Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Black History: Heart and Soul: Stories of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson

"You have to know where you came from so you can move forward."

Kadir Nelson begins his epic illustrative narrative of African American history, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans Balzer & Bray, 2011), as most of our family histories begin, in the old country, in a slave-catching episode in west Africa where a young girl is snatched along with most of the young people of her village and taken to the coast to be sold to traders heading for North America.

Nelson, speaking in the narrative voice of his own grandmother, traces the interwoven story of America's history with the personal history of Black Americans who somehow survived the "middle passage" to work as slaves. "Dem days were Hell," says the actual quote from an emancipated slave woman, and Nelson describes the passage from slavery through the days of the Abolitionists and leaders such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman in their own words and through the imagined eyes of his own ancestors who lived those days themselves.

Nelson continues with chapters on "Lincoln's War," headed by the grim quotation "War is hell, but slavery is worse," and on to sections on "Reconstruction," describing the development of Jim Crow laws and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, "Cowboys and Indians," during the westward movement, and particular focus on the twentieth century, with chapters on "The Turn of the Century" and "The Great Migration," the Black diaspora to the north and midwest, followed by "Harlem and the Vote for Women," "Hard Times and World War II," "Jim Crow's A-Dying" and "Black Innovation," featuring the contributions of African American inventors and science.

The author concludes with his chapter titled "Revolution," which takes the reader, with stunningly dramatic paintings and powerful text, through the Civil Rights Movement and up to 2008 in this century. Aimed broadly at middle elementary and middle school readers, Nelson's book is both human in its first-person narrations, and fully usable as a supplemental historical text for young researchers.

Nelson's award-winning artistic skills are remarkable, but his narrative style matches that of his striking illustrations to make this a highly readable book, the one book on Black history that should be available to young readers at some time in their lives. As Publisher's Weekly's review states, his "jaw-dropping portraits radiate determination and strength. A tremendous achievement." Nelson's paintings must be seen to be appreciated. View the book's trailer, narrated by the author, here.

Kadir Nelson's other award-winning historical books include Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom (Caldecott Honor Book), Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad and We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball.



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