Arnold Adoff on African-American Literature and the Legacy of Virginia Hamilton

February 23, 2010


The legacy of Virginia Hamilton, described as “America’s most honored writer of children’s literature,” continues through the efforts of her husband, poet and anthologist Arnold Adoff, who spoke exclusively with American Libraries during February’s observance of Black History Month.

Hamilton, who died February 19, 2002, wrote more than 40 award-winning books. Through those books, her scores of speeches worldwide, and in essays for prominent magazines and journals, Hamilton helped to bridge cultures and generations. Hamilton was the first African American to win the American Library Association’s Association of Library Service to Children’s John Newbery Medal, the first children’s author to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, and one of only a handful of Americans to win the international Hans Christian Andersen Medal.

A new book, Virginia Hamilton: Speeches, Essays, and Conversations (Blue Sky Press/Scholastic, February 2009), co-edited by Adoff and Kacy Cook, gives us Hamilton’s voice throughout her career—from her first nationally published essay in 1971 to her final speech at a children’s book festival in 2001. Adoff discussed the book, the creation of the new ALA Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for LifetimeAchievement, and his life with Virginia Hamilton with >AL Associate Editor Pamela A. Goodes.

What will readers experience as they delve into the new publication? They’ll see a side of Virginia Hamilton that they’ve never seen before from her collections of folk tales, her novels, or picture books. There are 33 pieces in the book out of a total of probably more than 150. From the beginnings and the early ’70s until suddenly before her death, you have Virginia in all of her various intellectual and literary emphases. Virginia thought of herself as an African‑American woman, an African‑American novelist, an American woman and novelist, and a mother as well as a biographer of [Paul] Robeson and [W. E. B.] Du Bois. There isn’t a subject—from race to gender to raising children to having a nutty poet for a husband—that she never sought to deal with in one way or another.

She received the McArthur Genius Fellowship and she really was a true genius. I knew that when I first met her in 1958 when nobody was using that word; we were all trying to break in. But she had such attention to thought and detail. It’s a side that hasn’t been presented before even if you were lucky enough to see her Newbery acceptance speech or something like that.

Can you tell us what you consider to be the most interesting, relatively unknown piece about her that’s in this book? The piece that is the most fun is one that we worked on together that’s a conversation. The two of us would occasionally go out and present. And there was a real juggling act, a real balance between husband/wife, African American/Jewish American, novelist and poet, and even New Yorker and Midwesterner. We’d go out and we would highlight the differences between poetry and prose and the differences between the way we viewed raising kids and the way we viewed the work assets that we did—or in my case didn’t—have.

America still isn’t working. I’m not a believer in the easy labeling of the post‑Obama presidency as a post-racial era. America has a long, long way to go. And America still has what William Faulkner called the “sin of slavery.” And race isn’t taken as seriously as it should be. People forget that regardless of your cultural or racial background, you have other aspects of your relationship.

We never collaborated on a book, for example, because we couldn’t agree on how to cook chicken or how to make string beans. And that had as much to do with our cultural background as it did with our skin color. So that’s a fun one.

Is this a book that should be on the shelves of every library, whether it’s public school, academic, or special? Absolutely. It gives you a window into an intellect and it gives you a window into the soul of a major literary figure of the 20th century. It opens up African‑American literature to all professionals—librarians, teachers, and graduate students. And it opens up African‑American literature to students as well. But it also opens up youth literature far beyond children’s literature.

We need more and more specifics of African‑American thought and literary emphases and yearnings for all of the many places in America where we have purposefully, or not so purposefully, re-segregated American schools, libraries, and communities as well as places where young people of color are in large majority.

For example, she used terms that you don’t find on a daily newscast. We tried to eliminate the term “minorities” because we found it very pejorative. Virginia created a term called “parallel cultures,” where people of a variety of cultures live in parallel and that means equal. She coined the phrase “liberation literature” and she talked far more than liberating politically.

In the 1970s when she wrote M. C. Higgins, the Great, she had the giant flag heap of coming down from Sarah’s mountain based on the kind of strip mining that was being done then and teaching today. She wrote books of survival. For young people and adults looking to make sense of the world, books like this, which deal with the various aspects of how we survived in this world, are few and far between.

In light of the newly revised website that you’ve worked on, why is it so important to keep Virginia’s legacy alive to writers, particularly those who happen to be African American? I could be cynical and say all peoples of all kinds keep reinventing the wheel. And I could be less cynical and more sincere in saying that you can’t build a house unless you lay those foundation blocks down. Virginia looked to Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Du Bois, and Robeson for her foundation stones. New generations of African‑American writers and parents need to look to a major foundation stone for their young people. That’s why we’ve gone through a great deal of effort to upgrade the website and we will continue. I have also pledged that all of the 120 other pieces will eventually find their way onto the website. Her Newbery Medal acceptance speech for M. C. Higgins, the Great is on the website for free in its entirety just so people can get a sense of how she used language and what some of her thinking was.

Are there specific roles that you believe libraries can play in helping to keep Virginia’s legacy alive? When we first started to publish—Virginia in ’67 and I did an anthology of what we called negro poetry in those days with I Am the Darker Brother in 1968—it was librarians who took us into their hearts and who opened the rest of America up to them; first, to our work, and, secondly, to who we were. If librarians love you, they will love you first and longest, because they see your works first and they know what they can do. They know the power that they have if they can only struggle to keep their doors open and their libraries staffed. They are the repositories of a nation’s greatness and what a nation needs to become great.

Many of my collections of poetry are out of print or “temporarily” out of stock. That’s the way it is with a great deal of children’s literature, adult literature, and particularly poetry. I always tell people sure we can go on eBay and try and buy a copy at some high price but the book will be found in fine libraries everywhere. There’s no question. We are allies. It was the most wonderful thing when I had a letter from the Library of Congress asking us to deposit Virginia’s manuscripts at the Library of Congress, which we happily have done.

How will those materials that you’ve donated to the Library of Congress aid scholars and researchers? There are rough drafts, notes, and revisions. Literary scholars will be able to see, for example, a proof of the anecdote that’s really true when Virginia’s editor said to her after she saw the M. C. Higgins, the Great manuscript: “Well inevitably we can publish it just the way it is, but if you can go back and work on it, you can really make it a superb book.” Six months later, Virginia had nine different versions, particularly of the first opening chapters. She called me into her room and said, “Oh what’s for dinner Arnold? I’m working here. Listen to this. This is version number seven of the opening of M. C. Higgins.

That’s the kind of thing that literary scholars, teachers, and academics have always loved to find. There’s also a progression of thought. They’ll see a young person from a small town in Ohio make her way to the big city and take on major world issues in her fiction and rediscover a great deal of folklore from a variety of places.

Tell us about the upcoming April opening of the Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff Resource Center at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. What will it include and why Wright State? That’s a wonderful thing. Wright State University is seven or eight miles down the road. What I’ve done is to look around the house and say “Well, what will you do with these hundreds of books, particularly African‑American literature and nonfiction various periodicals?” We worked to expand that resource center, which has now expanded itself beyond African- American literature to include women’s studies and Native peoples. People will be able to come in and use some of the materials that we used over 30 years. There will also be programs. Our son, Jamie Adoff, who lives on the other side of town, also writes for young adults. He and I will be doing programs. There will be poetry readings and guest lectures. And young people will be able to come in and sit down and do some research on the computer terminals.

With the financial squeeze on libraries, public libraries, and academic libraries particularly, this expanded resource center will be open to young people as well as institutions of higher education in the whole Miami Valley. Students who go to Sinclair College in Dayton, Ohio, for a two‑year degree; students who go where my son graduated from, Central State University in Wilberforce, a historically African‑American college; and students who go to Wittenberg University in Springfield—the whole Great Lakes region—will be provided a resource far beyond the geographic center.

Talk to us about the inaugural Coretta Scott King–Virginia Hamilton Award for Lifetime Achievement announced during ALA’s Midwinter Meeting in Boston. It took years to create and it’s wonderful. Walter Dean Myers, an old dear friend and an extraordinary novelist in his own right for over 40 years, is the first recipient. The committee called me at 7 that morning, 7:30, as they love to do. That’s one of the fun things. We’ll all be there, I think its June 29th on a Tuesday morning in Washington, D.C., to see him get that award as the first recipient.

What’s real different about it is every other year it’s a writer or illustrator and in the intermittent years, the award will be given to a professional in the field. It might be a librarian. It might be a professor. It might be a publisher. Somebody who’s worked hard to encourage, foster, and present African‑American literature to young people around the country.