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Roger Sutton: Your new book, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, weaves together historical facts — about slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation, real people like Rosa Parks and Dr. King—with the stories of the relatives of your fictional narrator. It must have been quite complicated to do. What was your entry point?
Kadir Nelson: Initially it was overwhelming; it was a huge amount of history to cover. The narrator was the key to distilling it, because she could make it very intimate. I wanted to tell this great American story as if it were a story, not a series of facts. When I began, I thought the book would be narrated by this ancient voice from across the ocean, maybe an ancient African spirit. It was very broad and nebulous, but as I started to shape the voice, it became something more specific, the voice of an African American woman who was a little over a hundred years old. I found that she could talk about people in her family — not only herself, but her grandfather, great-grandfather, her ancestors. I figured I could have these relatives touch different parts of American history. She could talk about the last slave in her family, for example, and how when he became free he fought in the Civil War and then went out West as a buffalo soldier. Later the family would all move up from the South to the North, the Great Migration. She could have relatives in the great World Wars, and she could talk about her personal experience as an African American experiencing the civil rights movement. I could address the significance of it all in a very intimate, personal way. I wanted the book to read and feel like this narrator, this elderly woman, was inviting a young child to sit on her lap, saying, “Let me tell you this story as I remember it.”
RS: What I like is that you don’t make her into Forrest Gump. She doesn’t run into all these historical people. Just enough to be convincing, to sort of ground her in history. But you don’t get a lot of unlikely “so then I was walking down the street and I saw Rosa Parks coming in the other direction.”
KN: Right. And I made a choice not to show the narrator’s face, except when she was a little girl, as a photograph. You see her from behind, and you see her hands at the end, but she’s part of that anonymous group of people that we don’t hear or read about. But her and her family’s contributions to the formation of the country and to the character of America are just as important as those by people we do read about.
RS: In researching this book, what was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered?
KN: When relatives and friends talked about the last slave in their families, they knew their names or they could describe them. My aunt’s aunt remembered that the name of the last slave in her family was Pap. I was so pleased that she remembered his name. And it was such a great name. Very sweet. Hearing those personal accounts really helped bring that part of history alive for me.
RS: Did you find that writing this book gave you a new connection to your family?
KN: It helped to open up a dialogue, because in African American culture, details about slavery were not shared openly or willingly very often. I addressed those historical taboos because they’re a blemish on our national character. You hear it over and over again, that this was a country that promoted its freedoms, yet a large part of the population was enslaved.
RS: It’s also an integral part of the history. It’s not like we were a great country but had this nasty habit of slavery. As your book points out, in many ways, slavery built this country.
KN: We became a great country because we had slaves.
RS: I love those two pages in the book where on the left side you have a picture of a really inviting walk down to a plantation house. You just want to get on that path and walk to that beautiful house. And facing that illustration is information about just why the house is so beautiful: slave labor. I thought it captured the irony really well.
KN: I knew I wanted to visually show the irony of a country that was free yet held a number of its people enslaved. Another way I did this was to show this proud president, George Washington, sitting on his horse, and his slave standing next to him, holding his hat.
RS: That painting is interesting for a lot of reasons. It looks like eighteenth-century classical portrait painting. The mood is pastoral. There’s this nice light that’s glinting right off of George’s face, with the black groom in shadow next to him. But it’s a very peaceful-looking painting.
KN: That’s part of the paradox. And if you look at the image of the slave ship, it’s a beautiful day, and yet you see what’s going on in the image, and that’s not so beautiful. It was that juxtaposition I was aiming for.
RS: So many of these paintings look like you started with the sky as your canvas. The first thing I noticed about the book was how much use you made of the sky in conveying the mood of a painting or commenting upon text. Like the picture of the young slave boy, young Pap. Here he is barely clothed, but it’s a beautiful day. That painting is two-thirds sky, at least.
KN: The sky helps tell the story. It adds emotion to the image. The intense, saturated blue sky complements the intensity of the look of the boy. If you look at his countenance, he’s a little boy, but he’s a little man. He has kind of an old spirit. Or if you look at illustrations like the slave ship where there’s a dark cloud hanging overhead, or, say, the image of Harriet Tubman, where there’s a really emotional sky behind her, I’m using the sky to add to the emotion of the subject.
RS: There’s also a sense in so many of these pictures that we’re looking up, we’re looking up at the central figure. In the Frederick Douglass picture we’re looking up at him and he has something of that same look in his eye as young Pap does in his picture — determination and strength. But by the time Douglass is here the clouds have rolled in behind him. You know, heavy weather ahead. And then you turn to the next page, and the clouds are even bigger, with Harriet Tubman. It’s a very capital-R romantic ideal, this marriage of subject and setting. The way those are integrated throughout the book is one of its achievements.
KN: You touch on something that was very intentional when it comes to the style of the art, specifically of the image of George Washington or the woman sitting in the pile of cotton. I’m drawing on historical sources, whether they’re old daguerreotypes or classical American paintings, images by Thomas Eakins or Frederic Remington, for example. The style was a conscious choice. I’m really glad that you picked up on it.
RS: I like the portrait of the Revolutionary War soldier, where again we have that determined look staring out at us from the page, but the landscape is very eighteenth-century American.
KN: I wanted to present images from American history that we’ve never seen. We’ve never seen an African American Revolutionary soldier in that way.
RS: Painted in that heroic manner.
KN: Right. We’ve seen images and engravings of battle scenes but nothing that would present the subject with as much reverence. That’s what I was aiming for. Even with the image of young Pap. We’ve seen pictures of children who were slaves but not with that much power. Or presence.
RS: And intimacy. So many of the images we see of people who weren’t famous in those times, like — I’m not talking about the Washingtons and the Lincolns. But historical people. We look at them at a distance and say, “Oh, so that’s what people looked like in the nineteenth century. That’s what a slave looked like.” Whereas Pap looks like an individual.
KN: Right. With a character and a spirit.
RS: The double-page spread of Fort Wagner, 1863, that’s the little-boy page to me. This is the one that the boys in the library are all going to open up to and not be able to take their eyes off of. It’s really an amazing painting.
KN: Oh, thank you. I worked on that for months. I wanted it to have that intimate feeling as if you were right there with those soldiers on the beach storming that fort. And I wanted you to see the powder, the smoke from the cannon blasts, and their muskets, and the sand being sprayed as bullets were hitting them, coming off of the boots of a soldier. I wanted you to be in that scene.
RS: The color is just stunning — I mean, there are seventeen shades of blue here, sparked by the yellow flaring from those cannons. And then the smoke misting over. I asked you what you had learned about history from writing this book. What did you learn about painting from illustrating this book?
KN: I was employing a new technique that I hadn’t necessarily used before. Going along with that juxtaposition of freedom and slavery, I’m playing with the juxtaposition of a very cool palette versus a very warm palette. For instance, there’s an image of two men who are out of work during the Great Depression. The men are standing in shade, and they’re illuminated mostly from the top, from the blue of the sky, as well as the light that’s coming up from the reflected sunlight that’s hitting the sidewalk in front of them.
RS: At the bottom of the painting, just a little sliver of it.
KN: It’s a very small part of the painting, but it’s so important, because it creates a space, a dimension between. I’m playing with the warm sunlight versus the cool hues within that shaded area.
RS: Then you turn the page to see Joe Louis on top of the world.
KN: That’s what he was. He was a very powerful and a very good-looking person, and he was also a hero according to many, which is why he’s portrayed sitting on top of the world in Harlem, New York City.
RS: But very human at the same time. It must have been hard in this book to resist over-heroizing these people, particularly the real people, to keep them on a human scale.
KN: Well, one way is to present them from a perspective where you are looking up at them, but to show their humanity in their expressions and in their eyes. They’re heroic but also very human.
RS: It’s not an easy thing that you’ve done here. How are you going to top this one, Kadir?
KN: That’s a good question. That’s what I ask myself every day. I don’t know. It all depends on where I am spiritually, and that’s what will determine which way I go next. It’s a matter of turning that into something that’s tangible and not didactic. Where I’m not preaching to the choir but —
RS: Not preaching, period.
KN: Not preaching at all, yeah.