The 54th annual NAACP Image Awards were held last week, and among the big winners was a Memphis-born but D.C.-based author and creative writing professor at American University.
Dolen Perkins-Valdez won an NAACP Image Literary Award for her novel “Take My Hand,” her first win after a previous nomination for her 2011 novel “Wench.” BET only televises eight categories, so her literature category was revealed in a virtual ceremony earlier in the week.
“At the time, I was on a flight, and I thought I could get Wi-Fi on the flight, but I couldn’t — I could only text message,” Perkins-Valdez told WTOP. “All of my friends and family started texting me saying, ‘You won!’ I thought it was a joke, but then I realized it was real, so as soon as I landed, I immediately connected to the Wi-Fi to see the announcement myself!”
The novel is based on the tragic true story of Minnie Lee and Mary Alice Relf, two sisters in Montgomery, Alabama, who were sterilized by a federally-funded family-planning clinic.
“The sisters, at age 12 and 14, were sterilized without the family’s consent,” Perkins-Valdez said. “The nurses came to their house on a June morning in 1973 and did not explain to their parents, who were both illiterate, why they were taking them. They thought they were taking them for birth control, but they took them to the hospital and permanently sterilized them.”
In the novel, the story follows the fictional Civil Townsend, who is fresh out of nursing school and works at the Montgomery Family Planning Clinic with the Relf sisters as her patients.
“I used this novel as a way to ask and answer my own questions about how did we as a society and we as individuals allow this to happen and how did the nurses live with themselves in the aftermath of that?” Perkins-Valdez said. “This happened to tens of thousands of women, primarily poor women of color, but also to poor white women all over the country.”
As we spoke on Wednesday, Perkins-Valdez was actually visiting Montgomery, Alabama, to honor the Relf sisters, who are both still alive and still live together as best friends.
“The mayor of Montgomery issued a proclamation on their behalf — and they were delighted,” Perkins-Valdez said. “My call to action to the readers today is that these women have never received a presidential apology. My hope is that we can all raise our voices to the rooftops to demand that the federal government and the president deliver a presidential apology.”
Her co-winner this year is Viola Davis for her autobiography, “Finding Me.”
“If anyone knows Viola, I’d love to talk to her about adapting the book,” Perkins-Valdez said.