Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations

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

Actually, I’ve oversimplified an interesting method between editor and writer of defining story area and limits. It is never as simple as I’ve described it, nor does it happen so quickly. However, when symbols begin to build at the outset, they must be made to yield at once to the things they stand for. In other words, before one can see the mountain, one must know its heat, its flies, its wind and its place against a total breadth of sky. Writing such fascinating detail keeps me going over long months of plotting; but it is with character that I must always begin.

I began with M.C. atop a forty-foot pole, lofty, serene. Too serene, perhaps, too above it all, and so I conceived of Ben Killburn, created out of darkness at the foot of the pole. Earthbound, Ben is dependable in a way M.C. is not. Ben, in turn, is constricted by Jones Higgins, M.C.’s father, a man of strength and integrity, yet superstitious and unyielding. So, too, is Jones illuminated by the Dude from out of nowhere, who clarifies for M.C. his father’s inability to face the reality of the endangered mountain.

As though in a spiral from the top of the pole, each character bears light to the next until they all form a circle revolving at the base of the pole. The Dude in his turn is made less imposing in the presence of M.C.’s mother, Banina, and the simple magnificence of her voice. Finally, how easily random chance in the slim shape of a whimsical teenage girl might have brought tragedy to Banina’s beloved family.

Thus, the circle of characters moves about the pole, their lives as intertwined and fragile as the thin, flashing ribbons of a May dance. There they reel precariously on the side of Sarah’s Mountain under a black cloud—the spoil hovering above. The Higgins’ mountain has within it the element of its own destruction in the form of coal; yet it also has the building materials of rock and dirt which become the means for M.C.’s affirmative action. At the last, M.C. builds a wall in order to stop a spoil heap. Correction: he begins a wall. Whether it would really stop the force of tons of falling debris is open to question. But in terms of story and fiction, it is necessary that we see him begin a move to save himself.

We do know the truth, however. In truth, Appalachian hills are flattened; the Belmont counties of Ohio are decimated by the GEMs (Giant Earth Movers) of Hanna [GEMs] Coal Co. In truth, acids released by mining destroy wells, crops, livestock and land. Because of them, people starve and people die.

But no one dies in M.C. Higgins, the Great or in any of my books. I never have written demonstrable and classifiable truths. Nor have my fictional black people become human sacrifices in the name of social accuracy. For young people reading M.C., particularly the poor and the blacks, have got to realize that his effort with his bare hands to stay alive and save his way of life must be their effort as well. For too long, too many have suffered and died without cause. I prefer to write about those who survive, such as old Sarah McHiggon of the mountain, Banina Higgins, the Killburns, who have had good cause for living.

A letter I received from a young female student in Toronto is typical of letters I receive from young people of various racial groups: She said, “Miss Hamilton, I am white, but I just as well could be black. Either kind, I’d be okay. Your books taught me to say that.”

Most young people who write me tell me that my books teach them things—ways to live, how to survive. Having set out to be nothing more than a teller of tales, I have come to feel more responsible and that what I have to say is more worthwhile than I had at first thought.

I would like to thank everyone who helped make M.C. Higgins, the Great the book it is. To my family—Arnold, Leigh and Jaime—thank you for bearing with me. To Phyllis Larkin and Elizabeth Shub, I appreciate all you have done. To Janet Schulman, who unstintingly saw M.C. through—you are here with us in spirit and we thank you. And last and most, to Susan Hirschman. The past is prelude and you are the best there is.

One final note: this event here this evening is in part an historic occasion. I am the first black woman and black writer to have received this award. May the American Library Association ever proceed.

Given at the American Library Association Convention, San Francisco, 1975