Looking for America

Looking for America

My parents’ accounts taught me a sense of community, as well as the idea that there was more than one place to be in life. I learned the equal worth of peoples, of caring for the earth’s environment. The farm life that encompassed my childhood, and the land, like a rich carpet undulating from the outward boundary of my country village and beyond, were lessons in preservation, in using and never wasting. They reflected my mom and dad’s calm perseverance in the face of storms, drought, and relentless winters. I see a direct correlation between one’s childhood days and nights and how these seemingly ordinary times, spaces, and places flourish in one’s imagination. It is this natural process that has shaped what is most meaningful to me and has determined the kinds of books I write.

My first book, Zeely (S & S), about a black, six-and-a-half-foot pig shepherdess said to have descended from African royalty, was published in 1967. The Coretta Scott King (CSK) Award–which is administered by the Coretta Scott King task force of the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table–began two years later, during a time of great social upheaval, as many strove to gain individual and civil rights. Naturally, the task force and I felt keenly the popular assertion of the ’60s, “Black Is Beautiful.” And independently, we sought ways to champion the beautiful, while working for a more just society.

At the 1969 ALA conference in Atlantic City, two school librarians, Mabel McKissick and Glyndon Greer, found themselves vying for a last poster of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on display at publisher John Carroll’s booth. They engaged in conversation with Mr. Carroll and shared their concern that “since the Newbery and Caldecott Medals were in existence, neither of these awards had been presented to a minority author or illustrator.”1 (It was 1974 before my novel M. C Higgins, the Great (S & S) won the Newbery medal and cleared one of those hurdles.) According to the historical record, Mr.Carroll then declared, “Why don’t you ladies start an award to do just that?” And so they did.

The first CSK Award presentation took place in 1970, at the New Jersey Library Association’s annual meeting. There, Lillie Patterson was presented with a plaque for her biography Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Peace (Garrard, 1969), a book that introduced young readers to Dr. King’s struggle to achieve racial equality through nonviolence.

Today, we have a more racially and culturally connected generation than we had 30 years ago, when the CSK Award began. The youth of today have grown up with more exposure to other races through sports and school activities, music and television, dating, and the easy mobility of the population. Their world is multicultural, multiracial, and multinational. Their world is more diverse.