2024 CSK Author Award Acceptance by Ibi Zoboi

I have been writing and telling stories my entire adult life. My first love was journalism — what I consider to be ­truth-telling. Then I fell in love with spoken word poetry — what I consider to be testifying. The need to tell the truth and to testify has always fueled my passion to write. It is my purpose and my life’s work.

I was born in Haiti. English is not my first language. I was raised by a single immigrant mother. And where I come from, writers are silenced or sent into exile. Here, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living off this dream of mine, so any recognition for my work, ­especially this award, is still and will always be beyond my wildest dreams.

Thank you to the Coretta Scott King Book Award Jury for seeing the value in this book. When I received the call from Dr. LaKeshia Darden that Sunday afternoon, I cried and continued to cry for the rest of the evening, for reasons I’ll share in a moment. I am so ­grateful that this award exists. As a mother, before I wanted to write for children, I sought out the books with the CSK sticker because I knew they were of the highest caliber and reflected the breadth and depth of the Black experience. It’s an honor to be part of this history-making community.

Thank you to my editor, ­Alessandra Balzer, who over the course of several books has trusted my voice, my vision, and my need to be honest and forthright with the stories I tell. I’m grateful to my agents, my team at HarperCollins, my colleagues, my community, my family, my husband and children, and my ancestors.

I am deeply grateful to have attended this breakfast and award ceremony for the past two years as an honoree. And both times, while standing behind a podium on the dais, I spoke about my Haitian heritage. I grew up hearing and seeing some of the worst portrayals of Haiti in the media, and that continues to this day. As I got older, I understood that pejorative stories about Haiti were also pejorative stories about people of African descent in this country and all over the world.

In Nigeria Jones, I wrote about the kind of community that helped shape my understanding of the plight of African people. Within this context, I’m saying “African” instead of “Black” because the first time I heard this Kwame Nkrumah quote, “I am African not because I was born in Africa, but because Africa was born in me,” my universe expanded. In my late teens, I wanted to learn everything about what happened to us, why it happened to us, and what we need to do to heal and to make things right again. This led me to Afrocentric or African-centered communities and organizations where Nkrumah’s quote is not only a personal declaration, but also a worldview and a way of life.

Nigeria Jones made her first appearance in the anthology Black Enough, which I curated specifically for the purpose of capturing the myriad ways Blackness is expressed in the lives of American teens. With my short story, “The (R)Evolution of Nigeria Jones,” I wanted readers to know that in some parts of this country, we did not forget our true history — the one that begins way before slavery. Within these spaces that celebrate culture — places of worship, political movements, and cultural arts organizations—we wore African attire, adorned ourselves with beads and cowrie shells, read Black books, and venerated our ancestors with pride. This was where, when I was a college student, an elder asked me, “Do you know what your ancestors did for us?” And right then and there, I understood the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the world, after never learning about it in school, never hearing about it at home, and only seeing the worst of my country on the news.

Here was where community members hailing from the American South, the Caribbean, and West Africa came together to celebrate our common vision for autonomy and the liberation of Black people all over the world within a Pan-African ideology. Often the subject of ridicule in the media, these spaces are not relics of the sixties and seventies with the stereotypical Afros, dashikis, and raised fists. They exist today and are thriving, multifaceted communities that are an integral part of the Black experience and American history.

I raised my children in these communities, where they attended Saturday school to learn about their culture and to be poured into by a village of some of the wisest people I know. While the world tells Black children that they are not enough, in one particular community in Brooklyn, four- and ­five-year-olds are taught this mantra: “Don’t push me. Don’t shove me. Put no one above me. I am an African child! I am an African child!”

There is no doubt that when we tell our children the truth about who they are and the legacy that they have inherited, they can walk through the world with a deep sense of purpose and belonging. These children who are raised with cultural and racial pride are some of the smartest young people I know, having earned scholarships to prestigious prep schools and universities and grown up to be valuable members of their communities.

Photo courtesy of Ibi Zoboi.

Yet, regardless of the protective barriers we place around them, this country is still a hostile place for our children, especially our Black girls. Intelligent and high-achieving Black girls still grapple with identity, self-doubt, and insecurities because they are constantly bombarded with messages and images that tell them they are inferior. They face obstacles even within these safe communities and in their own families because while we are trying to liberate ourselves, we can easily overlook our most vulnerable members — our Black girls. We are flawed, we are human, and we get it wrong sometimes. So, our children deserve to question our ideas and forge their own path. This is also true for us, the adults in their lives.

A year before Nigeria Jones was published, Justice Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson took office as the first Black woman on the Supreme Court. I wondered what it was like for her as an intelligent, high-achieving Black girl, whose parents gave her two Swahili names (much like I did with my own children), to navigate some of the most racially homogenous and hostile environments and rise to the highest echelons of power in this country. This is Nigeria Jones’s story.

A few weeks after Nigeria Jones was published, Dr. Claudine Gay became the first Black woman president of Harvard University. I wondered what it was like for her as an intelligent, high-achieving Black girl, whose parents immigrated from Haiti (much like I did), to navigate some of the most racially homogenous and hostile environments and rise to the highest echelons of power in this country. This is also Nigeria Jones’s story.

The story of these women as Black girls is the story of grappling with self, family, community, nation, and legacy. How did they have to constantly take inventory of what they’ve been taught about themselves and their people to find the strength and motivation to live their own truths?

For a long time, I believed that a book like this was niche and that I was writing about a character that was the exception and not the rule. But I was wrong. Spaces that celebrate culture, our children, and elders are more prevalent than the media would have us believe. Widely read and globally conscious Black children whose intelligence stems from their families and communities are more common than the media would have us believe.

The same goes for the inner lives of Black girls and women. We are intelligent. We are articulate. We are well-read. We love our families and our people. And we are invaluable to the founding of this country, including the U.S. Constitution, even though we were never written into its articles and laws. Black girls need to know that they belong in whatever space they occupy and their liberation, our liberation, is the freedom to choose.

There is a quote that is usually applied to developing countries: “Educate a girl; educate a nation.” However, this is also true for America. Education, in this case, does not only mean schooling. Education is also a deep understanding of what’s possible for a Black girl, even when she’s raised to believe that she has a duty to her family and her race, in that order. So, for Nigeria Jones and all other girls who have to contend with personal freedom and collective liberation, I would revise that quote as: “Liberate a girl; liberate a people.”

This book is my truth and my testimony. Thank you again for this tremendous recognition, and I hope Nigeria Jones will continue to reach the readers who need it most.

Ibi Zoboi is the winner of the 2024 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Nigeria Jones, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in San Diego on June 30, 2024. From the July/August 2024 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2024.

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Ibi Zoboi

Ibi Zoboi holds an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the co-author, with Yusef Salaam of the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Fiction and Poetry Honor book Punching the Air (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins), illustrated by Omar T. Pasha. She received a 2023 Walter Honor in the younger readers category for Star Child: A Biographical Constellation of Octavia Estelle Butler (Dutton). She is the winner of the 2024 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Nigeria Jones (Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins).

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