Book Review: Heart And Soul By Kadir Nelson

Happy Juneteenth! On this important day commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States, one book came to mind immediately. I am still learning, unlearning, and grappling with the ugly history of America and my role in its future. In this process, I continue to turn to powerful books, adult and adolescent, to teach me. Today, allow me to share a glimpse of this difficult, beautiful, and necessary book: Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson, 2011.

It is no small feat to tell the whole story of a country and its people. So it is important to know the voice of this book and its goal. In researching this project, Kadir Nelson painted and listened as the American story came alive. I dare not try to explain it better than he in his Author’s Note:

“I learned that whether willingly or unwillingly, African Americans and Europeans forged a new country together. And their interdependent relationship is what would sustain the new country and allow it to thrive. Although our beginnings were not free of blemish, the work of navigating through the marvelous words of the Declaration of Independence and the contradictory inhumane and discriminatory practices of the new country would help define the nation’s character over the span of hundreds of years. It is a story of the country’s continuing challenges of coming-of-age.”

Kadir Nelson, “Author’s Note” p. 100

To tell this story, Nelson again uses a singular voice: a narrator who resembles the family members who told him his family history, “a grandmother-like figure who would allow me to focus on major historical milestones that affected both her family and the rest of the country.”

The structure of the book is 12 chapters, the first beginning with the Declaration of Independence and the last with Revolution in the 1960s. As an old relative would tell the broad strokes of important facts, the chapters touch on: the beginning of the country and the disparate roles of Europeans and African Americans, the prosperity of the plantations on the backs of slaves, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Great Migration, voting rights, WW2, Inventions, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. It’s a lot to cover, most of which we all should have learned the facts of in school; but in his amazing way, Nelson has written this story with heart. It’s all important, and it all comes alive with interest and humanity.

The book ends with an Epilogue from the narrator. She tells of all that continues to come: wars and leaders and death and injustice. But she also tells of joy. She ends the narrative with accomplishments of Black folk like becoming leaders in communities and the government, and finally of being able to cast her vote for the first Black President.

“Our centuries-long struggle for freedom and equal rights had helped make the American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness a reality for all Americans. We have come a mighty long way, honey, and we still have a good ways to go, but that promise and the right to fight for it is worth every ounce of its weight in gold. It is our nation’s heart and soul.”

p. 99

This book, in its 100 page heft, is merely an introduction to American History. It is a hard read, moving in its storytelling and especially the always breathtaking paintings by Kadir Nelson. It is an intimate introduction and an inspiration to continue learning more about the “heart and soul” of America as connected through our unique family stories.

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