By Kadir Nelson
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be here with you to celebrate the work of African American authors and illustrators whose books have been chosen as the best of the best of 2011. I feel privileged to share the company of esteemed peers whom I have long admired.
I have always considered myself a painter, and have only recently begun to don the hat of an author. So I feel all the more honored to be recognized for my writing efforts by the Coretta Scott King committee. To have my work acknowledged by librarians who link good books with avid readers thrills me beyond measure. Thank you all for serving our youth in this noble way.
For much of my life and career I have been engaged in the pursuit of truth — about myself, about my family, about those whose histories bear similarities to my own. The African American story was one that most resonated with me and became my primary focus. For most Americans, this piece of history has often sat in the shadows, left to be discovered only by those whose curiosity would lead them to search deeper, beyond the generic survey of history we are generally fed in our classrooms. I knew the American and African American stories only as well as most Americans, and having both African and European blood in my veins, I felt a strong pull to learn them on a deeper, more personal level. American history is often presented in a one-dimensional, picturesque, and patriotic fashion that leaves students with a rather lacking impression of the African American story. This was certainly my experience. However, as I took on projects that expanded my understanding of American history, I discovered that the “sidebar” treatment of African American history was inaccurate and gravely inadequate.
This became crystal-clear to me during a visit to the United States Capitol building in Washington, DC, in 2008. Displayed inside the building’s famous rotunda are several large paintings that were created to tell the story of how America was founded. There are images of gallant soldiers on battlefields, our proud forefathers signing the Declaration of Independence, the end of the American Revolution, and so on. These massive paintings are filled with an all-star cast of early Americans, Europeans, and Native Americans. They are quite striking and beautiful. However, just as striking is the fact that there are no representations of African Americans. Not one. For those who know better, this omission and the reason for it is obvious. The stain of slavery and its integral part in America’s story might provoke questions about a proud country that was founded on the premise of freedom and yet held a large segment of its inhabitants in bondage. And rather than expose this paradox and inconvenient truth, the artists decided to — or were instructed to — simply leave it out.
I wondered what the psychological impact of such a slight would be upon the multitudes of children who visit the Capitol building every year. I concluded that it would make them feel the way I felt: that my story and that of my ancestors didn’t matter. As a result of my visit, I resolved to delve into that story, find my place in it, and share it through my work.
I began by looking no further than my own proverbial doorstep: I called my grandmother. For many years she and most of my elders were tight-lipped about the past — and for good reason. There are dark parts of American history that can be a heavy burden on young ears, and my elders were careful about what they shared so as not to weigh us down with grievances. However, I think that as time passed, stories that had been considered shameful began to lose their bite. In 2010, Michele Norris from NPR’s All Things Considered noted that with the joyful election of Barack Obama, elder African Americans felt a bit safer to share their stories. I tend to agree with her. The struggles of our ancestors seemed to have served a purpose and found relevance with the election of one of America’s darker sons.
And so my grandmother shared her story with me. She spoke about her husband, my grandfather, whom I never met; about her father; and about the last slave in our family, a man who refused to celebrate New Year’s Day with the traditional meal of black-eyed peas because of a painful childhood association. I found that by learning her previously untold story, I was able to put our family story into greater context. I began to interview other family members and friends. I heard tales of great world wars, labor disputes, factory accidents, and civil rights demonstrations. It was through these stories and history that the larger American story came alive. It’s one thing to read a history book filled with names, dates, and facts, but it is entirely another to hear these stories directly from people who lived them. For me that is the most compelling way to learn and share history.
As an artist, my primary means of telling stories has almost always been through paintings. Although the story of Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans is shared through the spoken word, the visual story here is just as important. Heart and Soul is illustrated with more than forty original paintings, many of which are reminiscent of old family photos and early American art. As with any other project that is dear to my heart, I took great care to create artwork that is consistent with the power and grace of the story. I planned, as I had with my last series, to create large paintings that could fill each spread and eventually museum walls. However, as my deadline approached, those paintings grew smaller and smaller — but only in size. Some of the images have painted frames around them, which serve as a metaphor: this massive American story is literally “framed” by the intimate family story of the narrator. We purposely gave the cover of the book the appearance of an old family album or scrapbook for the same reason. It is a humble entreaty to readers to pick up this book and run their fingers over the cover. An experience that no e-book can ever offer. As picture books are often the very first encounter that children have with art, I feel that we, as creators of illustrated books, owe it to them to make it a meaningful one.
Now, as a youth, I was not a lover of history, nor was I a big fan of reading. So it is not a little ironic that I would grow up to become an author who writes about history.
My mother can tell you that it was quite the chore to get me to read as a child. And surely getting me to read about history was an even greater task. Every author knows that the prerequisite to being an author is to read — a lot. I was not interested in that assignment, and yet I really loved to listen to stories. I would soon make the connection that history can be looked at as a string of personal stories.
It wasn’t until I reached the tenth grade that I read a book I couldn’t put down: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It would spur me on to become a lover of nonfiction and biographies. As a result of that experience, I looked forward with excitement to finding the next great book, the next great story.
Shortly after having published my first book as an author/illustrator, and almost twenty years after reading Malcolm X’s autobiography, that story would present itself to me inside the rotunda of our nation’s Capitol building, and from the recollections of my grandmother, my mother, aunts, uncles, and dear friends. I would construct a narrative that spoke to the individual and collective stories of families like mine, and then weave them into the greater context of the American story. America is a very large family, made up of millions of smaller families. All of which have their own stories to tell, and, when combined, tell the larger history with which we are all familiar.
Heart and Soul is a historical document that tells the story of America through the recollections of a century-old African American woman whose family story is closely tied to the greater American story. Her words and style of speech are reminiscent of both my grandmother, Verlee Gunter-Moore, who speaks with honesty and directness, and a sweet Texan by the name of Debbie Allen. Together their voices are merged into one very warm and sincere narrator who tells her story as though she were grandmother to us all.
Heart and Soul is not the definitive history of America and African Americans, but rather a starting point, a launching pad for readers of all ages to uncover the truth for themselves, so that when they sit in their classrooms or visit our national monuments and museums, they will understand that their stories do, in fact, matter. For we are all our nation’s heart and soul. Thank you.
Kadir Nelson is the winner of the 2012 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Children’s Books. His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual ALA conference in Anaheim, California, on June 24, 2012. From the July/August 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.