and was always relieved when they were over, I got through them.

Also, I was a good student. I did well on the paperwork assignments and usually knew the answers when I was called on in class. A couple of teachers in high school did, however, lower my grades because I didn’t volunteer to participate in class discussions.

I was in my forties when I finally got rid of this affliction, well into my career as a writer, and hiding my discomfort whenever I spoke at schools and other places. I had to make three attempts, a few years apart, to find a solution. First, I read two books on the subject. That didn’t help. Next, I took an evening class in public speaking. That didn’t help, either. Finally, play-acting was the solution. Whenever I made an appearance, I pretended that I was an actress playing the role of a character who was not shy. It worked! After a short time the discomfort slid away.

I am grateful to the great writers who wrote powerful literature on which I, a late bloomer, could feast: James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, John Oliver Killens, Dudley Randall, and many others.

I am grateful for the books I studied on the craft of writing, about eight or ten of them. They not only taught me the craft, but they all, every single one of them, assured me that I would receive rejections. And they were not wrong. Therefore, I had been warned, and when the rejections came pouring in, I was disappointed but not discouraged.

I am grateful to my husband, Bob Greenfield (later my ex-husband and now deceased), for his encouragement and for suggesting that I quit my job and write full-time. I gladly took his advice.

I am grateful to Hoyt W. Fuller, the editor of Negro Digest, which published my early short stories for adults, in the 1960s. Black writers and readers loved Negro Digest (which later became Black World), and I was thrilled to have my work included, along with prominent writers and other novices like me.

The author’s first book, originally titled Bubbles.

I am grateful to Judy Richardson, the well-known civil rights activist who, in the spring of 1971, when she was editor at Drum and Spear Press, wrote to tell me that she loved Bubbles, the manuscript I had submitted, and would publish it. Bubbles had been rejected ten times. It became my first book.

Also, in the spring of 1971, on one of my frequent visits to Drum and Spear Bookstore, I saw a flier for the DC Black Writers’ Workshop, founded by Annie Crittenden. I had progressed beyond the workshop stage, but this was not only a teaching workshop for new writers, it was a gathering place for published writers to talk about black literature and to present readings of their work to the public.

When I called Annie Crittenden, she recognized my name from my Negro Digest stories, and asked me to co-direct the adult fiction division, which I did.

* * *

At the workshop, Sharon Bell Mathis, who had received great reviews for her picture book Sidewalk Story, and who later received a Coretta Scott King Award for her picture-book biography Ray Charles and a Newbery Honor for The Hundred Penny Box, headed the children’s literature division. Sharon suggested that I write a picture-book biography for a series that was being published by Thomas Y. Crowell Publishers (later a part of HarperCollins). Crowell accepted my idea to write a biography of Rosa Parks. It was published in 1973, and I am grateful to Annie Crittenden and to Sharon Bell Mathis.

I realized recently that when I talk about the ten years it took for me to get my first publication (a poem in the Hartford Times) plus nine more years to have my first book manuscript accepted, it sounds as if I had my nose to the grindstone all day, every day. I didn’t.

I had a full-time job as a clerk-typist for much of that period; I spent a lot of time with my husband and two children; I spent time with my parents and other family members, especially my two little sisters; I participated in civil rights marches, including the March on Washington; I was in a club with friends from high school and college; I tutored four little girls in the Urban League’s Future for Jimmy program; I took more piano lessons. In spite of all that, I squeezed in writing time and finally got published.

I am grateful to all of the publishers who have published my books, especially to my longtime editor Phoebe Yeh, the late Bill Morris, and all of the people at HarperCollins for their work and for keeping my books in print for such a long time. This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Honey, I Love and Other Love Poems and the thirty-ninth anniversary of Childtimes: A Three-Generation Memoir, which I wrote with my mother Lessie Jones Little.

I am grateful to all of the illustrators of my books, especially to Jan Spivey Gilchrist, who has illustrated twenty-nine of them.

I am grateful to Catherine Balkin of Balkin Buddies for helping to keep my books visible. I am grateful to my agent, Scott Treimel, for his expertise and dedication to his clients.

When I began writing, I was looking for satisfying work. That’s the way I said it to myself. I wanted to find work that was satisfying for me. It was all about me, me, me. I had no thought of trying to make a contribution. Before long, however, I realized that I could do both, and my work became a mission. When I write, I am composing — combining the meanings, the rhythms, the melodies of language, in the hope that it can be a gift to others.

* * *

I am grateful for all of the awards and recognition I have received. I am grateful to those who have written about my work — Rudine Sims Bishop, Lee Bennett Hopkins, and others — and to everyone who has expressed appreciation for my efforts.

I am grateful to my son, daughter, and daughter-in-law for their enthusiasm about my work and for making it easy for me, since I have now lost much of my eyesight, to do the things I need and want to do. I thank my grandchildren, siblings, and other family members and good friends who have encouraged me and celebrated with me through the years.

I congratulate all of the winners of these awards and others for the beautiful and necessary work you are doing. I am deeply joyful to be among you and the many authors, illustrators, and others, working in whatever capacity, in this decades-long movement. Children need to know, and to see in books, the truth — the beauty, intelligence, courage, and ingenuity of African and African American people.

And finally, I am grateful to God for guiding me toward this path. It has been, and continues to be, a wonderful adventure for me.

Thank you, again, for this recognition.

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.

Eloise Greenfield About Eloise Greenfield

Eloise Greenfield is the winner of the 2018 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement. 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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