Last Wednesday, my book South to America was awarded the National Book Award for Nonfiction. I’m still in a bit of a daze.
So much about last week was magical. I began it by speaking at the Association of American Medical Colleges’ annual conference in Nashville. In the Q&A portion of a dialogue I was having with the historian Jon Meacham, the physician and Emory University medical professor Dr. Kimberly D. Manning offered stirring words of affirmation for me about our shared tradition—we both come from Alabama and, specifically, from Tuskegee University families—and the efforts we make to sustain the lessons we have learned from our ancestors.
Right after that event, I flew to New York City for the finalists’ reading for the National Book Awards. I made a quick pit stop at my hotel to clean up and get dressed, and then made my way to the first of two nights of events. My 16-year-old son met me there directly from school and was present when I received my finalist medal. The next morning, my 19-year-old son came to New York from college. We talked, laughed, and got ready.
In the car ride over to the awards ceremony, I kept looking at my sons. They’re both much taller than me now, even when I’m in heels. They are kind and good young people who have talents and qualities I deeply admire. I can’t wait to see how their lives unfold.
In the meantime, I have tried to model something for them.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer. This yearning came before the one I’d develop in late adolescence, to be a scholar and an intellectual. And when my sons were very young, I made a decision to show them what it meant to make time for my own aspirations.
I wanted them to feel part of my growing up as a writer, so I’ve always talked to my sons about the work—including in the years when fear narrowed my ambition. I’ve told them about how I worked to make space for my passion alongside other responsibilities, knowing that this would be the only way I could avoid resenting those responsibilities. I’ve talked to them about the number of times I tried and failed: the book proposals that didn’t sell, the essays that were rejected by magazines, the bad reviews. They know that the thing I am most proud of as an intellectual and a creative writer is that I have never stopped studying and working on my craft.
My younger son asked me, as we ate dinner before the awards ceremony, if I would be okay if I lost. I told him, honestly, “I think so. Mostly because all of the books are both beautiful and important. They’re all books that make a difference.” He nodded.
Less than an hour later, South to America was announced as the winner. It was a blur. But there’s one part that remains clear: My children’s joy was immediate. They jumped. They cried. They shouted.
My sons are young adults, but I believe that active parenting never ceases. The shape of care simply changes. A lot of my parenting has shifted from giving instructions to providing scaffolding and life lessons. I intend to stay present every time they falter, but also to stand back to allow them to soar. I am learning to allow them to care for me in some of the ways that I care for them. That is part of the adult parent-child relationship, but it can only happen if a parent allows a child to grow up. And at last week’s awards ceremony, I witnessed them growing up.
All three of us talked with writers, editors, and publishing professionals of every stripe. We danced and laughed. My older son got selfies with some of his favorite writers. My younger son watched me for signs of exhaustion, which can come suddenly and ferociously to someone with chronic illnesses (and we did leave pretty early as a result). In the hours we were there, however, we experienced community, something I’ll never take for granted again.
The joy of my sons last Wednesday night was a gift. Our children don’t owe us care. But when they offer it, it’s a sign that we have taught them something about love—and have earned it, too. And they teach us, in return.
I was overwhelmed by the kindness of my fellow writers and grateful for everyone who was part of making my book possible; there were many people in that room, and beyond, who were integrally involved in my journey. But it was my beautiful children who made the evening feel like a win. And now we will go home, to Alabama, for Thanksgiving. I’m already there.
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