Celebrating African Americans: The Arts

Handsomely illustrated and eloquently told, these picture book biographies offer insightful introductions to noteworthy African Americans who have defined their place in the world by following their passions and pursuing their art.
Handsomely illustrated and eloquently told, these recent picture book biographies provide insightful introductions to noteworthy African Americans who have defined their place in the world by following their passions and pursuing their art. Depicting both challenging obstacles and heart-lifting accomplishments throughout history, this selection of recently published titles provides excellent impetus for exploring historical events and personages, initiating discussion about the African American experience, and celebrating the power of creativity. Share these books with students and expand the learning impact by seeking out more information about each artist and pursuing examples of their literary, musical, and visual fruits of their labor. The Power of Words The Remarkable Story of George Moses HortonIn Don Tate’s Poet (Peachtree, 2015; Gr 2-5), lyrical text and illuminating mixed-media paintings introduce an individual whose profound love for words inspired a life marked by strength, resiliency, and hope. Born enslaved in North Carolina, young George Moses Horton (ca. 1798-ca.1884) had little time for anything aside from forced labor on the farm, but nonetheless taught himself to read and began composing and memorizing poems. Later, as a young man sent to Chapel Hill to sell produce, he found that he could also sell his verses to college students. As word of his talent spread, he began to publish his works, many of which bravely protested slavery, and, with money earned, paid his master so that he could live and write full-time in Chapel Hill. However, this gifted wordsmith would have to wait until age 66 and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation to be free. Depicting a bleary-eyed boy poring over a discarded spelling book by firelight, a just-published author clutching a newspaper and wearing a smile that exudes pride, and a man with his head down on folded arms, hope shattered after his master refused to allow him to purchase his freedom, Tate deftly portrays watershed moments in Horton’s life, delineating both the harrowing circumstances he faced and the enduring passion that motivated and sustained him: “Words made him strong. Words allowed him to dream. Words loosened the chains of bondage long before his last day as a slave.” Quotations from Horton’s works are incorporated into the illustrations and presented on the endpapers, and Tate’s thoughtful back matter includes citations for these and other poems, many of which can be found online. Performing Arts Trombone ShortyUp and coming musician and recording artist Troy Andrews (1986- ), known since childhood as Trombone Shorty (Abrams, 2015; Gr 1-4), shares his musical beginnings with readers and explains how he got his nickname. Both the buoyant first-person text and Bryan Collier’s award-winning watercolor-and-collage paintings, which swirl with brassy colors and dynamic motion, emphasize the impact of growing up in New Orleans’s historic Tremé neighborhood, where any “time of day or night, you could hear music floating in the air.” Unable to afford real instruments, young Troy and his friends constructed them from discarded objects (“We were making music, and that’s all that mattered”). When Troy finally found a beat-up trombone (it was twice his size, causing his trumpet-blowing older brother to coin the nickname), he practiced day and night, his hard work leading to the moment when the legendary Bo Diddley pulled him out of the audience and onto the stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the launch of an impressive performing career that now takes him around the globe. An appended note (complete with a photo of the aforementioned duet) underscores the author’s commitment to preserving the musical heritage of his hometown and mentoring young musicians. An inspiring story about persevering despite challenging circumstances and wholeheartedly pursuing one’s passion. Swing Sisters_The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (by Karen Deans)Karen Deans and Joe Cepeda’s Swing Sisters: The Story of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm (Holiday House, 2015; Gr 2-5) begins in 1939 when Dr. Laurence Clifton Jones initiated an all-girl band at his school for African American orphans near Jackson, Mississippi. Energizing audiences with their rhythm- and melody-filled swing, these talented and hard-working young women remained together after leaving Piney Woods, traveling the country in their own bus, gradually filling their ranks with musicians of “many races and nationalities,” and performing for enthusiastic crowds. Informative text and jewel-toned oil paintings introduce these jazz trailblazers, effectively touching upon instances of gender discrimination (they earned lower pay and less respect than their male counterparts) as well as difficulties faced while traveling in the Jim Crowe South (“laws that banned black people and white people from socializing or working together…made it mighty risky for a multiracial band”). Examples of these challenges are balanced by spectacular on-stage scenes showing these musicians doing what they loved— opening “doors for women of all backgrounds” while showing “the world how to swing!” My Story, My Dance_Robert Battle's Journey to Alvin AileyIn My Story, My Dance (S&S, 2015; Gr 2-5), Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome shed light on the inspirations, family love and support, and tireless dedication that earned Robert Battle (1972- ) a place as artistic director of the celebrated Alvin Ailey dance company. Both vivid text and descriptive pastel paintings glow with warmth and conviction to describe Robert’s childhood and career. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Robert was raised by his aunt, uncle, and adult cousin, who filled his days with music, poetry and the sweet sound of spirituals sung at home and at church. When he finally shed the metal braces he wore to straighten his legs at age six, he reveled in newfound confidence and freedom of movement, studying karate and trying his first ballet class at age 13. Though he worked hard in high school and dared to begin to dream big (“Do you think I could be the first black Baryshnikov?”), it was not until Robert attended an Alvin Ailey performance of Revelations—a modern dance piece that celebrates African American cultural heritage—that he truly saw “his past and his future, and…himself” in dance. The lovely artwork portrays intimate and impactful moments with family and mentors as well as graceful and athletic images of the dancer in action, eloquently underscoring the intersection between personal experience, heartfelt emotion, and artistic expression. Ira's Shakespeare DreamIra’s Shakespeare Dream (Lee & Low, 2015; Gr 3-6) begins in the early 1800s in the balcony of New York City’s Park Theatre as the boy watches a production of Hamlet, silently mouthing the words along with the actors. The very next day, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867) performed a scene from the play to the enthusiastic applause of classmates at the African Free School. Though he longed to pursue the magical world of the theater, his father insisted that he become a minister. Impulsively signing on as cabin boy on a cargo ship, the youngster was terrified when a man offered to buy him for $500 during a stop in South Carolina, and the suffering he witnessed at the Charleston slave market was indelible. Determined to follow his dream and seeking greater opportunity, the17-year-old Aldridge set sail for London in 1824, where he found work as a theater errand boy and gradually built a career as “one of the most celebrated Shakespearean actors in Europe.” Glenda Armand’s fluid narrative and Floyd Cooper’s lamp-lit oil-wash paintings masterfully interweave Aldridge's passion for the stage, his fortitude in the face of setbacks, and his enduring commitment to playing his part in ending slavery. Visual Arts jacob lawrenceSharifa Rhodes-Pitts and Christopher Myers offer an intriguing snapshot of renowned painter Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) as an adolescent, setting the tale against the rich backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s 1930, and 13-year-old Jake has just moved to New York City from Philadelphia to rejoin his mother. He explores the sights and sounds of this culturally vibrant community: men playing checkers with boards balanced on their knees, older boys hawking fruit from a bucket, a preacher who “shouts and sings about God.” After school, he takes art classes, carving a fish from a block of soap or using watercolors to swirl “the shadows that dance on his wall at dawn.” Finally, Jake Makes a World (MoMA, 2015; Gr 1-4) by filling a shoebox with construction paper figures and matchbox buildings. Here, the songs and noises of the bustling neighborhood “are not sounds. They are colors, they are shadows dancing, they are rhythms, they are light.” Filled with dazzling hues and gracefully elongated figures, Myers’s paintings reflect the stylized realism and bold outlines of Lawrence’s work, while also providing a vivid sense of immediacy. Images from Lawrence’s “Migration Series” are smoothly incorporated into the illustrations and reprinted at book’s end. Share this lyrical eye-grabber to familiarize students with the painter, discuss his inspirations and way of viewing the world, and encourage youngsters to observe their own communities and interpret them through creative expression. Draw What You See_The Life and Art of Benny AndrewsDraw What You See (Clarion, 2015; Gr 3-6) introduces an African American painter who understood the importance of using art to tell his own story and as a way to change the world. Born into a large and impoverished family in Plainview, Georgia, Benny Andrews (1930-2006) started to draw at age three, sketching pictures of the things he saw around him—“hot suns and red clay,” “little wood-frame houses,” and black people toiling for white land owners in “cotton fields that stretched as far as he could see.” Miserable at the prospect of a life spent in a segregated town working day long in sweltering fields, the teenaged Benny dreamed of the “bigger world” that awaited him beyond his childhood home, walking three miles to and from high school to obtain the education he knew he would need to reach it. He continued to draw throughout a journey that led to a career as a respected artist in New York City and a role as equal rights advocate. Articulately written by Kathleen Benson and illustrated with Andrews’s realistic texture- and light-filled paintings, this picture book biography presents an important artist who celebrated ordinary people in his artwork and shared his passion by teaching others to tell their stories through art, starting simply, “as he did, by drawing what they see.” Sewing Stories_Harriet Powers' Journey from Slave to ArtistSewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist (Knopf, 2015; K-Gr 4) acquaints readers with a gifted quilt-maker. Born into slavery on a plantation near Athens, Georgia, Harriet (1837-1910) grew up “watching women carding cotton, spinning thread, dyeing and weaving cloth” and learned how to make appliqué quilts—designs cut from scraps and stitched onto background fabric. Marrying at age 18, she wrapped her first baby “in a quilt she made and held her tight as Civil War cannons fired,” and, when the war’s aftermath brought poverty and hard times along with freedom, she used her skills to support her family. Two of Harriet’s story quilts—breathtakingly beautiful textiles that feature scenes inspired by Bible stories, events from her lifetime, and local legends—now hang in major museums (reproductions grace the book’s endpapers). Barbara Herkert’s narrative is supplemented with inset text boxes that provide additional biographical and historical facts (“Most slaves were forbidden to learn to read and write. They passed on stories verbally and recorded them in cloth”). Incorporating fabric swatches throughout, Vanessa Brantley-Newton’s gouache illustrations suggest the warmth of family relationships and the wonder of creativity. Though the text includes fictionalized dialogue (there are no sources for the quotes), this book makes a good starting point for learning more about this relatively unknown folk artist, African American quilting traditions, and the broader idea of finding self-expression in the face of hardship and censorship. Photography Gordon Parks_How the Photographer Captured Black and White AmericaCarole Boston Weatherford’s reader-grabbing biography of Gordon Parks (Albert Whitman, 2015; Gr 1-3) focuses on this multi-talented man’s career as a photographer. The present-tense, staccato text highlights well-chosen facts and defining moments in Parks’s (1912-2006) life: the white teacher who tells her all-black class, “You’ll all wind up porters and waiters;” Gordon purchasing and teaching himself to use a second-hand camera at age 25; the instances of segregation, economic disparity, and inequality that inspire him to “lay bare racism with his lens;” the story behind his most famous photograph, “American Gothic,” an iconic image of Ella Watson, an African American cleaning lady who supports her family “on just over one thousand dollars a year,” standing in front of the American flag and holding broom and mop, “the tools of her trade and the hopes of her grandchildren.” Often including illustrated photo montages, Jamey Christoph’s descriptive paintings create a strong sense of time and place with rich colors, sleek geometric shapes, and bold lines reminiscent of art deco designs. Several of Parks’s photos are appended. This introduction to a world renowned artist, photojournalist, and social documentarian is poignantly told and strikingly presented.  

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