Painter and children’s book illustrator Kadir Nelson has long created images of the African-American experience. But his first self-authored children’s book (he has illustrated others prior to this), Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, takes the African-American story on, full force.
The Society of Illustrators in Manhattan is currently exhibiting 40 original oil paintings from Nelson’s 108-page book, making this one of his most ambitious projects thus far. His large-scale, richly colored paintings have that timeless quality of being able to genuinely connect the viewer with the life of the subjects, reminiscent of illustrators like Norman Rockwell and Dean Cornwell.
The book, featuring vivid and wholesome illustrations, tells virtually the entire history of America and African-Americans through the oral recollection of a fictional 100-year-old woman.
“The narrator is a nameless everywoman character, an elder woman speaking to the reader as the grandchild listening to his or her great-grandmother or grandmother,” said Nelson in a phone interview.
He hopes that through reading a recollection of these fictional characters’ family history, children’s curiosity will reignite the oral history that may have been lost, and they will gain an appreciation for how far Americans in general, and African-Americans in particular, have come in the fight for freedom and equal rights.
The narrator begins with the recollection of the last African-born slave in her family—Pap, who emancipated himself—through whom she tells the slave experience. Then she tells the story of the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers, and the great migration into northern cities and subsequent labor disputes.
She tells the story of her own experience of the two world wars, the Civil Rights movement, and right up to the 2008 election, when she cast her ballot for the first black president.
“It’s a large story to tell,” Nelson admits. “I can’t hit everything in 100 pages, but I picked points that are relevant to families—points that they can pick out from the large brushstrokes of American history.”
Like the children for whom this book is intended, Nelson learned in the course of interviewing his family and friends of myriad true events that happened to his predecessors. These included a few subtle ways that the nation’s history had imprinted itself on his family’s daily life.
For instance, Nelson was celebrating New Year’s Day one year at a girlfriend’s house, where he was served black-eyed peas, a customary food for the holiday among African-Americans. Nelson’s family never followed this custom, and when he brought up this observation with his family, he learned why.
“The last slave in my family remembered that on every New Year’s Day, the slaves were made to eat black-eyed peas out of a horse’s trough, like animals.” Nelson recalls being told. “So he made the declaration that no one in his family would ever celebrate the New Year in that way.”
This anecdote and several like it, drawn from the histories of Nelson’s relatives and friends, are peppered through the fictional matriarch’s tale.
While the text itself is advanced (it reads like an illustrated chapter book), the story is suitable for all ages, Nelson says. “There are parts of history that are not pretty, but I try to address them with honesty and sweetness to make it more palatable,” he said.
“For a long time, elders didn’t share that part of history with children. They didn’t want to pass on any shame or embarrassment. But as time went by, [the work of people like] Michele Norris of (National Public Radio) and the election of President Obama became launch points for people to tell these stories.”
While at first glance Heart and Soul is a book about an African-American family written for African-American children, it really is a book for all America.
Nelson remembers speaking to an older African-American woman right after Barack Obama won the presidency. She had been chatting with a white college student who told her that he didn’t see why the election of a black president is “a big deal.”
Although Nelson recognizes that the college student’s statement reflects how far society has come since the days of living under the Jim Crow segregation laws, he believes that forgetting the past isn’t a good idea.
“It’s good that Jim Crow didn’t leave a mark on him, but he was unable to appreciate the moment because of a lack of understanding of history,” Nelson remarked.
“I don’t want to make people feel bad, but I don’t want the history of African-Americans to be lost either.”
Heart and Soul has already won numerous awards. Some of Nelson’s other books include the just published I Have a Dream, an illustrated volume of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech, and Nelson Mandela, which is due out in January.
The Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators exhibits “Heart and Soul” until Oct. 20. For more about the gallery and book, visit www.societyillustrators.org
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