In a new picture book titled The Undefeated, artist Kadir Nelson brings Kwame Alexander’s “This One Is For Us” poem to life through eye-catching illustrations.
Written in 2008, the poem was inspired by the election of our first African-American president, Barack Obama, which coincided with the birth of his daughter. “This poem was my tribute to both,” said Alexander.
Kadir Nelson found the poem to be quite powerful, and decided to create a picture book to capture generations of Black American heroes who are now rightfully earning their light.
“It begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light,” Nelson told NPR in an exclusive interview. “By the time we get toward the middle and end of the book, those shadows have disappeared and the brilliance and excellence of the subjects have completely emerged into the bright light.”
But Nelson doesn’t only honor the well-known Black American heroes. There’s also an ode to those who survived America “by any means necessary,” as shown in the illustration below. “I just really think about people in my family, people that I know, who are the unsung heroes,” he explained. “The people throughout history who we don’t necessarily know — who we may never know — but all their contributions to the story of America are just as important.”
There’s even a moment of silence depicted in the book with a blank page. It’s for the voices silenced throughout history, for anyone left in the dark, for the heroes who were not seen.
“This is for the unspeakable,” reads a page that represents the slave trade. We see rows of black bodies and are reminded of the abhorrent past. “The subject matter is very difficult. It’s not pretty,” said Nelson. “So even though I’m an artist and I try to create images that are visually pleasing, it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that I think it should be. It’s striking, it’s unsettling, and it also gives you pause. This really happened.”
Nelson dedicated The Undefeated to the woman who perhaps inspires him the most, his grandmother. While her face may not be in the book, he is reminded of her through his illustration of the Black family shown above. “My grandmother, she is from the Deep South and she married my grandfather who was a white American and they moved to the north and created a whole life for themselves,” he said. “I come from a family of ancestors who were sharecroppers. … I look at what she was able to do to push her family forward and create a life for the whole family.”
“I see her face in all these faces,” Nelson continued. “I see her face in that family, I see her face in Harriet Tubman or in Zora Neale Hurston. All of these heroes who have drawn upon something greater than themselves and created beauty out of something that was not beautiful.”