Looking for America

Looking for America

Virginia Hamilton was honorary chair of the Coretta Scott King Award’s public awareness campaign: “Images of the Past, Promises for the Future, 30-Plus Years of CSK Awards.” Hamilton’s latest novel, Bluish (Scholastic/Blue Sky), will be published in the fall.

The Coretta Scott King Award (now 40 years old) has changed the heart of our nation

virginia hamilton articles and interviews - looking for americaLooking for America
By Virginia Hamilton

I HAVE A VERY CLEAR CHILDHOOD MEMORY OF BEING IN MY HOMETOWN’S AFRICAN METHODIST Episcopal Church. I am tightly squeezed in the pew between my mother, who is plump, and elderly Miss Wing, who is bony. I rest my head against Miss Wing so I can be closer to her sweet scent of violets. She pats my knee. Mother tells me to sit up straight. “Shhh,” she says, urgently. “Don’t make a sound.” I don’t.

My father rises from the front pew and sits down in a carved wood chair, facing the congregation. He has his mandolin in hand, and he begins to play a classical piece. I think my dad has the only mandolin in Yellow Springs, Ohio. None of my uncles has one. I think he makes up the music he plays the way I make up stories. The sound of his Gibson 1902, patent-pending, ivory-inlaid instrument is stirring.

Kenneth Hamilton was an accomplished musician, who led mandolin clubs across America in the early part of the 20th century. In that period of 1902 to 1905, his groups were integrated, black and white, male and female.

That Sunday so long ago, my father’s performance brought some new, melodic breadth into the AME Church and into my being. Always when he played, I heard Dad’s voice in my mind, telling me stories. For he would play softly of an evening at home. When mother finished telling her household tales, he would quietly talk about himself, as a high school and college football player in Iowa, 1898, ’99, and on, and the poetry he wrote. The whole time, his fingers whispered up and down the mandolin strings.

Dad told about grand places. He’d lived in Calgary, Banff, and Edmonton, while working on the Canadian Transcontinental Railroad. He spoke of vast ballrooms filled with twirling couples–he was an exceptional dancer. He painted a vivid picture of the last great gatherings of the high plains Native Americans. I never forgot the images he drew with words.

Kenneth Hamilton believed that the more a child like myself knew about life and the world, the better she would be prepared for what might come. While my mother’s tales were generally about her side of the family, the Perry clan, all of Dad’s stories were lessons about looking out and around, and looking for America.