Lift Every Voice: Seeing Stars

I’ve been marinating in childhood memories this past year as I worked to complete my upcoming memoir, Ordinary Hazards. Among the memories there were, as you might imagine, many moments that marked my path as a writer: my first poetry reading at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem, receiving my first autographed book by a Black author, and losing myself in the literary wonderland that was Michaux’s, the famous Harlem bookstore where volumes by local poet Langston Hughes and other African and African American authors crowded the shelves. I dared to imagine that someday, my books might be among them.

Then, there was my memory of the Copa.

I’d never imagined myself going to the Copacabana, nor do I remember my father ever mentioning that then-famous nightclub in conversation. Since he was a violinist and composer of classical music, his list of venues to play would not have included a club known for popular music and jazz. Yet one weekend my father, nattily attired in shirt and tie, escorted me to the Copa for a special celebration honoring Lorraine Hansberry, playwright of A Raisin in the Sun.

I was in my early teens, and I hadn’t yet seen (or read) Raisin. However, I did recognize the names, faces, and voices of some of the luminaries in attendance that day. The thunderous voice of Paul Robeson was unmistakable, and so were the voices of Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis, and Ruby Dee. In fact, the room was virtually ablaze with Black stars of stage, screen, and the world of dance. I was suitably impressed, but not mesmerized. Not yet.

I looked around the room until I noticed a certain man in attendance, a man who seemed to draw attention from everyone. I recognized him from the elevator we had ridden up on together. He was a man of small stature and enormous brown eyes, and he walked with a slight hitch in his step. The aura around him was palpable.

“Who is that?” I whispered to my father. He smiled, his eyes twinkling.

“Ah!” he said. “He’s a famous author.”

An author! I thought. Here, with all these stars! Now I was mesmerized.

It was one thing to be in a roomful of world-class actors, dancers, and singers who looked like me, but it was quite another to realize there were Black stars in the literary firmament, too. Personal fame didn’t interest me, but these were men and women who excelled in the world of storytelling. These were Black people who successfully sent their stories out into the world. These were people of African descent who were lovers of words — like Lorraine Hansberry. Like me.

My afternoon at the Copa gave me a glimpse of the heights to which the written word might carry me, if only I were willing to take the long, lonely, and sometimes arduous journey. And I was.

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.

Nikki Grimes

Nikki Grimes has received the ALAN Award, Children’s Literature Legacy Award, CSK-Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement, Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, and NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, among others. Her memoir Ordinary Hazards (Wordsong/Boyds Mills & Kane) was a Printz, Sibert, and Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Book.

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