Heart and Soul: the story of America and African Americans, written and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. HarperCollins, 2011, 108 pages (including bibliography, index, and chronology). Age/interest level: 10-up.
This year’s winner of the Coretta Scott King Award (for excellence in children’s literature that reflects the African-American experience), is mostly a treasure. Spanning the history of blacks in America, it attempts to capture the big picture, with its tribulations and triumphs, by making the narrator an elderly black woman. It doesn’t quite work: her voice is uneven, sounding folksy and textbook-y by turns, and some intimacy and detail are lost in a timeline that stretches from the Declaration of Independence to the election of 2008.
The narrator’s grandfather was captured in Africa in 1850 at the age of six and carried to America in a slave ship. Joseph (as his captors named him) was sold to a plantation owner in Maryland, where he toiled from sunup to sundown on a huge plantation. When war broke out, he made a break for freedom and joined the Union army, served at the battle of Fort Wagner and came back to Maryland at war’s end to tell his former master, “Bottom rail on top now, suh.” Finding little opportunity in Reconstruction south, Joseph (whom the narrator calls Pap) enlisted in the U.S. cavalry and married a Seminole woman in Oklahoma, after which we lose sight of him. His children migrated to Chicago during World War I to work in the factories, and our narrator is proud to say that her brother served in the 761st tank battalion during the next big war. But her proudest moment brings us to the present, when she cast her vote for Barak Obama.
That ends the story, but it should start the discussion, which is a good thing. Some of the statements made by Nelson’s everywoman narrator seem either exaggerated or erroneous, for example: “America grew up on slavery. It was like mother’s milk to the new country, and it made her grow big and strong. Southern planters lined their pockets with profits from slave-grown crops, and northern industries depended on them too.” Even though slavery was essential to the antebellum southern economy, it’s a stretch to claim that the entire nation depended on it, or would not have grown as rapidly without it. George Washington, the Father of his Country, is pictured primarily as a slave-owner. But I’m obviously not going to have the same point of view as the average African American, and it’s profitable to at least try to understand where the other is coming from.
In spite of years of injustice and oppression, which are not debatable, our narrator loves her country and personifies the patience, hard work, and faith of her generation. Though the black church does not receive any particular notice (unlike the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois), the Bible and “the good Lord” get some credit. The narrative ends with the sense of a battle won, elaborated in the author note. Even while acknowledging historical injustice, he praises “the marvelous words of the Declaration of Independence.” In other words, the cynicism that infects so much discussion about African American experience today is lacking here: America has often failed to live up to her own ideals, but there’s nothing wrong with the ideals.
I noticed a few historical glitches: the reconstruction-era town of Nicodemus was in Kansas, not Oklahoma; young women were not drafted during World War II, and it’s an exaggeration to say that “black soldiers made all the difference in the [Civil] war.” Other points can be debated, but that may be one reason why the author put the story in a single personal voice. The paintings that illustrate every page are stunning , and some took my breath away. I would want the book just for these, especially the picture of a daughter teaching her aged father to read, and the haunting portrait of a slave girl gazing up from a pile of white, white cotton. Every American, whatever their color or creed or political persuasion, needs to know this story, and Heart and Soul is a good place to start.