Written and Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
For his follow-up to the excellent We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, Kadir Nelson has crafted a casually audacious book with a simple cover that belies its epic scope. In a mere one hundred pages Nelson traverses the entire history of the United States from an African American perspective, telling it all through his own paintings and narrative. This seems like such a formidable and problematic task, but Nelson succeeds in every single way.
Nelson is first and foremost a fine artist, so it should be no surprise that his paintings are absolutely stunning, and give incredible insight to the story, no narrative necessary. Portraits of major figures are intermingled with powerful scenes of common nameless people living their day-to-day lives. At times the famous and the anonymous come together in powerful ways, such as in his portrait of “President George Washington and slave,” which depicts Washington in a classic, noble, horse-mounted pose gazing into the distance as we have come to expect, but also shows his slave, standing beside him, holding his hat. His portraits of slaves, freedmen, union soldiers, school teachers, factory workers, and civil rights marchers are at least as evocative and memorable as his images of major figures like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Without even reading the narrative these paintings make the book worth owning, and tell a powerful story all on their own.
Although the paintings could easily carry along the rest of the book, Nelson also gives us a unique type of historical narrative. Basically we get the story of the United States as told to us by a fictional century-old black grandmother. This is an interesting choice because she is able to tell us not only about the major events and figures in American History, but also relate some of the experiences of regular people (often her family members and friends) that don’t make it into the history books. We are as likely to hear about her own uncle going North in the Great Migration as we are to hear about Rosa Parks. She is a smart choice for a narrator because she has seen much of the history herself, and has also received the oral history of prior generations back to slavery times that have now long since passed on. She relates the information in a folksy but mostly believable voice. At moments it does feel like a strange mix of history textbook and fictional narrative, but although not every older person would tell a story like this, it is entirely believable that there is a certain type of grandmother who would sit down her great-grandchildren and make them listen to this powerful story of the history of their people from start to finish.
My only complaint with the book is that is basically stops at the close of the Civil Rights movement, and doesn’t cover the most recent 40-50 years of U.S. History. In particular it is a striking but obviously intentional choice that there is not a portrait of our current president. Because the pace of the rest of the book dictates that he would not be able to cover everything and everyone in contemporary American life and would have to make some tough choices, it seems that Nelson is avoiding any controversial political implications that could be deduced from his choices of what people or events to include or gloss over. He avoids going there altogether, which is probably a smart political move, but makes for a book that feels a little unfinished at the end.
Nonetheless, this book feels so essential for elementary school libraries that it verges on instant canonization. It already hovers at or near the top of many 2011 year-end lists (including my own), and I predict that it is going to win big in the ALA book awards this year.
Review by Joshua Whiting, Granite Library Media Program
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Interest Level: Grades 4 and Up
Heart and Soul: The story of America and African Americans
Written and Illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Balzer + Bray
Release Date: September 27, 2011
ISBN: 9780061730740 (hardcover)