Profile of 2019 CSK Author Award winner Claire Hartfield

Claire Hartfield is a storyteller. It might be fair to say that she is a born storyteller, just-right words flowing through her pen with ease, creating images that allow her readers to see, to hear, even to breathe just as Claire did while writing. This gift might have come to Claire as an inherited one, passed down, like a relay runner’s baton, through many generations. Certainly it has been strengthened and honed by a lifelong commitment to research, to getting the facts right, to telling the truth.

Claire Hartfield came into the world of writing as part of a long and proud history of women writers. Her family has documented its roots back to the mid-nineteenth century and can confirm that she comes from at least four generations of women who were compelled to tell their own stories and those of their families and neighbors. To begin with the nearest generation of Claire’s family storytellers: her mother, Ronne, is a published author whose dinner-table stories about her global work among artists in the museum world inspired Claire’s first book, Me and Uncle Romie. That beautifully illustrated tale (with pictures by Jerome Lagarrigue) is based on the life of acclaimed visual artist Romare Bearden. It is a story of a little boy and a long journey by train, a tale that had particular resonance for Claire, drawing upon recollections of her own first solo train ride as a small girl. She has said that the memories came up on their own, seemingly out of nowhere, but brought back the anxieties she had experienced sitting by herself on the train, feelings of fear that gradually gave way to a sense of her own personal power as she realized her ability to look around, to take in the landscape and the people, the sounds and smells, and sift through them all by herself. Part of what the book is about is how children can grow into a sure sense of the value of their own perception of their worlds. Both the boy in the story, and the girl who grew up to be the writer of his story, came to trust their own thinking and to find their own voices.

There are important learnings in personal histories, many passed on in tales that have never been written down. Claire’s maternal grandmother, Dearest (but always called Day), whose vivid recollections inspired her granddaughter’s latest book, lacked the formal education to publish her stories. Indeed, she had no intention of doing so. For her, born in the rural Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century, storytelling meant just sitting around a kitchen table, with the youngest children on her lap and the older ones at her knee, laughing and talking about the way things were when she was growing up, the way the world was, how different and yet how much the same. Those times around the kitchen table were irreplaceable for all of them.

Day’s mother, Neeley, died in childbirth at a very young age, so it was especially important that Day’s grandmother, Emmaline, and great-grandmother, Martha, kept Neeley’s stories alive for her small children. Those few but significant tales were passed on by these two strong and lively women — passing on memories of the jubilation at the end of the Civil War, the scary but thrilling challenges their people faced at the end of slavery times. Both women served as letter-writers for neighbors and workers in their community, where so many had no opportunity to learn to read or write. Emmaline was a fine-sewing seamstress who was called upon to create ball gowns and wedding dresses for the local gentry. Her mother Martha was not only literate — however rare for that time and place — but also literary. It is said that she embellished the plainspoken messages of those who came to her for help, creating gratifying verbal flourishes that improved the letter-writers’ reputations among their Northern relatives.

So it is no surprise that Claire grew up with her own mission to tell stories, and to tell them right and true. As a little girl, she wrote her early tales in pencil, on lined paper, in careful penmanship. She proudly brought home her papers from school, with stories about family car trips, about her first airplane trip to Georgia — visiting cousins, seeing Stone Mountain and the home of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. A little later, she would write more complicated pieces, experimenting with elaborate cursive letters, writing in slim private books with grand cover pages that were designed with the shiny new ballpoint pens she got for her birthday. One, still saved in a file somewhere, was called “Ballet Is Fun Work,” sharing the complexity of both the discipline required in the dance classes she loved and her joy in mastering the most demanding pirouettes.

A family reunion in Scottsdale, Arizona, circa 1999. Photo courtesy of Claire Hartfield.

In college, growing into her craft, she kept writing, now working on an electric typewriter, with one important paper researching the background of the celebrated Brown v. Board of Education court case that ended segregation in public schools. Inspired by the life of famous civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who led the legal team on that case, Claire decided to become a lawyer herself.

But she never stopped writing. Even after getting married and working hard as a lawyer, which meant studying other people’s stories, using every ounce of intelligence she could bring to bear to locate the significant kernel of truth in each one. Even as a busy young mother of little girls (first one, then two, then three!). Still, Claire found time to write stories, tapping them out on her laptop computer. Sometimes these were simply journal entries, documenting incidents in the life of her growing family. Sometimes they were letters, sharing the enormous excitement of traveling in a foreign country for the first time, with new languages, new sights, new things to eat and drink; accounts of adventures with a sister or with her husband.

Claire has written maybe-someday-to-be-published stories as well as more personal ones that document ordinary days as lived, perhaps to be shared with family or friends at a later time. There are also serious writing projects that have yet to be formally published, including one about a little girl who takes ballet classes and ends up dancing on a big stage at a downtown theater. This is a true story, testifying to the anxiety and fear that a little girl would feel in such a circumstance. Many girls and boys could find themselves in these pages and be encouraged to persist in their efforts to overcome obstacles along the way. Authentic narratives can teach without punishing demands, can break through barriers in traditional curricula, can give flesh to barely articulated dreams.

Which brings us to Claire Hartfield’s newest book. The powerful historical narrative passed on to today’s readers in A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 is the best kind of storytelling, by a master storyteller whose writerly gifts have come to light in her own unique tale.

This is a story of a national tragedy, with permanent cultural ramifications and also with deep personal and individual meanings. It is a story told with a commitment to illuminate the multiple human stories that came together in the explosive heat of one Chicago summer. The author affirms a writer’s obligation to tell the truth, however complex its realities. The tale she tells exposes the weakness and weariness inherent in the human condition but also illuminates the astonishing strength and courage of people in the darkest of circumstances. It is a history lesson of the best kind, one that, in its truth-telling, has the potential to preserve the kinds of moral values that have sustained generations. This writer’s personal history is nurtured by a rich multigenerational heritage — mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother — many of whom lived through dark and treacherous times as soul-destroying as the Chicago race riot of 1919. They survived. Claire Hartfield will continue to tell stories, theirs and her own, and the lessons from those lives, like those between the pages of A Few Red Drops, are to be read and learned from, to serve this nation and its people as both caution and celebration.

Claire Hartfield is the winner of the 2019 Coretta Scott King Author Award for A Few Red Drops: The Chicago Race Riot of 1919, published by Clarion Books. From the July/August 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2019.
Ronne Hartfield
Ronne Hartfield is the mother of Claire Hartfield and the author of Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family.

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