"Lift every voice and sing / Till earth and heaven ring, / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty...."
So begins James Weldon Johnson’s “black national anthem,” and so begins the Coretta Scott King Awards Ceremony, an annual event that is as much ecumenical church service as it is literary celebration—appropriate for an award named for the widow of a minister. It is always a moving ceremony, but this year's, held on June 28 during the annual conference of the American Library Association, had a special electricity.
Among the creators on the dais were familiar names and faces, artists who have been honored multiple times: illustrator award–winner Christopher Myers, author award–winner Jacqueline Woodson, and author honoree Marilyn Nelson; former John Steptoe new-talent award–winners Kekla Magoon and Frank Morrison were there too, with author and illustrator honors, respectively. New to the laurels were author honoree Kwame Alexander and illustrator honoree Christian Robinson, as well as Jason Reynolds, this year's winner of the John Steptoe award. Such a range of experience speaks loudly of the vigor of the community.
In the audience were former winners and honorees and, I hope, winners- and honorees-to-be: children sat among the adults, soaking in the abundant joy. That joy was tempered by anger and pain. Alexander spoke of his fear of sending his daughter to Bible camp after the church massacre in Charleston. Myers spoke of children laboring in factories overseas and violence in the streets both at home and abroad.
The Coretta Scott King Book Awards, like the African-American experience they celebrate, were born in pain and from it wrings hope—hope that comes from shared effort. Virginia Hamilton lifetime-achievement award–winner Deborah Taylor closed the ceremony by reminding us all of Dr. King's "beloved community." In that room, on that day, we were all, black, white, and shades in between, part of that beloved community. And what an honor it was to lift our voices all together.
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor. Photo above features Jason Reynolds accepting the John Steptoe Award for New Talent; photo courtesy of American Library Association.