- Two Separate Hearts:Virginia Hamilton and the Black Arts Movement
We wear the mask that grins and lies,It hides our cheeks and shadesour eyes . . .With torn and bleeding hearts wesmile . . .We wear the mask!(Dunbar qtd. in Hamilton, House of Dies 176)
At the climax of her second novel, The House of Dies Drear, Virginia Hamilton’s character Mayhew Skinner recites these lines from Paul Dunbar as he peels away a false face. Appearing here in an abridged version, the poem suggests dual identities: a communal identity based on shared pain, and a performed identity put on for outsiders. This relationship between identity and performance reappears in Hamilton’s early works including The House of Dies Drear (1968), Zeely (1967), and the short story collection The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969). These texts incorporate elements of performance, folklore, history, and identity situating them within the Black Arts Movement (BAM). The goals and aesthetics of the BAM—specifically the movement’s focus on creating new dynamic art forms that positively reflect black life—are defined both by artists operating within the movement and by later scholars attempting to place the movement’s political and artistic influence. One such scholar, James Smethurst calls the BAM “arguably the most influential cultural movement the United States has ever seen,” yet his work makes no mention of children’s literature (373).1 Although critics have compared Hamilton to black authors such as Octavia Butler, Ralph Ellison, or Toni Morrison and have emphasized the role of African myth, magical, and science-fiction elements as a way for her characters to speak to or witness the past, scholars have yet to comment on the multigenre aspects of Hamilton’s work or categorized Hamilton as [End Page 262] a member of the Black Arts Movement.2 Hamilton’s texts meet all of the elements of the black aesthetic while addressing the needs of young readers. In this way, Hamilton lays bare the work of BAM identity construction in simple language that clarifies the aesthetic while expanding the ideas of a movement to a younger audience, making her work a valuable contribution to the Black Arts Movement. Hamilton also fits within a subset of black women artists including Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez whose art pushes for real, rather than symbolic, change and serves as a redress to specific concerns such as poverty and education. Recognizing Hamilton’s work as part of the Black Arts is important to expanding the critical discussion of the BAM within children’s and young adult literature. To place her aesthetically (as well as temporally and geographically) within the BAM, we will focus on black identity and culture in four of Hamilton’s early books: Zeely (1967), The House of Dies Drear (1968), and The Time-Ago Tales of Jahdu (1969).
Despite her engagement with identity and the black aesthetic, Hamilton is not often discussed as a member of the BAM because she actively resisted any categorization. In an author profile printed in Susan Lehr’s Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: The Construction of Gender in Children’s Literature, Hamilton comments “books are put together from strong life forces. To analyze them is to introduce limitations. I accept the book as it is written” (23). Hamilton’s husband Arnold Adoff3 also cautions against characterizing Hamilton as part of a movement: “Virginia did not write single theme books, and she really did not write Black Arts Movement literature. Now, many of her works fit into that movement, but they fit into magical realism, they fit into the continuing drive for equality and liberation for women in this country. So you see she was an artist developing and growing” (Adoff, n.p.). A 2010 interview with Adoff featured in the Yellow Springs News states that “though she proudly claimed the stories of her roots, she didn’t like being boxed into anything less than her identity as an American” (par. 6).
Yet, this same article describes Hamilton as “part of the development of black consciousness in America” (par. 4) and her work as “liberation literature”4 (par. 8). She explains, “Liberation literature not only frees the subject of record...