Academic journal article African American Review

"I Double Never Ever Never Lie to My Chil'ren": Inside People in Virginia Hamilton's Narratives

Academic journal article African American Review

"I Double Never Ever Never Lie to My Chil'ren": Inside People in Virginia Hamilton's Narratives

Article excerpt

Virginia Hamilton is the most important author currently writing for children in the United States.(1) The point is perhaps an arguable one, but I think few critics of children's literature would deny Hamilton's significance as an international author of children's books. Winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal, presented by the International Board on Books for Young People based in Switzerland that is the field's equivalent of the Nobel, Hamilton has written more than twenty books for children since her first novel, Zeely, was published in 1967. She has a distinct style, one that is poetic, intricate, and political; indeed, all of her books are informed by her commitment to racial issues. She acknowledges that she began writing "at the time of 'Black is Beautiful' on through black power and throughout the Malcolm X time and all the disasters that befell this country" (Mikkelsen, "Conversation" 396), so her books resonate with her awareness of the centrality of African American culture to American history.

One of the most powerful recurring issues in the Hamilton canon that demonstrates this awareness is her emphasis on the social effects of inclusion and exclusion on people. For example, in Plain City, an African American girl who lives in her family's commune on the edge of town refers to herself as being "outside" to designate her otherness (15). Once the girl accepts what Mae Henderson would call the "plural aspects of self that constitute the matrix of her subjectivity" (18), she comes to take pride in her family's uniqueness. She then proudly proclaims herself an "outside child," enjoying the double entendre of being someone who loves to be outdoors and one who also celebrates the difference of her otherness (169). When Hamilton depicts marginalized people transforming their otherness or "outsideness" into "insideness," she demonstrates their power to define their own position in life, and in the process she destabilizes the very concepts of inclusion and exclusion.

Hamilton's focus on the social effects of inclusions and exclusions also operates on a narrative level. Her interest in who is inside and who is outside of any given narrative leads her to develop a richly structured system of narrators, narratives, and narratees that asks us to question boundaries that have traditionally been used to demarcate otherness: boundaries between races, between genders, and between children and adults.(2) The result is a series of texts whose narrative structures paradigmatically interrogate racial identity, feminism, and the very definition of children's literature.

Two novels about girls who are storytellers most poignantly demonstrate Hamilton's ongoing concern with narrative stance and its effect on the reader: Zeely (1967) and The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl (1983) both employ narrative structure to communicate ideological discourses of race, gender, and age to the implied reader.(3) I understand these two narratives best when I look at them through the combined lenses of a number of critical theories: narratology, Marxism, feminism, children's literature theory, and reader-response theory. Narrative theory suggests to me ways to investigate narrative distancing in these books as a thematic issue; Marxism, the very study of the socially dispossessed, makes me aware of exclusion as a lack of social power; feminism helps me perceive gender exclusions; children's literature theory sensitizes me to issues of ageism at work in the texts; and reader-response theory requires me to be aware of how the transaction among author, text, and reader can affect the narrative positioning of the reader. The perspective of these combined theories helps to explain the continuum of inclusions and exclusions at work in Zeely and The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl, for the degree to which characters are included or excluded from positions of power in these novels is determined by at least three factors gender, race, and age - each of which affects the character's differing degrees of interiority within or exteriority from her community. …

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