This Is For 'The Undefeated': A New Picture Book Celebrates Black Brilliance

Apr 2, 2019
Originally published on April 2, 2019 7:48 pm

In The Undefeated, artist Kadir Nelson illustrates generations of black American heroes "emerging from the shadows."

"It begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light ..." Nelson says. "By the time we get to toward the middle and end of the book those shadows have disappeared and the brilliance and excellence of the subjects have completely emerged into the bright light."

The text of the book is a poem Kwame Alexander wrote in 2008. Alexander's second daughter, Samayah had just been born, and Barack Obama had recently won election as the first African-American president of the United States. "This poem was my tribute to both," Alexander writes.

The poem inspired Nelson. "I thought it was very powerful ..." he says. "A beautiful poem that spoke to excellence, and perseverance, and triumph amidst adversity. It was an ode to the sung and unsung heroes in history."


Interview Highlights

On illustrating Alexander's poem

I don't necessarily have to illustrate other people's works ... I'll take on a book or project written by someone else when the words really speak to me ... [when] I can add something to it that is unique to the work that I do. This is one of those texts that really spoke to me; it was beautifully written and I felt it was a really great pairing of words and pictures of an author and an artist.

Kadir Nelson / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On how he came up with the illustration for "The ones who survived America by any means necessary"

I just really think about people in my family, people that I know, who are the unsung heroes. The people throughout history who we don't necessarily know — who we may never know — but all their contributions to the story of America are just as important.

On leaving one page blank for those who didn't survive

It's a moment of silence. It's a moment of pause to provoke thought about all of those who didn't make it ... and all of those voices who have been silenced, all those voices who we have not known, have not seen, have not heard. This is a spread that is really speaking to them.

On the way he depicted the transatlantic slave trade

The subject matter is very difficult. It's not pretty. So even though I'm an artist and I try to create images that are visually pleasing, it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that I think it should be. It's striking, it's unsettling, and it also gives you pause. This really happened.

Kadir Nelson / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

On finding a visual style that feels true to his subjects

Whether it's a book, whether it's a stamp, or an album cover, my approach is always the same: I want to be able to connect with the subject matter. I have to step in the shoes of whoever I'm portraying and create artwork that is reverent toward toward the subject.

On dedicating the book to his grandmother, and whether she's portrayed in it

We don't see her face, but at the same time, you know, I look at that family on the second spread ["the ones who survived America by any means necessary"] and I'm reminded of my grandmother. ...

My grandmother, she is from the Deep South and she married my grandfather who was a white American and they moved to the north and created a whole life for themselves. ... I come from a family of ancestors who were sharecroppers. ... I look at what she was able to do to push her family forward and create a life for the whole family ...

I see her face in all these faces — I see her face in that family, I see her face in Harriet Tubman or in Zora Neale Hurston. All of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.

Justine Kenin and Emily Kopp produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The artist Kadir Nelson explores what it's like to be black in America today and throughout history. He's created postage stamps, magazine covers, paintings that hang in museums and illustrations for books, including a new children's book called "The Undefeated." The text is by poet Kwame Alexander.

KWAME ALEXANDER: (Reading) 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.

SHAPIRO: That was Alexander, and we are joined now by the illustrator Kadir Nelson. Welcome.

KADIR NELSON: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: When you first read the entire poem, what sprung to mind for you?

NELSON: I thought it was very powerful. I thought it was poignant, a beautiful poem that spoke to excellence and perseverance and triumph amidst adversity. It was an ode to the sung and unsung heroes in history.

SHAPIRO: So first, you have this line about the swift and sweet ones who hurdled history, who opened a world of possible. And you took that word hurdled very literally in your illustration.

NELSON: Right. Well, you know, I think one of the - I think the visual mantra that I used for this book was all of the figures emerging from the shadows. So you'll see - it begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the lower half of his body is in dark shadow, and the upper half of his body looks like the sun is shining on it while his...

NELSON: Right.

SHAPIRO: ...Muscled body gleams.

NELSON: So by the time we get toward the middle and end of the book, those shadows have disappeared, and the brilliance and excellence of the subjects have completely emerged into the bright light.

SHAPIRO: And then the next page, we have the line, the ones who survived America by any means necessary. So this is a family of five, formally dressed in old-fashioned clothing, staring straight out of the page at the reader. How did you decide what to put on this page?

NELSON: I just really think about people in my family, people that I know who are, you know, the unsung heroes, the people throughout history who don't necessarily know - who we may never know. But all their contributions to the story of America are just as important.

SHAPIRO: So the page after the ones who survived America by any means necessary is the page that has a line, and the ones who didn't - the ones who didn't survive. This is a blank page. It's the only page in the book with no image at all. Tell us about the decision you made here.

NELSON: It - for me, it was a very logical choice. It's a moment of silence. It's a moment of pause to provoke thought about all of those who didn't make it. Part of this - the inspiration for the poem was one, the election of President Barack Obama and also carries through to the Black Lives Matter movement and all of those voices who have been silenced, all those voices who we have not known, have not seen, have not heard. This is a spread that is really speaking to them.

SHAPIRO: The images in this book all have a similar style, except for one page. There is a line - this is for the unspeakable - that repeats three times. And the first time, it appears on a page with an image of countless slaves stacked in a boat so tightly that at first glance, this looks less like human figures and more like a black and white textile pattern, almost. How did you come up with this image?

NELSON: The subject matter is very difficult. It's not pretty. So even though I'm an artist and I try to create images that are, you know, visually pleasing, it's - it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that it - I think it should be. It's striking. It's unsettling. But - and it also gives you pause. Like, this was - this really happened.

SHAPIRO: OK. This question is a shot in the dark, but I'm going to ask it anyway. You dedicated this book to your grandmother...

NELSON: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Verlee Gunter-Moore. Are any of the women in these pages who we might not recognize as a famous person - do we see her face anywhere in here?

NELSON: No. We don't see her face. But I mean, at the same time, you know, I look at that family on the second spread, and I'm reminded of my grandmother, you know? I come from a family of ancestors who were sharecroppers. And, you know, when I look at what she was able to do to push her family forward and create a life for the whole family, I - you know, I see her face in all of these faces. I see her face in Harriet Tubman or in Zora Neale Hurston - you know, all of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.

SHAPIRO: Kadir Nelson, thank you so much for talking with us.

NELSON: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: He's the artist who worked with the poet Kwame Alexander on the new children's book "The Undefeated." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.