Read Kadir Nelson's 2020 Coretta Scott King Book Award Illustrator Acceptance Speech at ALA's Virtual Book Award Celebration

Good morning, or good afternoon, or good evening, depending on when or where in the world you are reading this. As I compose this speech, I am sitting at home under a nationwide quarantine in the midst of the proliferation of a remarkable novel virus that has commandeered the attention of the entire globe and forced many of us around the world to distance ourselves from each other in an attempt to slow its spread. Among the millions of my fellow brethren, I remain sheltered at home busying myself with numerous tasks while carefully looking after myself and loved ones as we all adjust to a new way of life for the time being.

Photo: George LaRoache.

Considering this crucial moment, while I’m truly grateful to be bestowed with praise for The Undefeated, it somehow feels a bit frivolous to celebrate a literary milestone that seems to pale in comparison to the huge challenges that we are currently facing. As I look around the country and the globe, many of our lives have come to a screeching halt. Schools, museums, galleries, and libraries have closed their doors, as have restaurants and department stores. Professional sports have canceled their seasons, conferences have been canceled or postponed, and only essential businesses remain open for the time being. Being faced with these very abrupt changes has encouraged me to take an inventory of my life and be grateful for what and whom I have close to me. Although the country is mostly closed for business, I’m quite delighted to see that writers, dancers, musicians, and artists have offered online classes and instruction for kids and adults, and that many readers around the U.S. and the globe have taken the opportunity to fill their newly found abundance of free time with creative tasks, even picking up books to catch up on some much-needed reading.

As an artist and an author, my life hasn’t changed all that much. I’ve always worked at home in my private studio, often in solitude for long blocks of time drawing, painting, researching, or writing, utilizing skills that are quite useful while the world is operating as usual. But at the moment, the world is anything but “operating as usual.” While many of us contemplate our new quarantined realities, I’m confronted with considering my place in the world as a creative entity. As we consider the present moment, I feel more than ever that no time is better suited for using our creativity to spread and make something beautiful and share it with the world, a practice I learned from my mother at an early age. And as we confront our new reality for the foreseeable future, I am reminded that throughout the course of history, there have been many creative souls among us who, with their pencils and paintbrushes and quills and paper and buoyed by their imaginations and well-crafted words and images, have made it their purpose to document our shared experiences, helped make sense of our ever-changing world, and inspired us to continue to dream and keep moving forward.

Artist Henry Ossawa Tanner shared his soulful graces with his blessed painting The Thankful Poor; Martin Luther King Jr. showed us a path forward with his “I Have a Dream” speech; Alex Haley and Toni Morrison showed America itself with their groundbreaking novels Roots and Beloved; Maya Angelou, Ntozake Shange, and Nikki Giovanni bared their souls with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and For Colored Girls… and “Nikki-Rosa”; Marvin Gaye showed us the world with his soulful What’s Going On album; President Barack Obama inspired us with his speech “Change Has Come”; Pablo Picasso, Norman Rockwell, and Charles White documented the absurdity of war and racism and the beauty of the human soul with Guernica, Golden Rule and The Four Freedoms, and Folksinger. The list goes on. As far back as we can remember, great artists and writers have inspired us to take an honest look at ourselves, and with eloquent words and images have encouraged empathy, understanding, and hope for the path forward.

When I consider their contributions to the global community, I’m inspired to continue writing, painting, and illustrating, and creating works of art that contribute to the health and well-being of the planet and for all of us who inhabit it. As I reflect upon the present moment, I don’t think there has ever been a more important time to celebrate literature and the arts and the dreamers who inspire us to sing, dance, paint, write, and create.

For now, it may seem frightening and uncertain. But, as I consider the history of the world and our country, I’m reminded that we’ve been here before. Our parents, their parents, and all of our ancestors who came before us have faced very challenging times in their lifetimes. The “swift and sweet ones,” the “unlimited, / unstoppable ones,” the “righteous marching ones,” the “undeniable” and “unflappable” ones, the “unafraid,” and the “dreamers / and doers” — and all of the brave individuals that Kwame Alexander so brilliantly writes about in The Undefeated. We as a people have faced the unspeakable, survived the unmentionable, and triumphed over the unfathomable.

As a global community, as a country, as a people, we must remember where we’ve come from, and be grateful for all of those who faced down adversity and lifted us up so that we may see the light of tomorrow. Nothing is promised to us, but while we’re here, let us continue to celebrate one another. Shine a light on all that is good in us, and work to brighten the dimmer places in our hearts and minds so that we may find peace in ourselves and with one another.

As for The Undefeated, I am very proud of the work Kwame and I were able to produce. It was a tremendous joy to illustrate, and it provided a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of African Americans in a way that was honest, prideful, passionate, and reverent. Kwame’s masterful poem left an abundance of room to create visuals that celebrated the past and present, while also inspiring the future. With my pictures, I aimed to bring the brilliant history of African American people into the light with spirited, striking, and colorful artwork that complemented Alexander’s rhythmic text, and to create art that inspires readers of all ages and backgrounds to embrace the African American story as the American story and to encourage and continue the conversation about our shared history. America is ours. We built it together. We will make it stronger together.

Although we as a global community face pressing challenges, it goes without saying that I am truly grateful to the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Jury and thrilled to accept the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The ­Undefeated. I’m overjoyed that you have chosen to celebrate this work, and with a profound sense of gratitude, I wish to thank the Coretta Scott King Book Awards Committee and all of the librarians who hold up the work that we do as writers and artists, to celebrate the words and pictures that tell our stories and inspire generations of readers to discover their own histories and find their places in the world. Thank you to my wonderful agent Steven Malk, my publisher Catherine Onder and editor Margaret Raymo, my designer Cara Llewellyn, my publishing family at Versify and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, my wife Jungmiwha, and all of those who came before me on whose shoulders I stand. As we continue to move forward and beyond our present challenges, let us be reminded that only together will we thrive. Together we will remain Undefeated.

Kadir Nelson is the winner of the 2020 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award for The Undefeated, written by Kwame Alexander and published by Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. His acceptance speech was delivered at the virtual American Library Association Book Award Celebration, on June 28, 2020. From the July/August 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: ALA Awards. For more speeches, profiles, and articles, click the tag ALA 2020. Look for the full electronic issue -- free -- beginning next week.

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