{book} a legacy, a man, a company of men, and Ntozake Shange

on

30 days of pbDay Twenty-Nine: Ellington Was Not a Street

Written by Ntozake Shange

Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

Simon & Schuster for Young Readers [text: 1983] 2004

ellington2The narrative of Ellington Was Not a Street comes from Ntozake Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo” (from A Daughter’s Geography, 1983). The poem, excerpted for the picture book, is a reflection of and tribute to a legacy of African American innovator, a “company of men” “who changed the world.” It is a personal poem of a young Shange (nee Paulette Williams) whose home nurtured and was nurtured by this company of men.

Only such gorgeously wrought poem could withstand the company of Kadir Nelson’s illustrations. The images themselves (as Sean, an Artist, breathed “precise”) have a precision a poet, too, would recognize.

 

ellington celebrating-the-duke

You may want to read with some kind of liquid precision the first time through, caught in a rhythm of the words, but plan the time to linger again and again on an image, a deeply impactful moment Shange and Nelson have crafted. It took me a stretch of time to pull away from the cover, then from the portrait facing the title page (‘piano’ image above). I was drawn to circle

our house was filled with all kinda folks

our windows were not cement or steel

our doors opened like our daddy’s arms

held us safe & loved

As the narrative acknowledges the simultaneity of then and now, the illustrations move back and forth in time between the streetscape whether the narrator reminisces and her childhood home. Her home is quiet, interior, full of warm patterns. The street is busy with a different sort of liveliness, other textures that are met with rain. The narrator holds a red umbrella amongst the institutionalized black, a “Don’t Walk” sign flashing at the intersection.

Our narrator, she is small in the presence of the company, her and her brother, and she is small in this house (another of her surroundings), but she is without question present, never forgotten, and cherished (e.g. a man’s suit jacket draped over her as a blanket as she sleeps on the couch).

ellington fps-133397_2zThe images are real, not abstracted. The poem is hardly abstract, but an illustrator could have reinterpreted the narrative into something more ephemeral. The detail in the setting, the verisimilitude of the portrait, the inclusion of a group sitting for a ‘photograph,’ these establish the very real and tangible existence of the life/lives represented.

Ellington Was Not a Street includes two pages of biographies using excerpted images from the narrative, “More About a Few of the Men ‘Who Changed the World’:” (I will list them as the book does) : Paul Robeson, William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois, Ray Barretto, Earlington Carl “Sonny Til” Tilghman, John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington, Virgil “Honey Bear” Akins, The Clovers.

The endpage at the close shares narrative the in its stanzaic form of “Mood Indigo.” Of course “Mood Indigo” is also a musical composition by Duke Ellington, so exquisitely observed on the vinyl held by our narrator on the cover: the record, an RCA Victor special of Mood Indigo by Duke Ellington and his famous orchestra. I have a YouTube option, undoubtedly a lesser quality, if you are interested.

Do I really have to say it? You really must find a copy of Ellington Was Not a Street.

ellington cover

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Ntozake_Shange,_Reid_Lecture,_Women_Issues_Luncheon,_Women's_Center,_November_1978
Ntozake Shange, Barnard College, Reid Lecture, November 1978 via Barnard College Archives

Poet, performance artist, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. She earned a B.A. in American Studies from Barnard College in 1970, and then left New York to pursue graduate studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. It was during this time that she took the name “Ntozake” (“she who comes into her own things”) “Shange” (“she who walks like a lion”) from the Zulu dialect Xhosa. She received an M.A. in American Studies from USC in 1973. […] She is the author of multiple children’s books and prose works, including Some Sing, Some Cry (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998), See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays & Accounts, 1976-1983 (1984), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (1982), and The Black Book (1986, with Robert Mapplethorpe).

Kadir Nelson is an award-winning American artist whose works have been exhibited in major national and international publications, institutions, art galleries, and museums. Nelson earned a Bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. […] Nelson has also gained acclaim for the artwork he has contributed to several NYT Best-selling picture books including his authorial debut, “WE ARE THE SHIP: The Story of Negro League Baseball”, winner of the Coretta Scott King and Robert F. Sibert Awards, and was published by Disney/Hyperion in the spring of 2008.

His corpus thus far is extensive: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans (2011); Nelson Mandela (2012); He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands (2005); Baby Bear (2014); Change Has Come: An Artist Celebrates Our American Spirit (2009); Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, words by Carole Boston Weatherford (2006)…. you can find listings here and here.

{images belong to Kadir Nelson, words to Ntozake Shange}

 

 

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