Tom Feelings: A Black Arts Movement

Article excerpt

When I was eight years old, my Aunt Jean gave me a book that she had hoped would end my fixation on Christopher Robin. I looked at it and was genuinely thrilled to see faces that looked like mine. However, hours later, Christopher Robin, Pooh, and I were off in search of Piglet. Despite losing that battle, she continued giving me and all her nieces and nephews books written by Black people and illustrated with Black faces for Black children. At Christmas and on birthdays she waged war, setting her books against Pooh, Madeleine, and all the little White princes and princesses entrenched in my bookcase. It was not until I was a young adult that I began to understand my Aunt Jean's persistence. She was the kind of stalwart soldier the cultural revolution the 1960s Black Arts Movement called for, as was Tom Feelings. Since he began to illustrate picture books in the 1960s, Tom Feelings has waged a persistent war in the field of children's literature. If the Black Arts Movement died in the 1970s, then somebody forgot to tell him, for throughout his career, Feelings's work has mirrored the Movement's goals and aesthetics. A look at his body of work reveals that the Black Arts Movement was not a failure. Considered in toto, Feelings's work is a visual record of what happened to the Black Arts Movement.

In his autobiography Black Pilgrimage, Feelings states he was raised "in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Black community in Brooklyn" (7). After serving in the Air Force, he entered art school in the late 1950s, a period he describes as a "time of growing, active Black protest" (11). Even then his awareness of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement informed his decisions. He describes an incident in which he walked out of an art class after asking the lecturer,

"Weren't there any Black artists of significance?"

"No," he said.

"Well what about African Art?" I asked.

"That's in a different class. That's primitive art," the lecturer replied. I walked out of the class. I had to reject a history that did not include me. (11)

Allowing for Feelings's own romanticization of his life, this story illustrates an early sense of commitment to his heritage. At this time, Feelings's illustrations were drawn from what he knew. He took his sketch pad and "went into the bars, schools, homes, and streets [he] knew so well" (13). A survey of his early work reveals black-and-white line drawings of Black men, women, and children engaged in everyday activities. They were little more than depictions of Black life in an urban setting like Brooklyn.

Feelings did not find a concrete sense of purpose until he joined the African Jazz Society of Harlem, which he considered to be the "first organization to support the idea that Black is beautiful and that Africa is our home" (18). Feelings states that "the instinctive feelings I had always had and the vague ideas I had wanted to believe in became crystallized when Cecil Braithwaite, the president, spoke of us as a people who were African and should be proud of it. We defined our own standards and embraced our African heritage" (20). The group followed the teachings of Marcus Garvey, who advanced the theory of Africa as a home for American Blacks - or, rather, Africans living abroad. Garvey advocated Blacks returning to "Africa, their ancestral homeland, to help build and restore it to its highest potential." It was this focus on Africa, as well as the burgeoning Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, that gave rise to the Black Arts Movement.

The Black Arts Movement was intrinsically tied to the Black Power Movement. In his 1968 essay "The Black Arts Movement," Larry Neal described the Black Power Movement's overarching concern as "the necessity for Black people to define the world in their own terms" (184). In their book Black Power, Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton declared that Black Power is

a call for Black People in this country to unite, to recognize their heritage, to build a sense of community. It is a call for Black People to begin to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations and to support their own organizations. It is a call to reject the racist institutions and values of [American] society. (43-44)

Black Power called for Black flight from an America defined by the values and desires of the White oppressor, for revolution, and, as Larry Neal asserts, the Black Arts Movement was its "aesthetic and spiritual sister" (184). It envisioned an art that spoke directly to "the needs and aspirations of Black America." The tandem movements advocated "a cultural revolution in art and ideas" (185).

Art became a weapon with which to achieve the aims of the Black Power Movement. The credo of the Black Arts Movement, "Art is the Arm of the Revolution," embraced the notion that all forms of Black art were weapons for overthrowing White oppression and the White aesthetic. In his 1967 essay "Black Cultural Nationalism," Ron Karenga, a leader in the explication of the burgeoning movement, asserted that "all Black art, irregardless of any technical requirements, must have three basic characteristics which make it revolutionary. In brief, it must be functional, collective and committed" (33). Art was deemed functional if it exposed the enemy (specifically Whites), praised Black people, and supported the revolution. Collective meant the work was done by Black people, about Black people, and for Black people. Lastly, the art had to commit Blacks to a future that was wholly their own. African American children's picture books are rarely associated with the Black Arts Movement.

Generally, only poets, playwrights, and, to a lesser degree, visual artists are considered when examining African American artists' response to the Black Arts Movement's clarion call for Black images and visible affirmations of Black beauty. However, the emphasis on utility and pedagogy married quite easily with the inherently didactic nature of children's literature. Thus, even before Feelings joined the African Jazz Society of Harlem, he was producing "Black art."

One of his first projects was a comic strip entitled "Tommy Traveler In The World of Black History." He drew the strip sometime prior to 1960, because he felt "there was a need for Black heroes" (Black Pilgrimage 12). In it a young Black boy who does not find enough books on Black history in the public library goes to the house of a Black doctor who allows him to read the books in his private collection. Tommy falls asleep and "dreams" himself into the stories he reads. Beyond educating Black children about their own cultural heroes, the comic strip utilized a dream metaphor whereby the children themselves could become the heroes portrayed in the strip. It is inferred that the public library with its lack of books about Black people is the enemy. By emulating Tommy and learning about their cultural heritage, Black children can overcome the enemy, or at least the obstacles that stand in the way of self-knowledge.

Although the strip meets the criteria set for "Black Art," I daresay it is no different from much of children's literature. The obvious didactic purpose and intent of the strip are reflective of children's literature, particularly African American children's literature, even to the present day. In her book Telling Tales, Dianne Johnson points out that generally children's books are used "as agents of socialization, politicization, and of formal education" (1). She further argues that the pedagogical nature of African American children's literature is due to the fact that "... part of the legacy of African American experience is a justified sensitivity of African American writers, illustrators, critics, educators, and reading audiences towards past misrepresentations of themselves - a sensitivity which will persist until there exist a balance and range of various African American images available in children's books" (9).

Feelings shared this sensitivity partly because he grew up in the milieu that gave rise to the cultural and political developments of the 1960s. Bearing this in mind, I argue that Feelings's choices regarding the subject matter of his art resulted from both his personal estimation of the utility of children's literature and his involvement with the African American movements toward self-identity and affirmation. Feelings decided to illustrate children's books because he felt children needed "books - lots of them, in their hands, books with positive Black images" (Black Pilgrimage 42). His subsequent work reveals that Feelings did not possess the solution to the African American situation in America; rather, he was in search of it. This search begins with one of the first children's books he illustrated, Zamani Goes to Market, and comes to fruition in Soul Looks Back In Wonder.

Published in 1968, Zamani Goes to Market was not the first children's book Feelings illustrated, but it is the first of three significant collaborations with Muriel Feelings. It represented a move from Brooklyn to Africa in Feelings's work. The story was set in an African village and revolved around a little boy who was going to the market with his father and brothers for the first time. Although his illustrations still focused on everyday activities, they were drawn from a life that was, at least superficially, a world away from the life he'd known in Brooklyn. These illustrations were subtly different from his previous black-and-white line drawings, a change in technique which Feelings attributes to his two-year stay in Ghana. After returning in 1964, Feelings decided that line art was not enough:

I had spent hours in Africa soaking up the African sun, and the contrast between black skin and hot white sun stayed with me. I wanted Black children in America to feel that same delightful contrast. So I began to work in tissue paper, blending line with black tones against stark and subtle whites, breathing more life into pictures (Black Pilgrimage 62).

Utilizing his new technique, Feelings depicted life in a small African village where Zamani and his family lived in thatched huts and walked miles to the marketplace. In one illustration toward the end of the book Feelings inserted a car, a contemporary element which grounds the book in present-day reality.

The book is not a metaphorical trip to a fantastic place. Africa, as portrayed by Tom Feelings, is a real place with real people. The point is that Zamani's family, though in the present, still practice the ways of their ancestors. These ways as depicted in the illustrations place the family at life's center. Mirroring the text, the illustrations show an intact African family working together. It is interesting to note that the illustrations and story belong to the father and his sons. It is essentially their story. Rather than wasting time exploring the sexist implications of this choice, let me suggest that the tale is an attempt to redress the American myth of the Black male as an errant and absent father. Still, the most important issue is the focus on Africa.

Tom Feelings's and Muriel Feelings's interest in Africa led them to collaborate on two subsequent works which became Caldecott Honor books: Moja Means One and Jambo Means Hello. Published in 1971, Moja Means One is essentially a counting book. It introduced children to numbers using Swahili words. In the introduction, Muriel Feelings states that her intent is "to acquaint readers with what is unique about East African life." To this end, Tom Feelings's illustrations depict various aspects of African life and culture. He portrays children playing Mankala, an East African counting game. He portrays men and women playing African instruments, dancing African dances, or bartering in the market. Combined, the illustrations are a full representation of African culture from family to public life. Jambo Means Hello, published in 1974, is essentially the same. Utilizing the English alphabet as a touchstone, it introduces children to Swahili words that, when defined, provide a glimpse into African life. In the introduction, Muriel Feelings states the hope that, "through this introduction to Swahili, children of African ancestry will seek to learn more 'little by little,' through available books, people and travel" (7). Although the emphasis on teaching Black children about Africa reaches back to before the Harlem Renaissance, I believe that both Tom Feelings and Muriel Feelings were influenced by Marcus Garvey's pan-African brand of nationalism. These books were primers on African language, life, and culture. They were created in the hope that African American children would "one day speak the language - in Africa" (Moja 5).

Feelings returned to Brooklyn as the inspiration for subsequent books. Throughout the 1970s, he illustrated several books of importance, including the much praised Black Folktales by Julius Lester. However, it is Something On My Mind, published in 1978, that signals a return to America in his illustrations of children's books. The book's text consists of a series of poems written by Nikki Grimes. The poems represent an interior dialogue by the children depicted. For the illustrations, Feelings employed line art alongside the tissue-and-wash technique he had used for his "African" books. In a purely physical sense, this represents a beginning attempt to synthesize and integrate his experiences in America and Africa. As ever, the images are drawn from the commonplace. He portrays children playing, sitting on stoops or on benches, waiting their turn at bat. More significantly, these children are depicted in a wide range of emotional states. Some are happy, others sad or angry. These children smile, smirk, and cut their eyes. They are real children. Feelings liked drawing children because he felt that "Black adults have learned to hide their feelings, but children show it all - joy, sorrow, discouragement, defiance - that is what [he] tried to capture" in his work (38). His commitment to record life, to present a full picture of the African American experience stemmed, in part, from his desire to give children images of themselves. But his work also reveals that he himself was undergoing a process of realization. The publication of Now Sheba Sings the Songs in 1987 represents an epiphany of sorts in his development as an artist and activist.

Feelings solicited Maya Angelou to write the narrative for Now Sheba Sings the Songs based on drawings made over the course of twenty-five years. However, a look at the illustrations reveals a unity that did not exist in prior books. Included in the illustrations are drawings of both African and African American women. His technique, which at this point had evolved to a use of brighter and warmer sepia tones, is the unifying element. By rendering or reworking each of the images in the same artistic style, Feelings visually displayed a realization that he explicates in the beginning of the book:

For a long time I thought because I had lived and traveled in Africa I was able to see clearly the great quality of power, openness, and balance that so struck me in Black women.... But when I came back to America and looked into the face of my mother I saw it all there.... Finally, I understood that Africa's beauty, strength, and dignity is wherever that Black woman is. For Africa, Mother Africa, gave birth to us all. (6)

For the first time in his work, there was a marriage of his understanding of the African and American aspects of his experience. It was this marriage that gave birth to A Soul Looks Back In Wonder.

When Soul Looks Back In Wonder was published in 1993 it was unlike any children's book previously illustrated by Tom Feelings. The illustrations are rendered in full, rich colors and incorporate symbols alongside the figurative images. The illustrations strive to communicate rather than portray. For example, the cover presents two silhouettes facing each other. Between them are two books with a key suspended above them and the silhouette of a bird flying. My response to this image is that books are a key to the freedom symbolized by the flying bird. Feelings also incorporates notions of ancestral worship on the cover. The silhouette on the left extends backward, and set within it are a series of similar silhouettes which I take to be an illustration of the importance of African Americans remembering their ancestors, a common African cultural feature. In another illustration, Feelings utilizes a visual metaphor in the form of the children's game of marbles. A young boy dressed in white sits on the ground, frowning or scowling, face turned downward toward a white marble. To his left, a good distance away, are three other marbles, in the pattern of a pyramid. These marbles are red, black, and green, colors closely associated with the Black Power Movement of the Sixties and Seventies. The illustration suggests some sort of struggle or opposition between the white marble and the united marbles. This illustration and the rest of those in the book represent an integration of Feelings's personal philosophy and his art.

Unlike previous books, wherein his images were singular in nature and relatively straightforward representations of the things Feelings saw or experienced, Soul Looks Back In Wonder is a representation of what he thinks and represents a culmination of a process he began in the late '50s. That said, I do not feel that it is important that Feelings may or may not have arrived at some great personal understanding, since his work is a visual record of the African American struggle for self-identity and affirmation. From the beginning of his career to the present, Tom Feelings's work has reflected his commitment to the African American struggle to regain a cultural sense of self all but destroyed by the institution of slavery. His illustrations are a visual history of the Black Arts Movement and suggest that the Movement did not die so much as evolve.

Works Cited

Angelou, Maya. Now Sheba Sings the Songs. New York: Dutton, 1987.

Feelings, Muriel, Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Dial, 1971.

-----. Moja Means One. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Dial, 1971.

Feelings, Tom. Black Pilgrimage. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1972.

-----. Soul Looks Back In Wonder. New York: Dial, 1993.

-----. Zamani Goes to Market. New York: Seabury P, 1968.

Grimes, Nikki. Something On My Mind. Illus. Tom Feelings. New York: Dial, 1978.

Hamilton, Charles V., and Stokely Carmichael. Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America. New York: Vintage, 1967.

Johnson, Dianne. Telling Tales: The Pedagogy and Promise of African American Literature for Youth. Westport: Greenwood, 1990.

Karenga, Ron. "Black Cultural Nationalism." The Black Aesthetic. Ed. Addison Gayle, Jr. Garden City: Doubleday, 1971. 32-38.

Neal, Larry. "The Black Arts Movement." Within The Circle. Ed. Angelyn Mitchell. Durham: Duke UP, 1994. 184-98.

Vincent Steele is an artist, writer, and M.A. candidate in literature at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, He is writing a thesis entitled "The Black Arts Movement's Picture Book Legacy: Tom Feelings, Jerry Pinkney, and John Steptoe."

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