A Thousand Winters: 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award Acceptance

In Jackie Woodson's Brooklyn living room, "on hiatus from saving the world." Photo: Nataki Hewling In Jackie Woodson's Brooklyn living room, "on hiatus from saving the world." Photo: Nataki Hewling

I am a poet.

On the morning of the youth media announcements, Jacqueline Woodson and I are texting each other. There is a shift happening in the wonderful world of children’s books, and we feel it, and I guess we want to share that moment.

“Jackie, this is awesome, isn’t it? We need to get together. Celebrate or something.”

A week later, we are. In Brooklyn. At her home. In her kitchen. About to have a fish fry. There’s Rita Williams-Garcia sitting at the head of the table, complimenting everybody like your favorite aunt used to do, and telling funny (and serious) stories like only she can do, whilst sipping wine. Jason Reynolds is standing near the whiskey he’s brought, like he’s guarding it or something, and channeling Walter Dean Myers, James Baldwin, and the guy on the cover of the next issue of GQ, and looking like he’s wondering if he should even be there, and of course, he should. There’s Christopher Myers, sitting down and still taller than everybody in the room, and for some reason, Jackie has him coating the fish, and Chris is a baaaad artist, but he knows nothing about coating fish. And there’s Jackie: mother, lover, friend, life-giver, life-saver, cultural stabilizer.

In that moment, in her kitchen, I realize we are all on hiatus from saving the world. I know, it sounds lofty, but each of these writers here today is about offering a piece of art that changes. Changes minds and behaviors. Offers hope and tough love. And that is hard work. And sometimes, you need a break, so you can keep fighting. Keep writing windows and painting mirrors. And that is what this award means for me. It not only recognizes my/our work, but it makes us want to keep doing it. In America today, there is chaos. So we have more work to do, and as Ursula Nordstrom said, the creative artist is the one “wanting to make order out of chaos.”

•    •    •

The other day
on the way
for bubblegum ice cream (her favorite)
my six-year-old
cautions me to slow down
spaceryou are driving too fast, Dad, she exclaims,
spacera worried frown
spacerholding tears (she’s not supposed to have yet, or ever)
beneath her raised brow,
spacerand i don’t want the police
spacerto take you
spacerfrom me.

on another day, we walk home
from school
just like we have all year
waving at the crossing guard
sloshing through the puddled tunnel
passing the corner church
when she asks
spaceram i going to Bible school this year?
is what i would have said, without hesitation
last summer
last week
but today, my words are cold
hope is frozen
summer’s here, but it feels like a thousand winters
and the world is not a beautiful place.
spacerDad, i asked you a question? she repeats.

last night, the sky was ablaze.
bolts of lightning shot across the night
like our very soul was on fire
and i sat writing
next to a sea of flames
if these are not times for poets
if words, sentences, and books are enough anymore
if my first mistake was listening to NPR while she was in the car
if this middle passage of murder is becoming normal
if those of us who jumped were the sane ones
if we can’t survive this storm, how will our children?

she asks for two scoops
i give her one, plus a topping (it’s before dinner)
the red, white, and blue sprinkles
across her face and shirt, and
she devours
her treat—cone and all—so fast
and so free
that when it disappears,
she’s in disbelief.

so am i.

(In honor of Cynthia Hurd, librarian, Charleston County Public Library)

•    •    •

I am a poet.
I want to create a world for our children
that knows better
and does better.
Each of us does.
I suppose this award means that we’re on the right track.
And I couldn’t be more grateful.
(Also, Chris’s fish was the bomb!)

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine. Adapted from the author's acceptance speech for a 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award, delivered at the American Library Association Conference in San Francisco on June 28th, 2015.

Kwame Alexander

Kwame Alexander is the Innovator in Residence at the American School of London and the founding editor of Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which published The Undefeated. He won the Newbery Medal for The Crossover (Houghton).

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