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Tom Feelings Biography

Drawing the Story of a Neighborhood, A Mission Born, African is Beautiful, New Worlds to Conquer



If any man should be regarded as the personification of the "black is beautiful" philosophy, that man is Tom Feelings. Feelings spent a lifetime as a painter, sculptor, and book illustrator underscoring this message. From the dawn of the U.S. civil rights era, when he came of age as an artist, Feelings was passionately committed to the mission of encouraging black children to understand their own spiritual and physical beauty. Feelings remained faithful to that mission for more than 40 years.

While the "black is beautiful" creed admits that support is needed for life's downside, Feelings believes that having great joy is possible in the lives of African Americans. He acknowledges that the sorrow arising from slavery and racism–as it resonates against the joy of surviving such ordeals–expresses the uniqueness of being black in the United States. He summed up this belief in the foreword to his picture book about slavery, The Middle Passage: "As the blues, jazz, and the spirituals teach, one must embrace all of life, both its pain and joy, creatively. Knowing this, I, we, may be disappointed, but never destroyed."

Devoted to developing the theme of black equality in a society that does not always practice what it preaches, Feelings left no doubt about how he wishes his work to be understood. In every book he has illustrated, whether written by him or not, he has been faithful to the statement he made in a 1985 interview with Horn Book magazine. "I bring to my work a quality which is rooted in the culture of Africa and expanded by the experience of being black in America."

Drawing the Story of a Neighborhood

Thomas Feelings was born in 1933, in the ultra-urban, Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. He began to draw at age four, copying pictures from newspaper comic strips into a book of blank pages sewn together by his mother. He was just a little older when he heard about Thipadeaux, a black artist who was teaching at the Police Athletic Academy in his neighborhood. Feelings showed some of his drawings to Thipadeaux. The teacher suggested that, rather than copying from other people's work, he try to draw some of the real people in his neighborhood. Feelings began at home with oil paintings of his mother and his aunt and went on to draw the adults and the wary, diffident children he saw around him.

At first, learning to draw was difficult. Thipadeaux pushed Feelings to improve, often making him draw things over and over. Nevertheless, Feelings was anxious to improve and enjoyed being treated like a serious student. When he was about nine years old, his eagerness to learn was heightened even further by the magic world of the adult library. Faced with a school assignment involving black educator Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, a famed black inventor and scientist, Feelings was dazzled to discover that the achievements of African Americans had merited respect from Americans outside of his realm of experience. He was too young to understand the artistic importance of this discovery—that he was beginning to see his neighborhood with the eyes of the objective observer.

A Mission Born

Feelings's surroundings broadened after he left high school. First, courtesy of a three-year scholarship, came a period of study at the Cartoonists and Illustrators' School in New York City. Next came a four-year hitch in England for the U.S. Air Force. After his return to the United States in 1957, Feelings pursued further study at the School of Visual Arts. While there, Feelings's personal style received an unexpected boost. During a discussion of art history that ranged through the works of many artists, Feelings asked the professor why none of the artists being studied were African. He was told that African art was regarded as "primitive" rather than innovative art. Clearly, the teacher felt that a painter's method was far more important than what was being expressed. Feelings refused to accept that as a lesson worth studying, so he walked out of the room.

Feelings returned to the world of the comic strip to bring the achievements of black Americans to the world's attention. His creation, Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History, began to appear in New York Age, a Harlem newspaper with a black reader-ship. Reproduced in 1991, Tommy Traveler told the story of a black boy who read his way through all the library's books on African American history. Referred by the librarian to a book collector named Dr. Gray, an awed Feelings was able to imagine himself back into the lifetimes of Frederick Douglass, Phoebe Fraunces, and other celebrated African Americans. The strip ran for about one year, but Feelings eventually discontinued it because the story form was too restrictive to display his reactions to the world around him.

By 1961 Feelings finished art school with an extensive portfolio. He tried to obtain freelance assignments but was often told by editors that he was limiting his chances by concentrating solely on black subjects. Encouraged by the magazines Freedomways and The Liberator, both with wide black readerships, he continued to concentrate on African Americans and their lives. In 1962 his determination was rewarded by an assignment that would appear in Look magazine.

While on assignment for Look, Feelings traveled to New Orleans, Louisiana. Despite the fact that he had to stay in a segregated hotel, he found the children happier and more relaxed as a result of the sunlight and the abundant food. This difference showed in his pictures of the children, who looked far less vigilant and tense than their New York City counterparts. Feelings did not forget to convey the sad truth that went along with these pleasures–blacks in the South seemed to have no more control over their lives than they did in the North.

African is Beautiful

The awakening spirit of African self-worth in the United States—symbolized by Rosa Parks's 1955 refusal to give up her bus seat—appeared even more strongly in Africa, where many former European colonies overthrew their oppressors. In 1957 Ghana gained independence. The new head of state, Kwame Nkrumah, made known his desire for an international cadre of black educators who could take his people by the hand and point them toward a future of profitable self-determination.

At a Glance …

Born Thomas Feelings on May 19, 1933, in Brooklyn, NY; died on August 25, 2003; son of Samuel (a cab driver) and Anna Nash (Morris) Feelings; married Muriel Grey (a school teacher and author), 1968 (divorced, 1974); children: two sons, Zamani and Kamili. Education: Cartoonists and Illustrators' School, New York, NY, 1951-53; School of Visual Art, New York, NY, 1957-60. Military Service: U.S. Air Force, illustrator in Graphics Division, London, England, 1953-57.

Career: New York Age, creator and writer of Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History comic strip, 1958-59; freelance illustrator and contributor to various magazines, 1961-64; Ghanian government, illustrator for African Review, 1964-66; illustration instructor, art consultant, Tema, Ghana, 1964-66; Ministry of Education, teacher and consultant, Guyana, 1971-74; University of South Carolina, artist in residence, 1990-95.

Memberships: Schomburg Center for Research.

Awards: Newbery Honor, for To Be a Slave, 1969; Caldecott Honor Book, 1972, for Moja Means One; Outstanding Achievement Award, School of Visual Arts, 1974; Coretta Scott King Award, for Something on My Mind, 1979; Visual Artists Fellowship Grant, National Endowment of the Arts, 1982; National Book Award nomination for Jambo Means Hello, 1982; Distinguished Service to Children Through Art award, University of South Carolina, 1991; Coretta Scott King Award, for Soul Looks Back in Wonder, 1994; Coretta Scott King Award, for The Middle Passage, 1996.

In 1964 Tom Feelings went to the Ghanian city of Tema to join other African Americans recruited by the Nkrumah government. He worked both for the government's magazine, African Review, and as a children's book illustrator. Feelings exulted in being among the majority and in achieving his most important goal—to aid in the production of positive images for black children.

As Feelings told Horn Book magazine in 1985, "Africa helped make my drawings more fluid and flowing; rhythmic lines started to appear in my work." Some of this new movement appears in illustrations of robed Ghanian women that he painted for his 1972 autobiography Black Pilgrimage. Proud and graceful, they often seem to be on the point of swirling off the page. Another picture in the book shows the same state of mind. Against a forest background of gentle greens and beiges, women in Western dress with baskets on their heads actually seem to sway in unison along a path.

Ghana proved an idyllic setting for the developing artist. The entire experience was a spiritual odyssey for Feelings. He knew that Africa was the homeland of his people as well as the cradle of civilization before the European slave-traders had docked there. His closeness to such history strengthened the bond he had always felt. It brought home to him the most enduring lesson about himself that he was ever to share. Feelings explained in Black Pilgrimage: "I am an African, and I know now that black people, no matter in what part of the world they may live, are one African people."

New Worlds to Conquer

In 1966 Nkrumah was ousted by a coup d'etat. Feelings returned to the United States to find that the publishing industry had changed significantly. The blossoming civil rights movement had produced an insatiable hunger for African American history, literature, and especially children's books suitable for both recreational reading and teaching purposes. Educators' research had revealed a shameful scarcity of material with accurate representations of black dialogue and black people–stereotypes still dominated the written word. As a result, new emphasis was placed on literature of only the highest quality to be produced with black children in mind. New children's bookshops worked to supply the burgeoning market. Their demand in turn brought a wider scope to publishers, who eagerly produced a growing number of books for and about different cultures. It was a fertile environment for a culturally-oriented artist able to offer authentic visions of Africa.

Buttressed by an overflowing portfolio, Feelings started to illustrate children's picture books immediately. First came Bola and the Oba's Drummers from McGraw-Hill; then in 1971 he illustrated Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book. The book proved to be a turning point. The text, written by his wife Muriel, explained the numbers in Swahili, a language spoken by millions of people in East Africa. Feelings's drawings gave African American children an authentic feel for a different culture by introducing them to Kenyan landmarks and cultural features in particular. Many reviewers agreed that the drawings were beautiful and instructive, so much so that they expanded the book's original marketability.

Praise for the book was not universal, however. Sidney Long, writing in Horn Book magazine, noted that the drawing technique sometimes seemed too sophisticated for its intended readers—between six to eight years of age. The sophistication, he claimed, made it difficult to find the objects to be counted. A second reviewer criticized the appropriateness of the muted grey and ocher colorings of most of the pictures. Feelings explained that he simply wanted to make his work stand out in quiet comparison to all the bright reds, blues, and greens other picture-book illustrators used.

Applauded for Cultural Achievement

The following year Moja Means One was chosen as a Caldecott Honor selection, marking it as a runner-up for the Caldecott Medal. Named in honor of Randolph Caldecott, an English picture book illustrator who died in 1886, the award has been a mark of excellence in children's literature since it was established in 1938. The accolade to Moja Means One ensured that Feelings was on his way to professional success.

Feelings was also on his way to Guyana, a former British colony in South America that had once done a brisk business in slaves from Ghana. The Guyanese government in 1971 intended to instill its own educators and people with pride and patriotism while providing them with the modern education accessible to more industrialized nations. Feelings joined in the effort partly to complete the spiritual quest he had begun with his journey to Ghana.

Feelings headed the Guyanese Ministry of Education's newly-created children's book project while also training young government illustrators. Since the country possessed printing presses capable of reproducing only two-color work, he found the work challenging. He did not quit, however. Instead, he "rediscovered the lesson of improvising within a restrictive form," as he noted in Horn Book magazine. Feelings did leave Guyana and the government project there in 1974 in order to return to the United States.

By the mid-1970s Feelings had illustrated six books, including a volume of diary extracts collected by Julius Lester, called To Be a Slave. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to do ten color illustrations for a new edition of Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery. Despite the tragic subject, Feelings found himself continually painting pictures in warm and radiant colors that were quite inappropriate to such a project. Knowing these pictures would convey a falsely positive image of slavery, he cancelled the contract.

Multi-Generational Picturebooks

If the 1970s had been a time of new experiences, the 1980s found Feelings firmly grasping the themes that had been germinating within his work since his youth in Bedford-Stuyvesant. His autobiography, Black Pilgrimage, records a conversation with an eight-year-old girl that proved unforgettable for the artist. Feelings tried to explain to her that his drawings were of "pretty little black children, like you." The young girl expressed her refusal to see anything beautiful about the black children, replying, "Ain't nothin' black pretty." Feelings's lifelong dedication to the beauty of African people and their descendants graphically illustrated his inability to accept such a hateful attitude.

In 1981 Feelings's urge to show readers the potential and the intelligence of black children blossomed into Daydreamers, a book filled with the drawings of 20 years accompanying a poem by Eloise Greenfield. Daydreamers marked the beginning of a conscious effort by Feelings to appeal to adults as well as to the elementary-school-age children for whom the book was intended. This appeal to adult/junior readership came across even more strongly in Now Sheba Sings the Song, published in 1987, in which Feelings collaborated with poet laureate of the United States, Maya Angelou.

Warming to the idea of a multi-generational reader-ship, Feelings used short poems about children by several black authors for his 1993 publication, Soul Looks Back in Wonder. In addition to another Maya Angelou poem, there was a never-before published poem by Langston Hughes, who had died in 1967. Margaret Walker, whose 1966 novel Jubilee had become a classical description of American life under slavery, also contributed text. Though publishers and reviewers considered Soul Looks Back in Wonder most appropriate for children in grades three through six, one reviewer noted that several of the poems in the collection probably would appeal more to adults than to children. This divided readership is purely intentional, reflecting Feelings's profound belief that adults must help smooth the way for children. "Young black kids really are having a hard time nowadays," he said in Sandlapper magazine. "That's why I made this book [Soul Looks Back in Wonder]."

The Middle Passage

Feelings's 1995 masterpiece, The Middle Passage, is illustrated in his trademark style of understated color tones ranging from cream to storm-cloud charcoal to black. The book depicts the journey on slave ships from Africa through the middle passage to the Caribbean and North America. With realistic details and no text to explicate his drawings, Feelings shows the terror and horror of slavery. The slaves were shackled together between decks, many were killed by sharks while trying to escape, and torture and starvation were used to force submission to the ships' overseers. In The Middle Passage Feelings tried to tell the whole truth about slavery. He won a Coretta Scott King Award for the book's illustrations in 1996.

Though the Guyanese Ministry of Education was emphatic about the need for children to know the truth in their history books, Feelings found it impossible to work on The Middle Passage while he worked for them. His return to the United States allowed him to fathom the reason. "I had to be in a place that constantly reminded me of what I was working on and why I was working on it," he wrote in the introduction to The Middle Passage. "For me that was New York City. That's where the pain was."

Despite the grim visions of inhumanity that are illuminated in The Middle Passage, in the book's introduction, Feelings encourages African Americans not to feel depressed by them. "They should be uplifted and say to themselves: 'You mean we survived this? We made it through all this and we are still here today?'" After retiring from the University of South Carolina, where he taught book illustration, Feelings continued to caution black children never to waste their own potential. He died of cancer in 2003 in Mexico.

Selected writings

(Illustrator) Bola and the Oba's Drummers, McGraw, 1967.

(Illustrator) To Be A Slave, Dial, 1968.

(Illustrator) Zamani Goes to Market, Seabury, 1970.

(Illustrator) Jambo Means Hello, Dial, 1971.

Black Pilgrimage, Lothrop, 1972.

(Illustrator) Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book, Dial, 1974.

(Illustrator) Something on My Mind, Dial, 1978.

(Illustrator) Daydreamers, Dial, 1981.

(Illustrator) Now Sheba Sings the Song, Dial, 1987.

Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History, Black Butterfly Books, 1991.

Soul Looks Back in Wonder, Dial, 1993.

The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo, Dial, 1995.



Hearne, Betsy, and Roger Sutton, eds., Evaluating Children's Books: A Critical Look, University of Illinois, 1992, pp. 106-15.

Kingman, Lee, et al, Illustrators of Children's Books, 1967-1976, Horn Book, 1978.

Rollock, Barbara, Black Authors & Illustrators of Children's Books, 2nd ed., Garland Publishing, 1992, p. 70.

Smith, Irene, The History of the Newbery and Caldecott Medals, Viking, 1957, pp. 25-28.

Something About the Author, vol. 8, Gale Research, 1976, pp. 56-57.


American Visions, August 2000.

Horn Book, November/December 1985, pp. 685-95.

New York Times, August 30, 2003, p. A15.

Sandlapper, Summer, 1994, pp. 46-47.

School Library Journal, February 1992.

Washington Post, August 29, 2003, p. B6.

—Gillian Wolf and

Sara Pendergast

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