VOICES: A rememory of Virginia Hamilton — weaving dreams into stories

The American writer Virginia Hamilton grew up on a Yellow Springs, Ohio farm that her family had owned since the 1850s. I also grew up in Yellow Springs, and was friends with Jaime and Leigh, the children of Virginia and her husband, the poet Arnold Adoff. The Hamilton Adoff family helped weave our community cloth, the texture of my childhood. To me, these authors were simply Jaime and Leigh’s kind parents—and both Virginia and Arnold fostered my urge to write. Later I would l realize that Virginia was a trailblazer, and her career, a big deal.

Virginia was the author of over 40 books, and was the first Black author to win the Newberry Medal Award (for M. C. Higgins, the Great, in 1975). In 1995, she became the first author writing for children to receive the MacArthur Fellowship. The Virginia Hamilton Conference on Multicultural Literature for Youth, held yearly at Kent State University, was created in her honor.

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When I was in my 20s, I asked Virginia if writing ever got easier. Her answer surprised me. “No,” she said. “Each novel gets harder.” Maybe she was struggling with a current project, or feeling pessimistic, but — though I appreciated her candor — I was perplexed.

Now, with more mileage as a writer, I understand. In her essay, “Ah, Sweet Rememory!” she writes, “What is learned concerning the writing of a single novel is hopelessly inadequate in writing the next — or any others, for that matter.” Each novel needs a new version of the writer to coax it alive. (That’s only part of the hard part.) I wonder, too, if she meant that as you evolve, so do your standards for what you manifest in the world. And maybe you start to consider your legacy, what will hold up after you pass, prove you existed. How fully you carry your lineage forward.

Virginia’s grandfather, Levi Perry, escaped enslavement as a child, and every year, he told his children the stories so they would know of his escape, so “slavery will never happen to you,” he said. Maybe Virginia enacted his words along with her own as she wove dreams into stories. Virginia wove strong dreams. Her legacy abides in her books; the books and authors she inspired; the children who grew up feeling seen, feeling their freedom through reading her liberation literature (as Virginia called it); the Virginia Hamilton Room at the Yellow Springs Library... and of course her family, and all those who were fortunate enough to know her.

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We who recall the Yellow Springs of the past might simply see it as the natural order of that time, that a Black woman would reap copious and well-deserved recognition. Her generational connection to this place endures. Her inspiration to write was nourished by this land, by its people. In her book, The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales, she writes of the incantation that allowed flight toward freedom, calls them “magic words, said so quickly, they sounded like whispers and sighs.” Quoting her note about that story, Virginia Hamilton’s decades of storytelling honor “those who had only their imaginations to set them free.”

Despite changing times, may we remember and remember the music of Virginia Hamilton’s voice and stories, so gorgeous and true, the truth she whispered and sighed. And how the people could fly.

Rebecca Kuder’s debut novel, The Eight Mile Suspended Carnival, was published in 2021. She lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Learn more at rebeccakuder.com. You can read more about Virginia Hamilton at virginiahamilton.com.

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