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Kadir Nelson, We Are the Ship

Coretta Scott King Author Award Acceptance for We Are the Ship

By Kadir Nelson

It is such a thrill to be here in Chicago with you. This distinguished group of librarians, teachers, booksellers, and book lovers revere books for young people so passionately that every year you gather to celebrate your favorites with this early-morning and immensely heartwarming ceremony. I am deeply honored to be among those you have anointed, especially in a year with such historical significance as this fortieth anniversary of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards.

I was surprised and pleased to receive a call from the jury on that very early January morning with the news that I had been awarded the CSK Author Award (and an Illustrator Honor). Being primarily a painter, I was inclined to ask the jury, “Really? Are you sure?” I do not mean to say that I don’t think that I’m any good at writing. I mean, I got a solid B in my advanced English course in high school, and, believe me, I worked hard for that B. My teacher, Ms. Visconti, was tough — really tough. Some might even say she was mean. I can’t rightly say that I think she was mean as much as she was a stickler for quality. She merely demanded, above all, the best from her students — as every teacher should. So I was proud of myself for even being among those selected to be in her class. That is, until she handed out the first assignment and then the subsequent grades.

Up until that year, I had always been in standard English classes. Nothing special. I’d become accustomed to receiving a B for my most minimal efforts. But now I had been placed in a class where that would not do. I’d always thought of myself as a smart kid with a tendency to need a push every now and then to do my best work. Ms. Visconti would provide that push. My first effort at writing in her class was met with, shall I say, less than desirable results. The assigned essay I turned in wasn’t even worthy of a grade from Ms. Visconti. At the top of my paper she had written in bold red ink: “Not an essay.” Ouch. I was quite embarrassed. This was much too much for the young man to accept, so I approached Ms. Visconti and asked her to teach me how to write an essay, which she very kindly did — thus preparing me for successful careers in high school, college, and beyond. I’m thankful to Ms. Visconti because the skill of essay writing was what I built upon to write We Are the Ship, a book that would occupy almost eight years of my life.

I’ve often been asked why I chose to write the book both in the vernacular of a former baseball player and in a collective voice. The answer to this is simple: of all the historical literature I’d read in my life, the most compelling was written by those who had made and witnessed history firsthand. Now, anyone who has spoken to an African American elder about the past, particularly when it comes to slavery or segregation, knows how tight-lipped many of them can be. However, when it came to interviewing former Negro League ballplayers, it seemed as if there wasn’t enough time or enough words for them to describe what it was like to play baseball for a living during a time when the norm for most African American men was to work in a factory or in a field. It’s no big mystery as to why they were so inclined to share their stories. Those fellows made history and had a lot of fun doing it. They paved the way for so many who would in turn make their own history. Theirs is a great story, one that I felt compelled to share with others through my work. It’s a great story of perseverance, pride, determination, passion, and integrity.

For those who may not know, the Negro Leagues were born from the Jim Crow era in America, which grew out of the failed efforts of Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War. Every aspect of public American life was segregated, from restaurants to public transportation to libraries to, of course, major league baseball. Although there was no written rule that prohibited African Americans from playing in the major leagues, they were nonetheless barred as a result of a secret agreement among the team owners. So African Americans formed their own leagues — the Negro Leagues. The leagues would be home to great players and owners and would ultimately become one of the most successful African American–owned businesses in history up until that point. The Negro Leagues would also serve as a precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. A great story indeed.

The story ignited in me a spark, an inspiration to tell the story in a series of large paintings that could adorn gallery and museum walls. I painted one, then two, then six, then almost a dozen scenes from the Negro Leagues. I painted these works for the sheer joy of painting them and had no further plans for them. By mere chance, however, a few of the paintings landed in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and soon I was asked if I’d ever thought of publishing the images in a book. I thought it was a great idea and began to think about who could potentially write the manuscript. Surely it wouldn’t be me. I was a painter, not an author, and quite frankly I hadn’t any interest in writing a book. I thought I’d find a great writer like Walter Dean Myers or Julius Lester to pen the text. I was absolutely certain they’d have time for me in their schedules. However, Andrea Pinkney, my editor, was quick to share with me the fact that in all reality it might be a bit of a wait to get on their calendars, should they even be interested. At the time, I had but two books to my credit, and being young I didn’t really have the patience to wait several years for a writer to start on my book. I had a pretty good idea of the story that needed to be told and how I wanted to tell it. On a whim, I asked Andrea if perhaps I might try my hand at writing the manuscript. After all, the worst she could do was say no, which is honestly what I expected. To my great surprise she immediately accepted my offer to write the book. I was both flattered and petrified. How was I going to do this? Well, the only real feather I had in my cap was the skill of essay writing, and a well-earned B from Ms. Visconti. It was time to put that B to work.

A wonderful writer by the name of Nikki Giovanni once shared with me that there is no such thing as writer’s block, only a lack of information. Keeping this in mind, I read plenty of books about the Negro Leagues, interviewed former Negro League players, and consulted baseball museums and baseball historians, all in an attempt to gather as much information as I could. With both oil paints and the written word I wanted to paint a picture of the life of a Negro League baseball player, both on and off the field. I wanted to take readers on a journey to Kansas City, Missouri, during the roaring twenties; to the backcountry roads and welcoming small community barbecues of the deep South; to the expansive and red-hot baseball fields of Latin America; to the barbershops and small streets of Pittsburgh, recently hit by the Great Depression; to the crowded buses that would travel along unpaved roads throughout the American landscape. To do this I would need the help of a great many historians, curators, writers, and filmmakers as well as a very select group of fine gentlemen who were among those who made history on baseball diamonds all over our great country, and indeed the world. It was a journey that I began at the tender age of twenty-one as a single college student working in my cramped Pratt Institute dorm room in 1995 and completed thirteen years later at the not-so-tender age of thirty-four, now a husband and a father of two, in my cramped one-room studio in January 2007. It’s a journey that I will cherish for the rest of my life.

I would like to take a minute to acknowledge a few of the people who would both knowingly and unknowingly contribute to this journey. Former Negro Leaguers Frank Evans, my chief consultant Walter McCoy, and the late Buck O’Neil. Authors John B. Holway, Phil Dixon, and Robert Peterson; my hero of a filmmaker Ken Burns; and a tremendous patron and supporter, John Moores, former owner of the San Diego Padres.

I was also very fortunate to have the patience and good advice of several editors, notably Andrea Pinkney, Garen Thomas, Jaira Placide, and Donna Bray. I would like to thank you all for your tact and expertise in making me feel like I, too, could be an author, and for making this book one that I am remarkably proud of. I’d like to extend a special thank you to Andrea, who signed me up for this book way back in 2000. It’s so wonderful to come full circle and share this day with you.

I’d also like to thank all of my Disney family who put their hearts, minds, and muscle behind We Are the Ship, getting it into the hands of those who needed to see and share this book. Thank you to Jeanne Mosure, Jonathan Yaged, Deborah Bass, RasShahn Johnson-Baker, Lynn Waggoner, Scottie Bowditch, and Angus Killick. I would especially like to thank my brilliant art director, Anne Diebel, who designed the pants off of this book! Thank you for being so patient, so talented, so forgiving, and so delightful. Because of you, I never tire of looking at We Are the Ship. And a special thank you to my wife for putting up with all of the large canvases that sat in our living room for months on end while I finished the book, and my children for not damaging them. And lastly, I would like to thank the Coretta Scott King committee for recognizing a book that I put so much of my heart into. It’s so wonderful to see your two beautiful shiny stickers on the cover, because it would have been all too sad if it had instead read at the top of the cover, “Not a book.”

Thank you.

Kadir Nelson is the winner of the 2009 Coretta Scott King Author Award for We Are the Ship, published by Disney/Hyperion Books. His acceptance speech was delivered at the annual ALA conference in Chicago on July 14, 2009.

Originally published in the July/August 2009 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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