Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations

Newbery Acceptance Speech: M.C. Higgins, the Great

However, Hirschman has nerves of steel. Wait she did; over the next few months until the second of our consultations in her office in New York. I anguished and protested to her that this time the book defied solution or completion. How do I write, I worried when all of my subjects upon creation immediately suggest intangible objects? And I said to Susan, “How do I keep mountains, rivers and, yes, black people from turning into myths or emblems of themselves? They are somehow born on the page too large,” I said, “and no sooner do I put them there all together than the river becomes The-One-That-Has-To-Be-Crossed; the mountain is The-One-That’s-Got-To-Be-Climbed; and my people? A mere symbol of human STRUGGLE, in capital letters, Against Adversity, in italics. And that would be playing them cheap.” I said.

Having said, I slumped back, glumly eyeing Hirschman, the smell of defeat as unsavory as wild onion in my nostrils.

She stared back rather unsympathetically, I thought at the time, and totally uninterested in my fading confidence.

“What about the pole? She asked.

“What about it?”

“What’s it a symbol of?”

“It’s … just what the kid sits on?” I asked, tentatively.

“But why doesn’t he ‘just’ sit on the mountain or on the porch, why a forty-foot pole on the side of a mountain?”

“Well, it’s not his mountain,” I said, feeling unaccountably annoyed, “it’s Sarah’s … but the pole belongs to him and that’s why he sits on it.”

“But where did he get it,” she persisted, “and what for, and —”

I cut her off. “It’s his!” I said, nearly shouting. “He won it …” I was getting this really fantastic scene in my head.

“What did he win it for?” Hirschman asked, carefully removing sharp objects from her desk top.

“Swimming!” I shouted with glee. “For swimming!”

“Remarkable,” she said. “I hadn’t know he was a swimmer.”

“Not just any swimmer,” I said, “but a great swimmer. And once he swam the Ohio River … and there’s a lake in the mountain … and there’s a tunnel!”

“A train tunnel?” she said.

“No, no …” By then I was out of my chair, grabbing my suitcase and, in my mind, already on the plane home.

“Don’t forget to write,” Hirschman called softly as I reached the door.

“Yeah, sure,” I said, by way of farewell.

That was it. There would be no more of those “talks” between us for quite a spell.