MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
And I'm Michele Norris.
As parents, we try to shield our children from the hard truth of life for as long as possible. Violence, racism, slavery. As Americans, these truths are woven so tightly into our fabric, it's imperative to shed light on them, but how?
T: The Story of America and African-Americans." And he joins us now in the studio to talk about this latest project. So glad you're here.
KADIR NELSON: Oh, thanks for having me.
NORRIS: I want to start with the voice that you decide to use to tell this story and maybe we can begin with the prologue. Would you mind reading that for us?
NELSON: Oh, not at all.
NELSON: (Reading) Most folks my age and complexion don't speak much about the past. No parent wants to tell a child that he was once a slave or made to do another 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 chockfull of things like this, things that might make you cringe or feel angry, but there are also parts that will make you feel proud or even laugh a little. So it's important that you pay attention, honey, because I'm only going to tell you this story but once.
NORRIS: Therein begins the story and it goes through, chronologically, the history of America and particularly history of African Americans.
Kadir, when you were reading that, you were talking about many of us and you weren't necessarily talking about yourself, your cohort. You were speaking in someone else's voice. How did you find the voice that you wanted to use to tell this story?
NELSON: Well, when I start each project, I have to start from a loving place. I love my grandmother to pieces, so I thought maybe I'd use my grandmother's voice because she really gives it to you straight. She's the matriarch of our family.
But I also wanted to sweeten it up a little bit, you know. It's kind of like a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. So, I thought of my friend, Debbie Allen, who's from Texas and she talks with a bit of a Texas twang and she puts honeys and childs at the end of every sentence to sweeten it up a bit. So, I would combine those two voices to find the voice for this narrator.
NORRIS: And you're talking about Debbie Allen, the singer and dancer and performer and sister of Phylicia Rashad?
NELSON: Yes, absolutely. We worked together on the movie, "Amistad," and we also did a book together. So...
NORRIS: You have been illustrating children's books for some time and now you are an illustrator and a writer. To look at the paintings in this book, I mean, they are just majestic. They take your breath away.
NELSON: Oh, thank you.
NORRIS: And I'm wondering if you, in looking at this, and I know I've talked to you many times and I know that you're somewhat modest. But when you look at this, does feel to you like that you've arrived at a special place as an artist? Is this the sort of culmination of something that's been building for a long time?
NELSON: You know, a number of years ago, my uncle asked me what I wanted to do with my life and I said that I wanted to tell the African-American story through my work. But I didn't want to just tell the African-American story. I wanted to tell the American story through the eyes of an African-American. I wanted to tell this history from the ground up as if it were a story. And, again, the best way to do that would be through this grandmotherly grandmother-type voice who would invite a young pup to sit on her lap and she would say, let me tell you what happened.
NORRIS: We obviously can't tell the whole story, but I'd like to sort of sample parts of it, Kadir, if I can. And you began those with the Declaration of Independence and the role that people of color played in the fight for independence in this country.
NORRIS: There's a picture in this chapter that shows George Washington and it's, you know, as you often see George Washington standing, sitting really, you know, very erect on a horse. But there's someone standing beside him, his slave.
NELSON: His slave. Yeah. I think it was the irony of this country that was formed, created with the concept of freedom, yet a large part of the population (unintelligible) had all these slaves. So, you know, we start this great story about freedom and then we have our first president sitting on a horse very proud of his achievement and yet his slave is sitting there holding his hat.
NORRIS: You can't quite figure out what the slave is thinking when you're looking at that picture. It's kind of easy to figure out what George Washington might be thinking because his chin is so high up in the air.
NELSON: Right. He's very proud. What I was thinking was that, you know, the sun is rising on George Washington. But when you look at the slave, it's barely, barely hitting his face because he's looking into the sun and kind of wondering what the future holds, not only for him, but for the rest of his African-American brethren.
NORRIS: You know, you deal with a lot of very complex issues in this book. Even irony when the country was founded on the basis of freedom and yet so many people in this country were enslaved. And you're able to do this on a level that children find accessible and you see that, when you deal with portraying defiance. And it's interesting how you do it and I'm curious about how you settled on just the right emotion to portray.
I'm thinking about the picture of the black schoolchildren who are crossing the color line and their arms are crossed and they're held across their books, cross-armed, you know, looking kind of up under their eyebrows as, you know, young children showing this sort of steely resolve. How did you settle on exactly the right expression that you wanted to portray, knowing that this was intended for a very young audience and for children who may not understand what it means to be defiant in quite that way?
NELSON: Well, I think a lot of language is unspoken. And I wasn't necessarily thinking of defiance. It was more of like the quiet anger and a quiet strength. And that's what I see in my mother. That's what I see in my grandmother. That's what I see in a lot of people who are in my life. This quiet strength.
NORRIS: And the point of view is interesting because it looks, based on the angle that it might be a child who's looking through the shoulders of the guards that are there to protect those children.
NELSON: I often use a low perspective because it adds a bit of drama to the composition. One of the things that I learned when I worked on the movie, "Amistad," was that, you know, I studied Steven Spielberg's films to see how he composed his different shots. And one of the devices that he uses is - you have the foreground, middle ground and background. And often, he'll use the foreground to frame the shot, whether it's someone in shadow or what have you. And it's a really great device to add drama, especially when you're dealing with lights and dark. So, that's one of the devices I use to heighten the drama and particularly in this painting.
NORRIS: Do you use subjects or photographs?
NELSON: I do. I use historical photographs to make sure that I get everything historically correct. But then I also use models. I often use myself or for the little girls in the school integration picture, I used my daughter and my wife.
NORRIS: And did they stand, arms folded? How does that work?
NELSON: She did. Well, I asked my daughter to stand, hands folded, asked her not to smile. And she really was a bit shy and didn't want to do it anyway, so that kind of helped because she was a bit defiant in wanting to pose for the thing.
NORRIS: Oh, daddy, this is taking too long.
NELSON: Exactly, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: It's Kadir Nelson. His book is called, "Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans." Kadir, thank you.
NELSON: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.