Lift Every Voice: Words and Music

Because I was running away from anything that required being in the public eye, I am sure that any early motivation to be a writer was deeply buried in my subconscious and lay there, unrecognized, for many years. Writing this article has sent me back to pull those memories together and analyze them.

So, where do I start, in looking for an incident? I know that it must have had something to do with having a love for words and music. I remember being annoyed, as a child, that the first syllable of President Roosevelt’s last name was mispronounced, as if it had only one o. I remember liking to read poems chorally in my classroom at school.

Also, I have affectionate memories of the word game my siblings and I played with our parents. We called it “Clap, Snap, Snap,” because that was what we had to do, in order to keep the rhythm. One clap, two finger snaps. We sat around the room in a loose circle, and the first person would say a word, any word. The next person had to say a word that began with the final letter of the previous word. We kept going around the circle until someone couldn’t think of a word in time to say it on the next clap. That person was out of the game, and the last person who remained was the winner.

Music was everywhere in my life — going with my parents to free outdoor concerts; singing in children’s choirs; taking piano lessons.

Mama loved to read novels. Daddy read almost the entire newspaper every day, and he assigned his three oldest children, my two brothers and me, to report to him each day, when he came home from work, on an article we had read.

You would think that living in a house with a poet, Lillie Draper Taylor — Daddy’s cousin and Mama’s childhood friend — when I was eight years old, and spending a lot of family time with her through my teens, would have awakened my subconscious. She often wrote poems, and sometimes I would hear her reading them to other adult relatives. But that didn’t make her a poet, in my eyes—she didn’t have poems in books. She was just Lillie, my second cousin who, like Mama, loved to read, loved children, music, beautiful scenery, pretty clothes, all pretty things.

So here’s the moment I remember: I was in high school when an English teacher assigned the class a project to make a scrapbook of short autobiographical pieces and snapshots. I don’t know why, but I became engrossed, somehow forgetting to be self-conscious. That was the first time I enjoyed creating with words. But my interest was short-lived, lasting only as long as it took me to make the scrapbook and enjoy reading it a few times.

Several years later, I became desperate to escape my boring typing job and began to write seriously. For a long while, I have assumed that boredom was the primary driving force, but now I realize that it was my love for words and music that steered me in the right direction.

So here I am, in 2019, more than sixty years after deciding to write, studying the craft, submitting my work, and earning the first of my many rejections. Here I am, still hooked on this work. Can’t get away from it, and don’t want to. I hope it lasts the rest of my life.

From the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: CSK Book Awards at 50. Find more information about ordering copies of the special issue.

Eloise Greenfield
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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