“Most folks my age and complexion don’t speak much about the past,” begins the unnamed narrator of this graceful and personalized overview of African American history. But this doesn’t stop her from telling the story in a sweeping account that succinctly covers history from the Colonial era to the present day. The aged woman tells of her own grandfather, who was captured in Africa at age six and illegally sold into slavery in 1850. From Pap’s story, we get a sense of what it was like to be a slave, a Union soldier, a sharecropper during Reconstruction, and a Buffalo soldier in Oklahoma; eventually he heads north to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. From there, the narrator takes over with her first-person account that includes the women’s suffrage movement, the Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement, and ends with the pride she felt voting for President Obama. “As I cast my vote, I thought about my grandfather Pap, who didn’t live to see this moment, and my three children and two brothers, who did.” As in We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (rev. 5/08), Nelson effectively creates a voice that is at once singular and representative. Each page of text is accompanied by a magnificent oil painting, most of which are moving portraits — some of famous figures such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, and Joe Louis; others of unnamed African Americans, such as a Revolutionary War soldier, a child cleaning cotton, and a factory worker. The illustrations (forty-seven in all, including six dramatic double-page spreads), combined with the narrative, give us a sense of intimacy, as if we are hearing an elder tell stories as we look at an album of family photographs. A tour de force in the career of an author/artist who continues to outdo himself.
From the November/December 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.