ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The artist Kadir Nelson explores what it's like to be black in America today and throughout history. He's created postage stamps, magazine covers, paintings that hang in museums and illustrations for books, including a new children's book called "The Undefeated." The text is by poet Kwame Alexander.
KWAME ALEXANDER: (Reading) This is for the unforgettable, the swift and sweet ones who hurdled history and opened a world of possible, the ones who survived America by any means necessary and the ones who didn't.
SHAPIRO: That was Alexander, and we are joined now by the illustrator Kadir Nelson. Welcome.
KADIR NELSON: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: When you first read the entire poem, what sprung to mind for you?
NELSON: I thought it was very powerful. I thought it was poignant, a beautiful poem that spoke to excellence and perseverance and triumph amidst adversity. It was an ode to the sung and unsung heroes in history.
SHAPIRO: So first, you have this line about the swift and sweet ones who hurdled history, who opened a world of possible. And you took that word hurdled very literally in your illustration.
NELSON: Right. Well, you know, I think one of the - I think the visual mantra that I used for this book was all of the figures emerging from the shadows. So you'll see - it begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light.
SHAPIRO: Yeah, the lower half of his body is in dark shadow, and the upper half of his body looks like the sun is shining on it while his...
SHAPIRO: ...Muscled body gleams.
NELSON: So by the time we get toward the middle and end of the book, those shadows have disappeared, and the brilliance and excellence of the subjects have completely emerged into the bright light.
SHAPIRO: And then the next page, we have the line, the ones who survived America by any means necessary. So this is a family of five, formally dressed in old-fashioned clothing, staring straight out of the page at the reader. How did you decide what to put on this page?
NELSON: I just really think about people in my family, people that I know who are, you know, the unsung heroes, the people throughout history who don't necessarily know - who we may never know. But all their contributions to the story of America are just as important.
SHAPIRO: So the page after the ones who survived America by any means necessary is the page that has a line, and the ones who didn't - the ones who didn't survive. This is a blank page. It's the only page in the book with no image at all. Tell us about the decision you made here.
NELSON: It - for me, it was a very logical choice. It's a moment of silence. It's a moment of pause to provoke thought about all of those who didn't make it. Part of this - the inspiration for the poem was one, the election of President Barack Obama and also carries through to the Black Lives Matter movement and all of those voices who have been silenced, all those voices who we have not known, have not seen, have not heard. This is a spread that is really speaking to them.
SHAPIRO: The images in this book all have a similar style, except for one page. There is a line - this is for the unspeakable - that repeats three times. And the first time, it appears on a page with an image of countless slaves stacked in a boat so tightly that at first glance, this looks less like human figures and more like a black and white textile pattern, almost. How did you come up with this image?
NELSON: The subject matter is very difficult. It's not pretty. So even though I'm an artist and I try to create images that are, you know, visually pleasing, it's - it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that it - I think it should be. It's striking. It's unsettling. But - and it also gives you pause. Like, this was - this really happened.
SHAPIRO: OK. This question is a shot in the dark, but I'm going to ask it anyway. You dedicated this book to your grandmother...
SHAPIRO: ...Verlee Gunter-Moore. Are any of the women in these pages who we might not recognize as a famous person - do we see her face anywhere in here?
NELSON: No. We don't see her face. But I mean, at the same time, you know, I look at that family on the second spread, and I'm reminded of my grandmother, you know? I come from a family of ancestors who were sharecroppers. And, you know, when I look at what she was able to do to push her family forward and create a life for the whole family, I - you know, I see her face in all of these faces. I see her face in Harriet Tubman or in Zora Neale Hurston - you know, all of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.
SHAPIRO: Kadir Nelson, thank you so much for talking with us.
NELSON: Thank you for having me.
SHAPIRO: He's the artist who worked with the poet Kwame Alexander on the new children's book "The Undefeated."
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