Book Review: We Are The Ship By Kadir Nelson

Baseball season is upon us! To herald in the new season, I bring this incredible non-fiction picture book about the history of the Negro Leagues. A hefty book in size and information, overflowing with breathtaking paintings by Kadir Nelson, this is a book not to be missed by baseball lovers everywhere. Take a look at We Are The Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson, 2008.

I grew up watching baseball with my dad. Though I was a terrible concentrator during my one year of little league, I proudly wore a homemade baseball uniform that had a matching one for my doll, and I excitedly awaited every time my dad would come home from work with some tickets to a game. I grew up in Kansas City, where for about 30 years until recently when they won the World Series, the Royals were a fairly terrible team and tickets to games were easy to come by. My childhood summers are permeated with memories: The long games in the heat of summer hoping for extra innings and chocolate malts. The sounds of the stadium with bats cracking and gloves catching. The smells of deliciously terrible food with the many vendors throwing packets to people across aisles. The anticipation of fireworks after home team home runs or special holiday games. Though I haven’t ever followed closely enough to be a diehard fan – watching stats and tracking players or teams – the experience of a baseball game, in person or on television, is still one of my favorite things.

During one of our first years living in NYC, I saw a children’s literature exhibit where a large painting of a black baseball player by Kadir Nelson amazed me. It was huge and striking and one of my first introductions to Nelson’s work. I scribbled down the title of the book: We Are The Ship. It was a strange title in my mind and I did not see a subtitle at the time; but I determined to check it out and at least see more of Nelson’s work. Unfortunately, it took me several years to follow through and find it. When I recently picked up a copy of this beautiful book, I was astounded at the enormity of it. It is most certainly not a standard picture book. I was also intrigued at the subtitle as I have never seen a book about the Negro Leagues, nor have I ever thought to learn about it. I was even more embarrassingly surprised to realize that my home town played a huge role in the Negro Leagues and even hosts the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Black history has never been taught well, and considering the formation of the Negro Leagues came from black players being forced out of a game they loved; it’s not surprising the history is not shared or learned broadly among white people. I’m so deeply grateful for Nelson’s work in this book – educating and celebrating the black men who fought for a chance to make a living doing what they loved.

Using a collective voice, “the voice of we” as Nelson describes it, We Are the Ship narrates the story of Negro League Baseball from the start in 1920, through the ups and downs, talent and bravery, discrimination and mass appeal, and the eventual decline beginning in 1947 when Jackie Robinson opened the door to the major leagues and successfully crossed over. Nelson presents the story in 10 chapters: aptly titled as nine individual innings and one final “Extra Innings” to close the book and the existence of the Negro Leagues.

The use of the narrator, the every player, is intensely effective, bringing you along for the story as if you are sitting in the stands listening to the memories of players firsthand. The narrator uses broad strokes, telling of the different teams and cities and swiftly moving through the timeline to give a thorough overview of the league.

But he also describes the many and varied key players in the league – those who threw, caught, and ran; and also those who owned, managed, and supported the Negro Leagues. Each character is brought to life through anecdotes, quotes, stats, and most especially the stunning oil paintings. It is ultimately a personal story, the fight of the many unsung heroes who played through hatred, poor conditions, low pay, segregation, and discrimination. All because they loved baseball.

It is a powerful history, and as history often goes, not pretty or tied up perfectly in the end. Nelson does a masterful job of textually and visually portraying the draw and excitement of the game, the struggles and issues that forced the separate league to exist, and the swift death of the Negro Leagues when the major league finally opened to them without fair compensation or fandom.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a thick, but swift read. It is interesting, fun, shocking, and thought-provoking. I approach ball games this year a little more wise and a lot more grateful for how the course of history was changed by a bunch of guys refusing to quit playing baseball.

People ask all the time if we’re bitter because we weren’t given the chance to play baseball in the major leagues for all of those years. Some of us are, but most of us aren’t. Most Negroes back then had to work in factories, wash windows, or work on some man’s plantation, and they didn’t get paid much for it. We were fortunate men. We got to play baseball for a living, something we would have done even if we hadn’t gotten paid for it. When you can do what you love to do and get paid for it, it’s a wonderful thing.

Nelson, p 77-78

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