For this sweeping project, Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans, Kadir Nelson marries his monumental paintings to a cozy storyteller’s voice. He says he crafted the narrator’s voice based on his grandmother and from his friend Debbie Allen, whose soft Texas drawl greets you in conversation along with “honey” and “chile.”
Nelson’s narrator invites us to pull up a chair and hear about her experiences and those of her family, beginning with slavery throughout the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Civil Rights Movement, up to the 2008 election that would result in the first African-American president of the United States.
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You cover such a huge span of history in Heart and Soul. How did you decide what events to include and what to leave out?
I wanted this to be not only about American and African-American history, I wanted it to be very personal. I knew I couldn’t tell a complete history in 100 pages, so I felt the most natural way to do that was to tell it through the voice of someone whose family had lived through it. I could hit these major milestones, and then turn it around and ask this narrator what it was like for her family.
Did you start sketching first? Did you jot down ideas in writing first?
I wrote it first. The story was going to start before the first slaves landed on American shores. It would be this ancient voice from across the ocean. But a friend recommended maybe it shouldn’t be so broad a voice, but rather a grandmotherly voice. I’d also heard this story of a 100-plus-year-old woman who had voted for the first time in the  election. She was very proud to see that there was not only an African-American man but also a woman running for president. She said she marched her 100-plus-year-old legs over to the voting booth and cast her ballot.
When I was interviewing older African-Americans, one of the things I noticed immediately, was that they are very tight-lipped about talking about slavery. It’s a shameful history. That’s part of the story as well. Many of the elders are at an age where if they don’t share this history, then it will be lost. The prologue references that, “many of us are getting up in age…” Once I heard that, it became a lot easier to hear the voice.
In many previous books you’ve illustrated, the figures are stylized, but these are very realistic. Can you talk about your choice of style here?
I wanted this to serve somewhat as a document of American history. Whenever I traveled, I went to museums to look at American paintings in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, in the Chicago Art Institute, in New Orleans. I studied the paintings so mine would fit into that genre, that same vernacular. It’s all part of the same story, and I wanted to tell it with the same voice, not only with the spoken word, but also with the paintings.
This almost seemed to be as much Pap’s [the narrator’s grandfather] story as it is the narrator’s story. In the images of him, it’s as if we’re looking up at him, even when he’s six. Then as a man, when he lifts the basket of cotton, he takes on the stature of Paul Bunyan.
I’d had that sketch of young Pap for a long time. In this image, I thought of him as a man-child. I wanted to show that even when he was a slave, he had this inner strength. And again, when you see him with the basket of cotton, he’s very strong, and the sky is the same behind him, a brilliant blue sky. That’s what I aimed to do with We Are the Ship [Nelson’s Sibert and Coretta Scott King Award–winning chronicle of Negro League baseball] as well. Even though times were difficult, they were able to hold their integrity and dignity as people. I love to show that in all the work that I do. Whether it’s a tall tale or a historical portrait, I want to show that light inside of people.
Your other portraits spread the wealth among the great thinkers and achievers who made statements through their accomplishments. Were those decisions difficult?
Yes, that was a bit difficult to narrow down. You think, well, do you show Booker T. or do you show W.E.B. DuBois? Again, when I was faced with those choices, I’d turn to the narrator. I think that this particular narrator would resonate more with Booker T. and Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who were on the ground with the narrator. Who would she have pictures of in her scrapbook? Where would she have a picture of Martin Luther King? On a church fan. Of course she’d have a picture of Rosa Parks, and her brother in front of a WWII plane. Of course she’d have a picture of Joe Louis. Like Howard Zinn’s book [A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present], this is a history that’s written from the ground up, versus the other way around.
It’s as if we’re entering her memories.
I always go back to memories of my grandmother. It’s not included in this book, but a number of years ago I did a painting of a woman snapping green beans on a front porch. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that their grandmother had them out there snapping green beans. It’s part of our DNA, if you will. That’s what a lot of these images become, like the genetic makeup of the country. I wanted to make this like a living history.
The military paintings create a different mood from your others, especially the one called “President George Washington and slave, Mount Vernon, Virginia.” Washington looks almost haughty, but the enslaved man with him, holding his hat, looks straight ahead. And then you continue with the wonderful portraits of Pap as a Union soldier and Buffalo soldier, and the narrators’ brothers as Tuskegee pilot and as a member of the 761st Tank Battalion.
In regard to the image of George Washington and the slave, that was about the irony of his situation. I thought it went well with the last line of that chapter: “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.” George Washington is very much in the sunlight. It’s kind of like the dawn of what was coming, which wasn’t going to be pleasant, even though the slave is dressed very well. If you’re going to be a slave, the best place you could be was in the master’s house—and of course the master’s house of our president. But he still has to hold his hat. That’s what that image meant to me.
Later on in the military portraits, that was very much about dignity and pride, every one of the battles, Fort Wagner, all of them. The military factory with the flag behind him, that’s what that’s about, too. To show the dignity and pride, and fighting for a country that didn’t necessarily love them yet, but they knew that by their efforts that’s what they were aiming for, to be in a country they called their own and that would call them their own.