In 2011, Shane W. Evans wrote Underground, a book with minimal text and powerful images about the Underground Railroad, focusing in large part on one family’s journey. January 2012 marked the release of his book We March, which traces one family’s preparations and path on the March for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
When we caught up with Evans, he was in Uganda, teaching art classes to orphans.
Find more picture books that celebrate friends and family among our Best of 2012.
If we look at the covers of Underground and We March side by side, it appears almost as if you’ve inverted the sun’s rays from one to the other. Did you set out to connect these two books?
I recognize that these two journeys, though hundreds of years apart, are still a continuum. That pursuit of freedom goes on and on. It’s an extension of that same journey.
In both books, we also follow one family into the larger story you’re telling. Why is that important?
I always think about that speech [Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech”]. I was not present. I say that jokingly, but everyone who hears that speech feels present.
The amazing thing about that speech is its simplicity. [In the book,] the day leads up to that moment. No one knew what was coming, and no one knew the significance of it. We had to do the work, we had to get up, get dressed, get to the church and pray; it’s a steady pace leading up to that moment.
As that family was getting ready, Martin was getting ready on the side, with his family cheering him on; it’s the same vibe, and I’m bringing it into a different household.
It’s like a transference of power or spirit, when Dr. King delivers that speech and his arm extends to the boy on the previous page. The two of them in effect face each other, with the sun behind the child like a halo, and the sun behind Dr. King like a halo.
It’s a continuation and a transference. Underground builds to the point when the man is holding up the child to the sun. That sun shines on us all. It has no prejudice, it has no thing that we human beings get caught up in.
My grandfather used to wake up before the sun so he could watch the sun rise. When I started doing it as an adult, I understood where my grandfather was coming from—that sun is connecting the child and Martin, and even the two books.
The final close-up image of Dr. King is so powerful, with the text of the speech ghosted in the background. Your image makes us think about the words and their impact in a different way.
When I place [the text of the speech] where I did, you’re hearing his voice. You listen to your own recording of that in your mind, in your own space. That’s powerful. Martin wasn’t just about Civil Rights, he was about human rights. That’s something a lot of people don’t focus on.
That’s Martin’s gift to the world. That “I Have a Dream” speech rang and resonated throughout the world. Like Obama coming into office—that encouraged people all over the world. I think when I empty that page out and I just have Martin there under the sun, it’s not just him on that podium on that Aug. 23 day, it was for everyone on that day.
The Aug. 28, 1963, march was for “jobs and freedom.” Did you have any idea how timely We March would be, coming out on the heels of the Occupy protests?
That’s what a march is about, a body of people coming together with a common goal. It is freedom. To have work frees us. So many things come together in a march. [The Occupy protestors] marched down the street outside my studio one day, so I started to walk with the people. I live in a small size town, so I thought, “This is pretty interesting. Your beliefs are mine, and I’m marching with you.”
That’s what a march is, people bonding together. That’s the original social media—250,000 people gathering, prior to texts, prior to cell phones. It’s a powerful tool. There’s something spiritual about it, when many people come together with one heart.
When you think about what was going on in 1963, not so long after that march, there was an explosion that killed four little girls. Even in my own child-mind, I think, “After that speech, all was good.” It was not all good. Everybody didn’t get with that “I Have a Dream” speech. We can never be complacent. We can always fall backward.
Jennifer M. Brown lives and reads in New York City and blogs at Twenty by Jenny.