Andrea Davis Pinkney grew up hearing about “the fine black line,” the legacy of African American writers, readers, and thinkers in the United States. That line, she says, extends from Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Zora Neale Hurston to Richard Wright, Virginia Hamilton and Walter Dean Myers.
The author of more than 20 books for children and young adults and a Coretta Scott King Award winner, Pinkney long ago took her place on that estimable line.
Born a month after the August 1963 March on Washington, Pinkney understood early the significance of the Civil Rights Movement. Her father, the late Philip J. Davis, had been one of the first African American student interns in the House of Representatives. He and Pinkney's mother, Gwendolyn, were active in the 1960s battle for justice and equality.
“When other kids were at the beach or summer camp,” Pinkney says, “we were at the NAACP Annual Convention. July meant the National Urban League Conference. September was back to school, and we were at the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington, D.C.”
Sitting in her sunlit office surrounded by her own books and the books of the authors she edits at Scholastic, Pinkney smiles at the memory.
“I took it for granted,” she says. "Or I bemoaned it."
What kid wouldn't want to be at the beach or at summer camp? But watching African American leaders stand up for justice empowered Pinkney: “I learned that just by showing up, just by carrying the message, by having my presence among a group that is moving forward and believing in something, I was helping effect a change."
Watching events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City this past year has been painful for Pinkney and her family, as it has for many families.
“Everything that is happening now, young people are aware of,” Pinkney says. “There’s an open dialogue. Kids are discussing it. They’re seeing it in the news, and they’re hearing their parents talk about it."
What advice does Pinkney have for her own children, and for the kids she visits in schools around the country?
“We have to continue to believe that change is possible," she says. "Young people have to believe that they can effect change, even in small ways. As Gandhi said, 'You must be the change you want to see in the world.'"
However troubling the events have been—however persistent the poverty and hopelessness in many African American communities—Pinkney knows that the world today is a better one than she was born into.
"When I speak to fourth graders about Sit-In, which I wrote about the actions of four young men in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, I ask: 'What would you do if you went into an eating establishment, and there were four people who were not being served, and you were?' They all say things like, 'I’d give them my food. 'I’d talk to the manager.' Yes, yes! That’s what we have to continue to do. We have to believe that small changes can have a big impact."
Pinkney learned that lesson as a child, perhaps while sitting in a National Urban League meeting on a hot summer afternoon in Washington, D.C. Somewhere along the way, she earned herself a place on the fine black line.
Learn more about Pinkney's books for children and young adults here.
@ Christine Simmons