2016 CSK Author Award Acceptance by Rita Williams-Garcia

williams-garcia_gone crazy in alabamaGood morning, family. I am overjoyed to once again stand before you. Honestly, I hoped for a Coretta Scott King Honor. I just wanted to be here at the table, as one of the many being honored.

You would think that by now, I’d have it together. I would know: put the phone by the bed the night before “Pumpkin Monday” — my designation for the day of the ALA Midwinter announcements. After missing and nearly missing “the call” twice before, I was determined to have the phone close by, come what may or may not. I was a little antsy, so I took a sleeping pill, grabbed my phone, and went to bed. I woke up at seven, just as my husband, Fred, who’s on musicians’ time, had come to bed. Realizing that the magic hour had passed — the time the honorees are notified — I gave Fred the news. “No call, honey.” I reached for my phone to show him, but couldn’t find the phone. I retraced my steps. Sure enough, I had left my phone in the bathroom. The little green light flashed, showing two missed calls, both with the same Boston area code. Thanks to my longtime editor, Rosemary Brosnan, I eventually got the call. I hollered when Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said the words “Coretta Scott King Author Award!” The Author Award? For this third book? I was in joyous shock. Look, I had been hoping for a place at the table. And if it weren’t to be, then I wanted a seat at the breakfast to celebrate books whose art and prose I’ve loved and rooted for throughout the year. Thank you, Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury, for granting the Gaither sisters and me this honored place at the table.

There is a long list of people to thank, starting with my HarperCollins family: president and publisher Suzanne Murphy; associate publisher and editor in chief Kate Jackson; director of school and library marketing Patty Rosati and her team, Molly Motch, Stephanie Macy, and Robin Pinto; my publicist, Olivia Russo; my marketing director, Kim VandeWater; illustrator extraordinaire Frank Morrison; and so many others — I felt the mighty force of every department involved in championing this final story of the Gaither sisters saga. As for my editor, Rosemary Brosnan — the strong Jewish black woman, herself — how many of you can say their editor stared down a 540-ton Amtrak Acela and dared it to move until her author was on board?

I must thank Debbie Reese for her generosity and support of this novel during the final stretch of the work.

Gone Crazy in Alabama is about family. This isn’t my family’s story, but I couldn’t tell it without my links to the South — my maternal and paternal grandmothers, Mary Edwards Coston and Edith King Lloyd Williams, who have long since passed on. My late grandmothers remind me of the importance of knowing one’s own story and the value of handing it down to the next generation. I’ve been inspired by my daughters, Michelle and Stephanie, who have spearheaded the search for their roots, and continue to fill me in. Their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and all the ancestors smile upon them.

Fred_and_rita_LRfixLastly, I thank my husband Fred, not just this day, but each and every day. The show doesn’t go on without Fred.

Look around you. In each and every face there is the American story. Whether your people were the first to inhabit this land, whether they immigrated, were indentured, or were brought captive against their will, these histories are not separate histories. These histories speak of and intersect through stories of struggle, brutality, injustices, hope, progress, and triumph. Still, upon occasion, our histories are bound by peace and wonder as people of the planet Earth, looking up as we did on one night in the summer of 1969. In spite of some current rhetoric, very few of us on this soil can claim a separate and sole history. We are a joined people. Let’s keep looking up.

I was a smirker back in grade school. The genesis of Gone Crazy in Alabama comes from a grade-school smirk. At least every fifth person in my predominantly African American class bragged that their grandparent or great-grandparent was of Native American ancestry. My sister was among the claimants. Her proof? Her skin turned red during the summer. Hence, a smirker was born. As I dug into American history as a young woman, I discovered an amazing history of African freed people who escaped slavery and were adopted into First Nations, primarily of the Southeast. Over time, I learned more about their complex and fascinating citizenships. I stopped smirking and tucked the information away. One day I’d do something meaningful and, hopefully, memorable with what I had learned. Fast-forward to a few years ago. Since Vonetta had blurted out previously in One Crazy Summer that the family came from Prattville, Alabama, I had no choice but to delve into Alabama history in this novel — Alabama, a state named for the indigenous Native people who had originally inhabited the land. The more I envisioned the sisters’ family tree, the more I knew that the roots of the Gaither, Charles, and Trotter clan were entangled in this African, European, and Native American history. I knew that their history told the story of these crossings, in its struggles, brutality, and triumphs, and that through it all, the family would persist. It was important to model a family tree that would tell an Alabama history. An American history. An African American history.

All Delphine wants in this final story of the Gaither sisters is to have all of her family members at the table. But the wishes she harbors aren’t solely her wishes. Every morning Delphine wakes up carrying the wants and memories of her ancestors: those who had been torn away from the familiar, separated by water, land, and death. No wonder Delphine can’t sleep at night. We are all carrying wants and memories. Even today, when African American people search recent history to pinpoint the time when things began to fall apart in the home and community, many of us look to this period of the late 1960s through the 1970s, the post-Vietnam era, that claimed our men and saw an influx of drugs, followed by the criminalization of poor people. We linger on this era as a marker in recent history when families and community splintered and died off. No wonder the child can’t sleep at night. Not only are the wants and memories of her ancestors bearing down on her, but excitement for the future, as well as the fear of what it might bring, bears down on her as well. I have never spared Delphine from carrying the weight. Why would I start now?

“A mercy,” Big Ma scolded me as I wrote. “A mercy.” So I granted Delphine’s wish. I gave her the gathering, the celebration of family, but not without the storm. The feast at the celebration can only taste but so good if you haven’t passed through the storm. Only when we walk through it, experiencing loss, struggle, and even darkness, do we grasp the meaning of the journey — how far we’ve come — and know that we can make it through.

On this morning that we celebrate books, let us remember the ancestors, for whom the act of literacy was denied, but who still told their story to those underfoot and gathered around, so that the story and the people would not be erased. Let us celebrate this gathering, the feast and the victory.

Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association Conference 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.
Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia
Rita Williams-Garcia is the winner of the 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Gone Crazy in Alabama, published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books.

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