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Free Speech Award

This fall Sean and I received the NAIBA Carla Cohen Free Speech Award for The Case for Loving. Last year's recipient was Judy Blume! Wow. She is my literally my literary idol. There are no words. Well, maybe a few. Here is my acceptance speech from the banquet in Sommerset NJ on October 3rd ...

NAIBA Carla Cohen Free Speech Award

October 3, 2015

By Selina Alko

When I met and fell in love with chocolate brown Sean at a wedding in the Catskills in 1999, I jumped in blind.

I grew up an artistic child in Canada with open-minded parents who sent me to a progressive Jewish, social-justice type of summer camp. But even with this upbringing, being in an interracial couple has opened my eyes in many new and surprising ways.

I didn’t realize that having peachy white skin color gave me so many privileges. The most basic being, that I can feel invisible in a crowd if I want to. I wrongly assumed that because we’re both artists, and good people, that we should move through the world with the same ease. Some might call this colorblind.

I didn’t want us to be different! For years I insisted Sean should feel as free as I did walking down the street. But, what I’ve grown to understand is that while my Jewish history remains just that; history, for Sean, the legacy of slavery and the ways racism permeates his world, is something he carries with him everywhere he goes.

Despite - or perhaps because of - our differences, we got married in 2003. As our careers making children’s books grew along with our family, (we had two kids), I began to look at things more closely. I began to look at the history of slavery and civil rights.

I became interested in investigating the relatively recent story of Richard and Mildred Loving. It is the story of how in Virginia in 1958 two people in love (one white and one black – just like me and Sean), were arrested for being married. The Lovings were courageous enough to fight for what they believed was their human right; the right to be married. By the time they took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won, it was 1967–– the same year that my parents got married in Canada.

Through researching and writing the Lovings’ story I gained a better understanding of the complexities of my own marriage.

In order for the story to be more authentic as a picture book, I was hoping that Sean would help me illustrate it. We had wanted to find a project to collaborate on and this seemed the perfect opportunity. Fortunately, Sean agreed to do it–– and so we began figuring out a way to marry our art styles. Three years later, The Case for Loving was born.

When I found out we were being given the Carla Cohen NAIBA free speech award for The Case for Loving, I was overjoyed and eager to spread the news! Naturally, I posted it on Facebook. A friend of mine, with whom I worked at a Jewish summer camp in Maryland decades ago, responded by saying, “you know the award is named after Eve Cohen’s mom, don’t you?” I jogged my memory, and it turns out that Eve – my friend’s good friend still - worked at camp with us that same summer. How amazing to realize that Eve’s mother, Carla Cohen, was such an incredible champion of independent bookstores and free speech. It blows me away that I am now receiving an award in Eve’s mother’s honor.

I feel like my life has come full circle. From my journey as an artistic child going to a progressive Jewish summer camp, to my adult life in an interracial marriage, raising biracial, interfaith children, making children’s books that champion civil rights, all leading up to this award for free speech.

Thank you NAIBA, so very much, for this incredible honor.

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