2019 CSK–Virginia Hamilton Award Acceptance by Pauletta Brown Bracy

Good Coretta-Scott-King-Book-Awards-Breakfast-Sunday morning!

I stand before you as the fifth recipient of the Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement in the category of practitioner and in the company of the distinguished colleagues who have come before me: Dr. Henrietta Mays Smith, Demetria Tucker, Deborah D. Taylor, and Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop. We practitioners have been recognized alongside an impressive group of masterful creators of children’s literature portraying the African American experience: Walter Dean Myers, Ashley Bryan, Patricia and Fredrick McKissack, Jerry Pinkney, and Eloise Greenfield. This award, named for the eminent Virginia Hamilton, not only preserves her legacy but also validates the work of its recipients. And I am humbled to be among them.

What an honor!

I did not know Virginia Hamilton personally, but I know about her.

I know that she wrote forty-two books, three of which were published posthumously. I know that in 1974 M.C. Higgins, the Great won the Newbery Medal, and that on that occasion Virginia became the first African American author to receive the award.

More appropriate for this occasion, I know that her first Coretta Scott King Book Award came in 1979; it was an Honor for Justice and Her Brothers. In the fifty-year history of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards, she won nine times, including three Author Awards and six Author Honors.

A magnificent literary feat!

And one final thing I do know is that I loved her and her writing. That is how I knew her — quite intimately through her compelling themes, in-depth characterizations, intriguing plots, textured settings, eloquent style of writing, and, not to forget, the fabulous folklore.

The announcement of this award for lifetime achievement evoked immediate reflection. I do not periodically stop to ponder my life — the events that have shaped it or the people who have inspired my thinking and behavior. But, I admit, this exercise in contemplation and retrospect has been quite satisfying.

Where should I begin? In the beginning…

I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on an October night that has become known in my circles as my “national holiday.” It is also a holiday for many others of all ages, as they sport their alternate identities in grand costume fashion during a night of ghostly frolic (among the adults) and bags of sweet bounty (among the children).

I never lived in Knoxville, which was the home of my grandparents. But I visited during the months of July and August in the annual ritual our family observed called “summer shipment.” Actually, we — my siblings and I — were not shipped; we were accompanied by our parents, on the long, ten-hour drive to Knoxville, where we would partake of the infinite wisdom of the endearing elderly.

My parents were academics and, consequently, I spent my early schooling days attending laboratory schools on the university campuses where they taught biology and English.

Books and reading were highly valued in my family. We visited and enjoyed the local libraries very much. Our homes over the years were filled with books that traveled with us to each new location in the circuit of academia. My mother enrolled me in a girls’ book club that brought the familiar and formulaic plots of high-school romances to the mailbox each month. Of course, none of the novels featured any characters of color. The future had yet to arrive. Even so, I enjoyed the books because I could always predict the first kiss (finally) on the last page.

On one occasion, I determined that all these books in the home needed to be organized. Taking an idea from the library, I began the process with a few books neatly shelved in the den. With glue, paper, and a ruler, I painstakingly made due-date slips for the books, drawing the horizontal lines with precision, and pasting the slips carefully in the backs of the books. Unfortunately, the glue got gooey, and when my mother discovered the merged pages in a few of her cherished possessions, library operations were shut down forever. Little did I know that this experience would later lead to an important career decision.

I graduated from Fisk University in Nashville without any idea of what I was going to do. But the practice of the past prevailed. Harking back to the days of the defunct Brown Family Library and the countless familial library visits, I enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh Library School. Not long after graduation, I was offered a job as the second media specialist in Pittsburgh’s first (model) middle school.

It was the early 1970s, and life was grand. I was enthralled by every aspect of my job, but I knew I had much more to learn, because in library school I had taken coursework to become a reference librarian. I returned to Pitt and began work on a specialist degree. I could not learn enough about children’s and young adult literature; my pursuit of this new knowledge was unquenchable. In my childhood and adolescence, I had consumed it for pleasure. Now as a librarian, I consumed it as an obligation to my students. Introducing them to literature and cultivating their interests in the world beyond school and home became my priority.

What they and I wanted were books and magazines with characters and people who looked like them. The future had arrived. The prolific new Black voices who were defying the nefariously stereotypical images in text and art resonated triumphantly: Virginia Hamilton, Walter Dean Myers, Sharon Bell Mathis, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Greenfield, Alice Childress, Mildred D. Taylor, and others. These authors and illustrators proffered new standards for authenticity, truth, and honesty in the literature for children and young adults.

I thrived in that phenomenal environment for four and a half years. In a bittersweet departure, I left Pittsburgh for Ann Arbor to begin doctoral studies in library science at the University of Michigan. I remained committed to school librarianship as I prepared myself for a faculty position in library education.

I would like to share with you two occurrences in my career that continue to shape my thinking and disposition.

* * *

The First. In the early eighties, Dr. Annette Lewis Phinazee, who was dean of the School of Library and Information Sciences at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), contacted me with an offer of a faculty position. I enthusiastically accepted because of the opportunity to work with her. She was a respected advocate for equality in our profession and in the American Library Association. And as a lover of children’s literature, she was on a mission, with her colleagues Charlemae Hill Rollins (the first Black children’s librarian at the Chicago Public Library) and renowned librarian and storyteller Augusta Baker, to eradicate bias and promote positive portrayals of the Black experience in books for all children. (You should note that Charlemae Hill Rollins was the second CSK Author Award winner, for Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes, in 1971.)

Prior to my arrival at NCCU, Dean Phinazee had hosted the first Charlemae Hill Rollins Colloquium, which she had started in 1980 to commemorate the work of Mrs. Rollins. The program featured a panel moderated by Dr. Virginia Lacy Jones, then dean of the library school at Atlanta University; Effie Lee Morris of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers; Basil Phillips of Johnson Publishing Company; Doris Saunders of Jackson State University; and Spencer Shaw of the School of Librarianship of the University of Washington. The luncheon speaker was the venerable Augusta Baker. In the afternoon, the audience was treated to the musings of authors Eloise Greenfield and Sharon Bell Mathis. The colloquia were to be conducted every two years.

For the second colloquium, Dean Phinazee attained a grant from the State Library of North Carolina to pay fees and expenses of the speakers. (This fruitful collaboration between the library school and the State Library continued until the very last colloquium, with librarians throughout the state serving on the colloquia planning committees.) Illustrator Ashley Bryan; Barbara Rollock, coordinator of children’s services at the New York Public Library; and Augusta Baker were featured speakers at the second colloquium. I was in awe at their feet; every word had special meaning for me.

Sadly, Dean Phinazee died in 1983. I was so fortunate to have been under her tutelage for two years. The Rollins Colloquium continued until 1998. As the faculty member in the subject area, I led the planning and delivery of the series until its demise. It evolved into sessions of professional development focused on analyzing and using African American children’s literature and anchored by the featured authors and illustrators. Some other prominent individuals, including CSK winners, who participated in the biennial celebrations were: writers Arnold Adoff, Gwendolyn Brooks, Christopher Paul Curtis, Eloise Greenfield, Monalisa DeGross, Virginia Hamilton, James Haskins, Elizabeth Howard, Bill “Dallas” Lewis, Walter Dean Myers, Eleanora E. Tate, Clifton Taulbert, and Mildred Pitts Walter; illustrators Carole Byard, Floyd Cooper, Pat Cummings, Tom Feelings, Jan Spivey Gilchrist, Jerry Pinkney, and James E. Ransome; librarian Deborah D. Taylor; publishers Cheryl and Wade Hudson; psychiatrist Dr. Alvin Poussaint; and storyteller Jackie Torrence.

More recently, last year, two colleagues and I were involved in a modified replication of the colloquium, showcasing African American North Carolinian authors.

At the Rollins Colloquium, 1996: from left, Charlemae Hill Rollins's son, Joseph Rollins Jr.; author Christopher Paul Curtis; and Dr. Bracy. Photo courtesy of Pauletta Brown Bracy.

* * *

The Second. When I arrived at NCCU to teach the children’s and young adult resources, services, and literature courses, I discovered a void in the curriculum. We, the School of Library and Information Sciences, had a course called African American Resources that was mostly taken by students preparing to work in academic and public libraries. It seemed obvious that we needed a comparable selection for the school library and children’s tracks. The timing was just right, as multicultural literature was emerging as a popular genre. And, in response, the numbers of such books produced by publishers were increasing. The proliferation of new titles portraying lifestyles, cultures, and histories of varied ethnic and racial groups prompted a need for especially careful consideration of these works in light of past publishing practices. Reading multicultural literature required that I critique the books with a set of cultural lenses that demanded an exploration of authenticity. With this credo, I developed a course called Ethnic Materials for Children and Adolescents, the focus of which was creating non-bias collections through the application of appropriate selection criteria. More importantly, I wanted my students to develop personal and professional philosophies based on consideration of issues pertinent to managing collections of ethnic perspectives. I wanted them to realize the subtle messages sent to their students as they developed their collections. A book on the shelf is a recommendation to read it because, through selection, one has deemed it suitable/acceptable. As I would reiterate, “If you cannot confirm (authenticity), do not affirm (recommendation).”

This course has been not only a tremendous source of pride, but it has become the foundation that supports my passion and advocacy to ensure optimal access for all children and young adults to the very best literature.

I wish to thank the CSK Community for supporting me in all my endeavors within the Community through the years. Thank you to the CSK Jury for bestowing this very special honor. To all who have helped me prosper intellectually: my engaging colleagues in the academy, the gifted creators of this magnificent literature, the librarians and teachers who have contributed the practical perspective to keep me grounded, and my students who sometimes unknowingly reversed the roles and taught me more than they realize. Last, I thank my family members for their unconditional support of whatever I do — especially for children.

Pauletta Brown Bracy is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Practitioner Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Washington, DC, on June 23, 2019. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.

Pauletta Brown Bracy
Pauletta Brown Bracy is professor of library science at North Carolina Central University. She is chair of the 2015-2017 Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee and serves on the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee.

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