It’s hard to surpass the amount of talent that is represented by this combination of author (Kwame Alexander) and illustrator (Kadir Nelson). Together they have created a wonderful paean to African American heroes and heroines.
The magnficent oils by Nelson are mesmerizing by themselves, but the free verse by poet Alexander is stirring and inspirational.
“This is for the unforgettable.
The swift and sweet ones
Who hurdled history
And opened a world
“The ones who survived
by any means necessary.
And the ones who didn’t.”
The poem, couched as a dedication, continues to pay tribute to people of color and the roles they played in American history. The final spread shows the faces of young black girls and boys with the words, “This is for us.”
It’s difficult to resist quoting the whole book – the poem is that good. In an Afterword, Alexander writes that he began this poem in 2008, the year his second daughter was born and Barack Obama became the first African American president. He says: “This poem was my tribute to both.” He notes that he wanted his daughters “to know how we got to this historic moment, or as the famous Mahalia Jackson spiritual says, ‘You know my soul look back and wonder / How did I make it over.’”
He also wanted his daughters, “all of you,” and even himself to be reminded:
“… never, ever give up, because, as Maya Angelou wrote, ‘We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated.”
Following the Afterword there is a delineation of “Historical Figures and Events Featured in The Undefeated.”
Kadir Nelson offsets his outstanding paintings of notable African Americans on blank white pages, putting them in startling relief. The strength conveyed in his realistic oils are a fitting complement to the gravity and dignity conveyed in the book.
Evaluation: Both the poetry and the illustrations are magnificent. This is a must read, not only for Black History Month, but for any month.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019