By all means, go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC. But Kadir Nelson’s book must be installed on your coffee table as well. Heart and Soul is a tour de force.
Nelson establishes a tone of intimacy by having the story of our country’s origins told from the perspective of an older African American woman. The story begins with Pap, a young boy who comes to Maryland on a slave ship, and ends with Pap’s granddaughter, the narrator, voting for Obama in 2008. Through Pap and his descendants, the events of the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights movement are woven together to make a coherent story about the effects of institutionalized racism on the everyday experiences of this African American family, and by extension, on the African American experience.
One source of power in this book comes from the breath-taking majesty of Nelson’s paintings. In an NPR interview, Nelson talks about the portrait of Washington sitting tall on his chestnut horse while an enslaved man holds the general’s hat. Nelson says: “I think it was the irony of this country that [was] created with the concept of freedom, yet a large part of the population [was] held as slaves,” he says. “So we start this great story about freedom, and then we have our first president sitting on his horse; he’s proud of his achievement, and yet his slave is sitting there holding his hat… The sun is rising, the sun is very bright on George Washington,” Nelson says, “but when you look at the slave, it’s barely hitting his face…” The inequality between the two men in the painting strikes the viewer with a punch to the gut.
What I appreciate about this book is the way causes and effects are explained, so that the history is not just a series of isolated events, as I had perceived it. I also admire the courage Nelson displays in laying bare difficult truths. Pap’s account of being kidnapped by slave traders is horrific; the stoic exhaustion of an enslaved girl sitting on a bed of cleaned cotton is heart-breaking; and, of course, the list of those terrible truths goes on and on. But resilience and determination, courage and triumph are held up to the light by Nelson as well. After voting for Barack Obama, the narrator ends on this note: “Our centuries-long struggle for freedom and equal rights had helped make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans. We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It’s our nation’s heart and soul.”
To hear Kadir Nelson on NPR :