2023 CSK Author Award Acceptance by Amina Luqman-Dawson

Clearly, I’m a very fortunate person. I’m blessed. I’ll never forget, and I’ll be forever grateful for, the phone call I received from the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury. As any writer in this room would understand, Freewater was like my baby. So, the moment you know your baby has found its way in the world cannot be forgotten.

Of course, we all know it takes a village. I’ve had some amazing people along for the ride. My thanks to Laura Schreiber, my lovely editor Alexandra Hightower, publisher Megan Tingley, executive director of school and library marketing Victoria Stapleton, and everyone else at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, and to James Patterson at JIMMY Patterson Books. Kathi Appelt, my mentor; Emily Van Beek, my agent; my family — particularly to my mom, who always thought this was possible; my most supportive and amazing husband, Robert; and my actual baby, my son, Zach. Many thanks to all of them.

My gratitude is endless to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury because Freewater needed you. Any work of literature focused on the nation’s history of slavery could use that extra bit of attention, support, and spotlight to pull it into the foreground.

Quick story: I was at the African American Children’s Book Fair this past February. I was sitting with a copy of Freewater standing upright in front of me when a Black mom came to my table with her young son. She picked up Freewater and asked me what it was about. I began my spiel: “Two children escape enslavement and find themselves deep in a swamp where they discover…” Her brow wrinkled as she glanced down at her son. She said, “I’m really looking for books with Black joy, you know what I mean? That’s what he likes. Why do we always have to have sadness?” I understood her. She was being honest. In many ways, I was her.

I also would not have naturally associated Black joy with a story centered on enslavement. Quite the reverse. Like that mom, for many years I also couldn’t see through the sadness of the topic. I also would have simply picked another book. I was a child who ran from the room during the airing of the miniseries Roots and hid in my parents’ closet. When I visited my first plantation, I was too fearful and filled with pain to even enter the “big house” during the tour.

Yes, I am an unlikely messenger for a story focused on the nation’s history of enslavement. I carried this fear and pain in me.

But my feelings were complex, because I also knew it was important that this history was recognized, and not mischaracterized nor forgotten. I’d bet anything that mom at the children’s book fair would say the same thing.

In my junior year of high school, my American history teacher, an old white man, on more than one occasion dropped into his lectures his beliefs about the benefits of slavery for Africans and how much better off they were having been brought here. Yes, these teachers did exist. It made me so angry. I was the only Black student in the class, and that brought out the fight in me. I spent the school year fighting his narrative. I learned facts and figures about slavery to debate him. I did my best to be perfect. It was very stressful.

Eventually, as an adult, my relationship with slavery became a strange crucible. The shell of that crucible was hardened with fighting facts and figures, anger and stress. Yet deep in the center was fear and pain. Such an unhappy burden leads to a natural outcome — tactical avoidance of the topic unless I needed to engage and fight on its behalf.

It’s an amazing irony. Regardless of the pain this history may create for Black folks, like warriors, our blades come out to protect it. Ask any Black parent, Black activist, teacher, or person fighting against book bans today. We spend more time fighting than healing.

It took me years to connect with this history. It was parenthood that brought it to the fore. Looking at my infant son and thinking about what I would want for him. Thinking about The Talk. Any parent of a Black child knows that there’s more than one “Talk.” Yes, there’s The Talk we have with our children about police violence. But there are also Talks with our kids about how they may be treated by a teacher or store clerk. Among these Talks, perhaps at the heart of them, is The Talk about the nation’s history of enslaving Africans. I wanted a better feeling for my son than I’d had. What did I specifically want for him? It’s tricky, right? We want to communicate the history in a way that is accessible but not devoid of ugly truths. We want our children to know that slavery was a hurtful system, but we don’t want to hurt them by our telling of it. What I wanted, and what I’d argue most of us want, is intangible. It’s a feeling of strength, empowerment, pride, and connection to the past. Perhaps, even a good helping of the Black joy the mother from the book fair was searching for.

Those feelings matter most — because facts, names, events, and places can be forgotten, yet how we feel about that history lasts a lifetime. The feeling is the glue upon which the historical facts stick.

Many Americans know little of this nation’s history — the actual facts. Still, feelings of pride and superiority about said history, particularly among many white Americans, are deeply lodged within our national psyche. It’s taught early and reinforced often. I’d argue that book banners’ efforts are largely to protect those feelings, regardless of the often-flawed “truths” upon which they’re based. The house of cards of justifying American society is stacked on them.

Here is where I become an unabashed cheerleader for children’s fiction, particularly regarding our country’s history of slavery. I sing the praises of fiction, because it’s where we transcend the knowing of history and where we embed our feelings about it. Fiction can bring suspense, humor, mystery, love, and all the feelings of humanity into even the most cruel and inhospitable environments. That’s what I wanted for my son and for all children.

I’m grateful to Christopher Paul Curtis, who understood this in Elijah of Buxton, and to other authors who have delved into this space.

We can and should fill our children with knowledge about historical figures. Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, William Still — the list goes on. They should know about these extraordinary figures of resistance. But equally important is the resistance within the ordinary. The sea of enslaved people who never had a moment in the sun, nor a mention in a newspaper. Those whose stories were taken from us. This is the realm in which fiction shines.

In writing Freewater, my North Star was clear: to take enslaved children, children who would likely have not been known beyond their gender and age on a census sheet, and watch them navigate, survive, and ultimately succeed during a treacherous time. I had a historical fact that created a unique space for storytelling — maroons. Self-emancipated African Americans who managed to live free in the wilderness. They were the embodiment of resistance. This was like finding historical treasure. Because centering the story within the safety of a maroon community created a literary space to visit these children without the constant specter of victimization common on plantations. It allows the reader just to enjoy these children and to hear how they view the world and what they want from it, and to watch them grow and change.

Ultimately, you see they’re just children — each different in their own way, as children are — but we have an opportunity to watch them make choices, both bad and good, that have extraordinary outcomes.

My goal was to place a reader in these children’s shoes and follow them on their crazy adventures and in the end leave the reader feeling powerfully connected to them. By the last page, we not only know that enslaved people resisted and survived, we also feel their experiences of hope and love, excitement and courage. I hope this work compels us to hold those feelings deep within.

I owe Freewater a great deal. Writing this adventure was healing. I carry these characters with me, with all of their strengths and shortcomings. By the time I wrote the last sentence, I was at peace and could just marvel at the complex humanity, love, and legacy of enslaved people.

I hope that readers will also find similar solace and healing, and one day the mom and her son from the book fair will even find a bit of Black joy in this work. Thank you.

Amina Luqman-Dawson is the winner of the 2023 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Freewater, published by JIMMY Patterson Books, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. Her acceptance speech was delivered at the annual conference of the American Library Association in Chicago on June 25, 2023. From the July/August 2023 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2023.

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Amina Luqman-Dawson

Amina Luqman-Dawson won the 2023 Newbery Medal and the 2023 CSK Author Award for Freewater (Patterson/Little, Brown).

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