Liberation literature

Yellow Springs author Virginia Hamilton leaves lasting impact

By Erin Callahan

Photo: Author Virginia Hamilton and her husband, poet Arnold Adoff; photo contributed by Bruce Cornett

If Virginia Hamilton wore a “Hello, my name is,” tag, several descriptions could have been written – working mother, African-American writer, or African-American female writer. As her husband and well-known poet Arnold Adoff says, there was always room on her chest for more than one label.

Throughout her 35-year career, she earned another distinction as well – the most distinguished author of 20th century youth literature.

Hamilton, a Yellow Springs, Ohio native, wrote and published 41 books of multiple genres including picture books, folktales, mystery, science fiction, realistic novels and biographies, many containing nods to her hometown. Her work earned the name “liberation literature” for its deep concern for memory, tradition and generational legacy of African Americans. The author herself came from a big family with a strong legacy grown in Yellow Springs soil.

She attended Antioch College, majored in literature and creative writing at Ohio State University, and later studied fiction writing at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Her first year in New York, she met poet Arnold Adoff, after he had finished graduate school at Columbia University, and they married two years later. The couple gained fast respect for each other, Adoff recalled, and they joined forces right away.

“The two of us came together, not just as black and white, but also small town and big city, male and female, all different aspects,” he says. “It was a wonderful combination of business and artistic [expression].”

He taught social studies for 12 years in New York and addressed the lack of African American literature in schools while Hamilton pursued an interest in youth literature. Among their early successes, the couple had two children and returned to Hamilton’s family farm in 1969.

From there, Hamilton’s career accelerated. She published a book or two nearly every year from 1968 until her death in 2002, with Adoff as her agent. And as her list of books grew, so did her list of awards, numbering nearly every one possible within her field.

To name a few, her book, “M.C. Higgins, the Great,” won the National Book Award. “Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush” was named to the Library of Congress Best Books for Children list. In 1992, she received the Hans Christian Anderson Award, the most important international award in children’s literature, from the International Board on Books for Young People; she was named to the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993; and she received the Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Education in 1997.

Adoff said Hamilton’s success came from her courage to be true to herself – as a writer and as a person.

“Virginia was the most honest person,” he remembers. “She never played kids cheap. She created literature, not product. She had the courage of her convictions … if an editor said they weren’t comfortable with a woman writing about a male character, she wouldn’t budge, and I was like that as well. We were able to make a living and raise our children and not have to compromise our artistic vision.”

Though Hamilton has passed, her legacy and vision still live on in her hometown and beyond.

Since 2002, Adoff has partnered with the Yellow Springs Community Library to memorialize Hamilton with gifts to young readers. The endowment included a commissioned portrait of Hamilton by painters Leo and Diane Dillon, who illustrated a number of books for Adoff and Hamilton, a reader’s couch constructed by woodworker Alan Greenberg and weaver Julia Cady, a rug featuring scenes from Hamilton’s life and books, hooked by Toby Baker and Georgia Glass and the Virginia Hamilton meeting room.

A plaque in the meeting room reads, “[Hamilton] was more than a distinguished writer. She was our hometown storyteller… Readers everywhere can find their hearts and minds reflected in Virginia’s stories. In Yellow Springs, we also recognize our streets, our fields, our ancestors and cousins in the pages of Virginia’s books.”

Head librarian Connie Collett says the memorial keeps Hamilton in the minds of people, and prompts some to ask about who she was.

“I think she wanted to bring the African-American experience into literature, to get that down and available to everyone, partly so that African Americans could see themselves in literature and so that other people could learn about that experience,” Collett says.

Adoff expressed Hamilton’s love for Yellow Springs, describing it as an open town that considered her one of their own. Every time she won an award, Adoff says the librarians filled the meeting room with people celebrating for her.

The celebration of Hamilton has continued in other parts of Dayton and Ohio as the Virginia Hamilton Lifetime Achievement Award, Kent State University’s Virginia Hamilton Conference and Wright State University’s Virginia Hamilton and Arnold Adoff Resource Center continue to recognize and encourage excellence among young African American writers and within multicultural youth literature.

Adoff has made numerous other endowments and donations of their literary collection to The Antioch School and the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

“She achieved what she set out to achieve,” Adoff said, “to bring her own voice and her own vision to building on the history of her people and the history of world literature.”

To learn more about the life and legacy of Virginia Hamilton, please visit virginiahamilton.com.

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Erin Callahan
Reach DCP freelance writer Erin Callahan at ErinCallahan@DaytonCityPaper.com

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