Review of The Undefeated

The Undefeated
by Kwame Alexander; illus. by Kadir Nelson
Primary, Intermediate, Middle School     Versify/Houghton     40 pp.    g
4/19     978-1-328-78096-6     $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-05761-1     $12.99

Alexander and Nelson honor the achievements, courage, and perseverance of ordinary black people as well as prominent black artists, athletes, and activists. The free-verse poem begins: “This is for the unforgettable. / The swift and sweet ones / who hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible. The ones who survived / America / by any means necessary. / And the ones who didn’t.” While some events (e.g., the transatlantic slave trade) are “unspeakable,” Alexander’s words convey a sense of pride at what his “unflappable” and “unafraid” ancestors have accomplished and continue to do despite racial oppression. He incorporates the words of black icons (such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) and movements (Black Lives Matter), creating a through-line from past to present. Nelson’s paintings effectively use white space to extend the text and amplify its meaning. For example, the image of enslaved people on ships shows the figures in cramped quarters — a double-page spread compact with black bodies; while what accompanies the text for “the ones who didn’t [survive]” is simply two blank pages. The realistic oil paintings convey racial oppression in the past (black-and-white images of the four little girls who were killed during the church bombing in Birmingham) and present (full-color paintings of African Americans killed recently by police) — demonstrating that racism remains deeply entrenched in America today. Nelson depicts numerous famous people whom adults and children may recognize, from Billie Holiday to LeBron James, as well as others (Sarah Vaughan, Romare Bearden) whose faces and stories they may not know. The book concludes with an afterword by Alexander and an annotated list of historical figures and events featured in The Undefeated.

From the March/April 2019 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jonda C. McNair

Jonda C. McNair
Jonda C. McNair is a professor of literacy education at Clemson University in South Carolina. She is a past chair of the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and a member of the 2019 Randolph Caldecott Award Selection Committee.

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