Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson
Happy 280th birthday to George Washington today, even if his official federal holiday (since 1879 by an Act of Congress!) always falls on a non-birthdate: by the Julian calendar, GW was born February 11, on the Gregorian February 22 [those colonials changed calendars in 1752], but the official holiday is designated to recur annually on the third Monday of the month, which means the holiday will never actually fall on GW’s natal day! Since the 1980s, a nod to Lincoln (birthday February 12) was added, to make it Presidents’ Day – although for families with children, this nebulously named holiday has become an excuse for mid-winter break. Hope the long holiday was good for all. Oh, but I have digressed …!!
In the splendiferous Heart and Soul, the original George W. appears on page 12: he’s looking straight ahead, mounted on the back of a sleek horse on the banks of what is presumably the Potomac River … and standing beside him is a slave, with hat in hand, head slightly bowed, his profile filled with grave consternation.
Kadir Nelson, this year’s author award winner and illustrator honoree of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, is not rewriting history: George Washington’s life clearly would have not been George Washington’s life without slaves, either at home or on the battlefield. “Through the fruits of our labor and our volunteer soldiers, we had helped free America from England, and yet we were stuck in a country that kept most of us as slaves.”
Taking the welcoming, storytelling tone of an aging grandmother who has seen too much, Nelson has history to share: “No parent wants to tell a child that he was once a slave and made to do anther man’s bidding. Or that she had to swallow her pride and take what she was given, even though she knew it wasn’t fair. Our story is chock-full of things like this. Things that might you cringe, or feel angry,” the knowing elder explains. “But there are also parts that will make you proud, or even laugh a little. You gotta take the good with the bad, I guess. You have to know where you come from so you can move forward.”
From the early 1600s to the founding of a new country, from the horrors of plantation life to Lincoln’s War, from the failure of Reconstruction to the hopes for building freer lives in the Wild West, our storyteller recounts African American struggles and contributions to the founding, building, and growing of a country in flux. She wanders north with the Great Migration and to Harlem for jazz, glamour, and the vote for women. She survives the Great Depression and World War II, celebrates equal rights and the death of Jim Crow, and listens on the National Mall to “”I have a dream …'”
As thorough and personal as the story is, Kadir Nelson’s extraordinary pictures are what will linger and enlighten. Every page holds wonder and admiration: the tiny little boy in his tattered shirt standing in front of the slave quarters against a sky so impossibly blue; the searing portrait of Harriet Tubman, tired but determined against the rich hues of the falling dusk; a young woman standing behind her father in near-darkness, her encouraging hands on his shoulders as if gently willing him to read; the portrait of a southern family migrating north, dressed in their Sunday best with all their worldly possessions piled into and onto a dilapidated jalopy, the sheer joy of making magical music of a Harlem big band; and perhaps the most touching of all – the gnarled, wizened hands cradling a stars-and-stripes “I voted” button offered up as proof of survival and celebration.
“We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It is our nation’s heart and soul.” AMEN to that …
Readers: Children, Middle Grade