William and Mary NAACP Image Award acceptance speech

I am so honored to be given this award today.

Well y’all know when you give a preacher an award they’re gonna preach (ain’t that right Rev. Dr. Hurte?), so when you give a professor an award, she gone profess a bit.

My handout is coming around, and I want to talk a little bit this evening about images.

So in honor of this image award, I want to share with you some images of images.

Anybody who has had class with me knows that definitions of words only start with the trite definitions found dictionary, so for our case of images, I’ve been thinking of dictionary definitions and then what goes beyond.

What’d I find in the Oxford English Dictionary?

2. b. A visible appearance; a manifestation of a figure; an apparition.
3. a. A visual representation or counterpart of an object or scene, formed through the interaction of rays of light with a mirror, lens, etc., usually by reflection or refraction.

In Merriam-Webster?


5 a (1): a mental picture or impression of something (2): amental conception held in common by members of a group and symbolic of a basic attitude and orientation

Lets go with a mix of these definitions a while so we can expand on them.

Leslie Dallas McClennon Sr.

Leslie Dallas McClennon Sr.

Here is an image of my grandfather Leslie Dallas McClennon, Sr. He passed away before I was born, so all I have of him are images of images. In this particular image, he’s accepting an NAACP lifetime membership plaque for Mt. Zion Church, where he served as the treasurer. What an image of a man who was an orphan, raised by the local preacher and then went on to Shaw and Howard Universities and became an early African-American director of a Boys Club and then one of the first integrated YMCAs all the while studying education and serving youth.

The next image is that of an article than ran in the Richmond, Washington, and Baltimore Afro-American in January of 1973 about my other grandfather who believed that civic engagement was the key to African-American success. He raised seven sons while doing the work listed in the article.

naacpimage2These are images of strong men with strong families. Remember those images and negotiate other images of everyday African-American men with them. Now here are some living images for you. My immediate family has joined me today. My brother and his wife and my three nieces regret they couldn’t be here today-they were here all last week and flew back to Boston just on Friday.

My husband’s here, my mom, my dad here, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my nephew Carter.

Why are we all here? Because we’re all in this together.

My dad grew up 35 miles up route 5 from here. As a young boy he used to ride right past this college. The beautiful brick walls didn’t just frame the school, they served to keep people out. The Virginia government used to pay bright African-Americans to leave the state. They sent him to Meharry Medical School in Nashville, most likely hoping he would stay out. He didn’t. He came on back.

My mother is really wicked smart. She was selected from students around the south at age 16 to go do the very important job of integrating Vanderbilt University.

They met up out there in Tennessee, went up to Columbia in New York came back this way and started a medical practice and helped to revolutionize access to health care for minorities in this area. My favorite image of them is in the Richmond Magazine Top Docs issue as a medical mega couple and my mother’s jacket has butterflies all over it. Every time I think the next big thing is too daunting, I just keep those images of triumph in my head.

I only had a few days notice here and organization of paper is not my strong point, so when I find it, I’ll put the image on my website.

Hudleys in the New York Times. Photo by Eric Dobbs.

Hudleys in the New York Times. Photo by Eric Dobbs.

My favorite images of myself follow-with my husband Chris Hudley in the New York Times-my darling husband- the All-State football star and Army recruit turned child psychologist. Consummate class cupcake baker and the ultimate example of love triumphing over place, race, class, and time. When you’re sad and some silly girl or boy has done you wrong take a look at that image, and keep your eyes on the prize.

Renee Charity Price and Anne Charity Hudley at the African American Women’s Language Conference at the University of Texas-San Antonio

Renee Charity Price and Anne Charity Hudley at the African American Women’s Language Conference at the University of Texas-San Antonio

The next image is of my sister and me hard at work on a panel on African-American women’s language where we presented on the language of African-American girls-I have hundreds of favorite photos of my little sister, but this one is my favorite in particular because we are doing our thing. Renee is the chair of history department at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond where we attended. She understands the value of planting accurate historical images in girls’ minds at a time when their worldview is being formed.

So what about our own worldviews? The definition of images I like best relates to worldviews and is from the  root of the word- it comes through Middle English, from Anglo-French imaginer, from Latin imaginari, from imagine-, imago image-to imagine

So as my last set of images, I’d like to share with you what I imagine based on my first full year here teaching at William
and Mary:

I’ll keep the image simple so that you can see yourself and your friends and family coming up behind you in it:

Couple it with the amazing images of students that you’ve seen tonight here:

Images of all kinds of girls and boys growing up in places like Denbigh, Charles City, and New Kent, who don’t think twice about coming to William and Mary for College just like the conversations that the St. Catherine’s girls I went to school with used to have…

It’ll be so routine: Where are you going to College? William and Mary? Oh, that’s awesome, me too!

That student shouldn’t have to think twice about then coming here majoring in anything-English, Geology, Biology, Government, doing well, writing a thesis and graduating with honors then heading off to a graduate school to get them to the next level.

For my last image, I turn to the words of Nikki Giovanni -because as an English and Linguistics professor, words run through my mind- constant images in my head and because Prof. Giovanni is my hero-because Prof. Giovanni returned near her home to teach, she was there to help our fellow Virginia University heal from its darkest hour – and in that hour they turned not only to the physicians, engineers, and politicians but also to a poet- which is something I think about every day – that the pen is truly more mighty than the sword, or the gun, or the shattered dream -and also because tonight I am truly proud.


There is really only one thing to say to young writers:

Know who you are writing for and to.

I know I write for my Grandmother and the women of The Garden Club and the women of The Book Club and the women of The Missionary Society and the women who are the Usher Board and the women who cook for the Special Sundays and the women who cleaned the pastor’s house when his wife was in the hospital and all the women who picketed Rich’s Department Store and all the women who sacrificed to send money to Montgomery and especially all the women who cried when Emmett’s body was raised from the river and all the women who decried THIS could not and should not happen again.

Because knowing who you want to be proud of you can make all the difference in the world.

Not at all that I don’t want others to read my poems or essays. I really would like everyone to read or to hear me but I cannot really know what that will mean so I’ll just stick to what I do know.

I want my Grandmother and her friends to look back at my work and be pleased. I want the women who endured slavery and the black laws and all the dreams down the drain because their husbands were riddled with bullets and their sons were lynched and they knew that had to stand because if they didn’t stand then all that death was in vain. So I know only one thing:

It is important to know who you want to be proud of you.

And then you can know that you have done all you can do. And you can be proud of your work.

-Nikki Giovanni

Thank you.

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