Life for a weedy, spectacle-wearing nerd with thread wrapped, untidy hair, was not terrible. However it was a full time job escaping the misery of domestic training meant to prepare me for my place in society, looking after the needs of others, always unspecified but anyway, people who didn’t plan to do their own cooking or shopping. And I was supposed to be the lazy one. So the books that escaped under beds and up trees with me were more than books. They were a call to revolution and a life of the mind.

Virginia Hamilton’s books provided the first black characters I was able to see as human and to identify with.  It’s not that Black kids need Black characters in all their literature. What is problematic is when they only see Blackness through the eyes of writers who are ashamed, afraid, or reinforcing hierarchies of race and sex. Harriet Beecher Stower’s Uncle Tom, the Black characters from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer whose names no one remembers because Mark Twain had nothing memorable to inject into dark Others. Children’s literature is not thought of as very important even though this is where children come to know the world and the concepts they form in childhood stay with them all their lives. It’s where they learn that old women are witches, good women get married, and the white men don’t clean toilets.

Virginia Hamilton is described on her website as “America’s most distinguished author of children’s books”. The Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature isn’t known except among multicultural writers. So Hamilton’s Justice trilogy isn’t well known. In the first book: Justice and her brothers Justice, Thomas and Levi seem to wear their Blackness easily, not carrying it around like a hump. The second sentence in the trilogy reads “Pouting her displeasure she sidled through limp and quiet rooms”. Well, Hamilton had me there. It was liberating to follow her characters as they tested out what was possible. Justice is eleven years old in the book but she is able to guide a gang of superpower-wielding older kids into a dangerous future world.

When Pam Muñoz Ryan accepted the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature she read out a letter she’d written to Hamilton: “I did not get to this podium today without you.  You walked before me. You swept my path clean and free from noisy hate.  You removed the boulders on which I might have stumbled. You weeded the negative and the un-informed, plucking them with your nimble fingers and tossing them away from my footfalls.” Word. Every child needs the possibility of agency and Virginia Hamilton has made sure that Black kids can have that, if they read books that are an open door instead of a prison cell.

What about you: Which books give you the space to be yourself? What are you reading for your own liberation? What formed your childhood ideas of what you could be?

This post is part of our quarterly theme “Contemporary African Stories.” Click to learn more about this series.

Clementine Burnley
Clementine Burnley was born and raised in Cameroon. At the moment, she lives and writes in Berlin, Germany.
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