February 14, 2013
(+++) BEYOND THE HEROIC
Nelson Mandela. By Kadir Nelson. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $17.99.
I’ve Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By Walter Dean Myers. Illustrated by Leonard Jenkins. Amistad/HarperCollins. $6.99.
Brick by Brick. By Charles R. Smith Jr. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Amistad/HarperCollins. $17.99.
In the Land of Milk and Honey. By Joyce Carol Thomas. Illustrated by Floyd Cooper. Amistad/HarperCollins. $16.99
We will know we have moved beyond race as a defining characteristic in society when people of stature are celebrated for who they were and what they did, not for the color of their skin – and when it is not necessary to have publishing-company divisions devoted specifically to people of a particular skin color or background. That day is not here yet, and neither is the day when it will become as acceptable to see minority-group heroes as complete people, as mistake-makers with flaws and uncertainties, rather than as shining beacons for everyone else who happens to share elements of their physical appearance.
Until that day arrives, we will continue to have books published specifically for Black History Month (February) that are filled with hagiography rather than biography, such as the new Nelson Mandela and the new paperback version of I’ve Seen the Promised Land, originally published in 2004. There is no denying the heroism of Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., but they would seem more real, more human, if they were not portrayed as being quite as perfect as they are in these books. And it is not just the men – it is their history that is distorted. Kadir Nelson says that before Europeans came to South Africa, the people were “living in relative peace,” which is patently untrue: bloody tribal rivalries, raids and wars were nearly constant, and in some parts of Africa they made European conquest and the slave trade possible, as Africa leaders allied themselves against other African leaders in a constant jockeying for position and power. Later in Nelson Mandela, the statement that “the ancestors sent their daughter Winnie to stand next to Nelson” lends Mandela’s life and cause an unwarranted degree of mysticism. And as the book continues, Nelson goes out of his way to avoid mentioning others who contributed to the dismantling of apartheid: “As years passed, the world pressed South Africa to change. The new president agreed, and ‘European Only’ signs came down.” This pointedly ignores F.W. de Klerk, co-winner with Mandela of the Nobel Peace Prize. It is certainly understandable to keep a tight focus on Mandela in a book about him for young people; and Nelson’s marvelous paintings bring Mandela’s tale to life in a way that Nelson’s rather humdrum words do not. But neither Mandela himself nor the story of apartheid in South Africa should be seen quite as one-dimensionally as it is here – not if there is to be a time when children of all races see themselves as people first and racial members second. Beautifully made and told with the enthusiasm of a heroic fairy tale, Nelson Mandela is inspirational, as it is intended to be; but it is less than fully satisfying as biography.
The same airbrushing is present, although to a lesser extent, in I’ve Seen the Promised Land, whose illustrations (by Leonard Jenkins) are less hyper-realistic and more atmospheric than Nelson’s and therefore give the book an even greater sense of storytelling rather than historical reporting. However, Walter Dean Myers does a better job of placing King’s story in context than Nelson does with Mandela’s. Myers sets King’s work in the era of protests against the Vietnam War and shows how it relates to the life and beliefs of Gandhi, whose “philosophy of nonviolence [King took] into his own heart.” Myers also highlights the contrast between King and Malcolm X, and shows how King’s approach fit into a time period when a bomb blast killed four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and President Kennedy was assassinated. And Myers shows some of King’s own uncertainty, notably in the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis in March 1968 – which turned violent and “was, for Dr. King, a disaster.” The result of Myers’ nuanced portrait of King is that King’s successes seem all the greater: he was a man who had problems, had doubts, faced uncertainties, questioned others and himself, and still persisted in what he believed was right. Myers does not get into a number of issues and controversies about King’s personal life, so the book – which, after all, is intended for young readers – scarcely provides a complete portrait of King as a man. But it does give an effective view of King as a leader – not a perfect leader, not a perfect person, but someone real, and worthy of admiration and emulation.
Sometimes the more-intriguing stories of struggle and survival are those of everyday people, not larger-than-life ones. Two books with fine Floyd Cooper illustrations, Brick by Brick and In the Land of Milk and Honey, provide particularly interesting historical perspectives. Brick by Brick is about the slaves whose labor helped build the White House – a little-known story that is certainly worth telling. Charles R. Smith Jr. focuses on the slaves’ hands in his narrative: “Slave hands blister under a bright, hazy sun,” and “Slave hands bleed under a hot, hazy sun,” and “Month by month, slave hands toil,” and so on. Slave owners are shown as horrible-looking: Cooper’s portrayal of them is a caricature, just as his views of the slave workers make them impossibly noble; and this is a shame, because it dehumanizes both the slave owners and the slaves themselves – who are shown as the property of twisted, deformed evildoers. The story of the slaves who worked on the White House is a fascinating one, and Smith’s back-of-book narrative explaining what happened (and how some slaves used money earned doing White House work to buy their freedom) shows that he understands the significance of the tale. The book itself, though, is more superficial than it needs to be, even for young readers; yet its handling of a little-known element of American history is worthwhile, despite the flaws of the presentation.
Joyce Carol Thomas’ book deals with more-recent and more-personal history, being her recollection of her own family’s trip from Oklahoma to California in 1948, when she was a young girl. California is the “land of milk and honey,” according to Daddy and Mama, and Thomas’ book makes the journey there a highly poetic one: “We ride into late afternoon/ past a snake whose body is a pen/ writing calligraphy/ on the paper-dry earth,” and “My sister unwraps/ a chopped egg sandwich./ I wash my half down/ with Grapette soda pop/ the bottle streaked with marbles of cold.” The highly evocative writing melds attractively with Cooper’s atmospheric illustrations, which use perspective in interesting ways – one showing a coyote chasing a rabbit as the train steams past is particularly arresting. At the end of the book, Thomas, a California resident now for more than 60 years, tells a little about how things have changed, “yet the quality of light remains, and so does the vital and warm spirit of my California neighbors.” In the Land of Milk and Honey is something of a love poem to Thomas’ adopted state, and if, like other love poems, it tends to overdo some of the qualities of the beloved – qualities that in this case are further colored by nostalgia – it remains a heartfelt tribute to Thomas’ own experiences and to the many people of all colors who, like her, journeyed to California seeking a better and happier life.