Tom Feelings: A Black Arts Movement

By Steele, Vincent | African American Review, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Tom Feelings: A Black Arts Movement


Steele, Vincent, African American Review


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. …

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