The Undefeated

Cover of The Undefeated“This is for the unforgettable / The swift and sweet ones / who hurdled history / and opened a world / of possible.” From the opening lines of Kwame Alexander’s poem, readers are invited on a journey. It is a journey through a people’s story — through the sorrows, triumphs, and resilience of the Black experience in America. In The Undefeated, Alexander pens an ode to the ancestors, foremothers and forefathers, barrier-breakers and martyrs, named and nameless, known and unknown. Solemn remembrance is not the sole theme here. There is pride. There is admiration. There is awe. There is gratitude. There is hope. The words soar and fall as the undulating rhythm lifts and carries the reader through time and space with the undefeated as our traveling companions.

While Alexander’s verse alone is extraordinarily powerful, when paired with two-time Caldecott-honored illustrator Kadir Nelson’s art, it becomes epic. Using oils on panel, Nelson renders a hero’s journey that has many heroes, all gazing larger-than-life from the pages with piercing eyes that command you to peer into them. There are no downtrodden, beaten-down expressions here: Every person, every face, every posture is meant to overwhelm the reader with beauty and awe. Nelson’s art elevates this poem to an exquisite love letter, as the spaces left by Alexander’s words are filled in by Nelson’s paintings. From the opening picture of Jesse Owens running, arms skyward, legs outstretched, muscles straining toward an unseen finish line; to a somber family portrait with beautiful, ebony faces emitting an almost angelic glow; to the picture of the hold of a slave ship that spans across the entire fold of the book, giving our eyes nowhere to look away from the horror; to the joy-filled rainbow of Black children on the final pages, Nelson communicates the inherent humanity of Black people. His imagery invites the reader into the story through realistic portraits that feel close enough to reach out and touch, while also giving them almost superhero status through the mere scale of the art. 

[Read the Horn Book Magazine review of The Undefeated]

Nelson’s artwork is also important in that the way he portrays his subjects is in direct opposition to how Black people have been historically portrayed. He does not shy away from the unambiguously Black features, deep skin tones, and tight-textured hair that are generally not embraced by American cultural and beauty standards. Here, the people are unapologetically Black. The faces and bodies depicted are almost hyper-realistic, communicating a need to re-paint a picture that has been historically distorted and inhumanely drawn — a reflection of a history that has been buried and often untold. This art bestows the Black face, the Black body, with something that has been and often still is withheld: dignity. Every mouth is not curled into a smile. All eyes are not happy. However, every face radiates humanity.   

This is high art in every sense, but with a purposeful and unstuffy intent. Two masters — Kwame Alexander with the deft stroke of a pen, and Kadir Nelson with the deft stroke of a paintbrush — have created an achingly, gorgeous book with a singular message: You are beautiful. You are unstoppable. You matter.

Monique Harris

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist and independent educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Education from Simmons University, and is enrolled in a PhD program at Florida State University.

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