The Undefeated: An American Masterwork

Alexander, Kwame. The Undefeated. Illus. by Kadir Nelson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Versify, 2019.

 
In the long history of awards presented annually by the Association for Library Services for Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), rarely has a single book so completely dominated the universally prestigious honors. 
 
The grand winner this year is the marvelous picture book The Undefeated written by Kwame Alexander and illustrated by Kadir Nelson. The Undefeated is the recipient of 2020 Caldecott Medal, a Newbery Honor Citation, and the Coretta Scott King Illustrator Medal. The text is an ode to African Americans first penned by Alexander in 2008 upon the occasion of two momentous events that changed his life: the birth of his second daughter, Samayah, and the election of Barack Obama as the first black U. S. President. An early version of this poetic tribute was first shared on ESPN and created a sensation. The Undefeated salutes more than 400 years of the history of African Americans from the slave trade right up to the present day. The lives (and tragic deaths) of artists, athletes, musicians, poets, novelists, historians, soldiers, and civil rights leaders – the renowned and the unknown – are the central focus of the spare but eloquent verse. 
 
Alexander, who received the Newbery Medal in 2015 for his verse novel, The Crossover (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), does not present this ode to black America in chronological order nor are the multiple stanzas limited to single or even well-known historical and contemporary persons. Rather, each new opening line follows a signature pattern that begins with the words “This is for the...” and ends with bold adjectives beginning with the letter “U” as in “unforgettable,” “undeniable,” “unflappable,” “unafraid,” “unspeakable,” “unlimited,” and “unbelievable.” The initial opening line, for example, “This is for the unforgettable,” sings the praises of a singular 20th Century hero, Jesse Owens, who made Olympic history winning four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Summer Games thus spoiling Adolph Hitler’s intended world stage of white supremacy. Later, another opening line “This is for the unbelievable. The We Real Cool ones” honors multiple black jazz heroes Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald. Yet another stanza begins “This is for the unafraid… .” It heralds the unknown black soldiers who greatly contributed to the Union victory of the Civil War. 
 
Kadir Nelson’s oil paintings are an artistic tour de force. A brilliant burst of bold, triumphant colors vibrantly portray such great black athletes as Jesse Owens, Muhammed Ali, Althea Gibson, Michael Jordan, Lebron James, and Serena Williams to illustrate the victorious opening line, “This is for the unlimited, unstoppable ones.” In dramatic contrast, for the line “This is for the unspeakable,” the artist uses dark and somber sepia pigments to portray the glass-shattered framed portraits of the four young girls whose promising lives were ended during the racially-motivated bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama as the innocent children attended Sunday School on the morning of September 15, 1963.
 
Nelson’s photo-realism visual profiles of African Americans, known and unknown, individual and multiple – are splendid. Sometimes, a double-page spread features a single individual while other spreads feature many great black Americans. One of the illustrator’s most dramatic and telling visual statements is to leave one page totally blank to symbolize the “unforgettable” deeds of African Americans that were deliberately left out of the pages of racist American histories. Nelson’s gallery of oil portraits of brave black Americans is stunning. It is extraordinary that visually reading a book is akin to visiting an art museum. Seldom have the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Medals been given to such a beautiful work of art. 
 
As impressively creative as Kwame Alexander’s ode, The Undefeated is, readers of virtually all ages will want to spend much time reading the substantial end matter. Although written in prose, the full-page Author Statement reveals that verse may be his metier. BLACK. LIVES. MATTER. repeated over and over again become a resounding statement of Alexander’s theme. He use words and cites the deeds of Maya Angelou, Wilma Rudolph, and Zora Neale Hurston to remind his daughters and their friends and families to never, ever give up. They may encounter defeats. They may even get knocked down. But they must always keep rising because BLACK. LIVES. MATTER. The Author Statement is then followed with more than 30 informative capsule biographies of all the known black heroes that Kadir Nelson depicts. If for no other reason (and there is so much more!), the back matter is a model, an example of how gifted writers and illustrators should explain and document their master works.  
 
In its totality, Alexander and Nelson present a model of how to combine poetry, art, history, and biography. Every upper elementary child and adult should absolutely read and re-read this book. It should be a staple during Black History Month in February and national poetry month in April. Of course, those are only two very special times. This remarkable book should be in every school, every library, and every home regardless of geography. The history lesson is exceptional and the artwork is magnificent. 
 
 
 
Activities for Teachers and Homeschoolers
 
Invite students to select any of the noteworthy African Americans saluted in the words and pictures of The Undefeated and who are further profiled in brief end matter biographical sketches. Using such diverse Internet media as music, words, and photographs, research the life of a single individual and prepare a salute to be shared with age or classmates and family members. 
 
Encourage creative youths to model The Undefeated to create an original tribute to great individuals who represent the historic triumphs and tragedies of Native American, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, Asian, Disabled, GLBT and other often oppressed minority populations. Students can use prose or poetry to celebrate greatness and explore creative ways to illustrate the text (e.g., collage, graphic novel-style, watercolors). For example, students can fashion their own word-and-image celebrations of great American Jewish men and women such as Emma Lazarus, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Maurice Sendak, Elie Wiesel, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Paul Newman, Bernie Sanders, Lauren Bacall, Niels Bohr, Steven Spielberg, and Saul Bellow. 
 
The Undefeated is a kaleidoscope of black history that spans more than four centuries. At the opposite end of historical perspectives is another recently celebrated picture book, A Place to Land: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Speech That Inspired a Nation (Holiday House, 2019) written by Barry Wittenstein and gloriously illustrated by the legendary Jerry Pinkney. A Place to Land focuses upon a single event in the history of African Americans, the 1963 March on Washington and particularly the oration by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that became known as “I Have a Dream.” In design, both pictures books are similar. Dramatic words and images recreate history for today’s youths. Utilizing A Place to Land as a model, challenge students to focus on a single event in the vast history of African Americans. One example might be to research and then create an ode or prose narrative, complete with arresting illustrations, of a single historical moment such as Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Sunday concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that was witnessed live by more than 75,000 people of all races, creeds, and backgrounds as well as broadcast by radio across the entire nation. With the iconic marble statue of Abraham Lincoln in the background, Anderson’s first sung words were “My country ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty...Let freedom ring!”
 
The inside back panel of the dust jacket for The Undefeated lists the personal web site addresses of both the author and illustrator. Invite student to make great use of the Internet to visit these content-rich pages and learn much more about how creative adults work. One example is the NPR interview with Kadir Nelson explaining why he chose to create the award-winning illustrations in the manner that he did. The illustrator reveals why he could not bring himself to create a visually pleasing work of art in order to depict the transatlantic slave trade. The subject matter was simply too difficult. He felt compelled to paint an unsettling and dark visual spread. Each spread in the book is similarly explained, even including an eloquent testimony as to why he left one page blank to represent those people who didn’t survive. “It is a moment of silence. It’s a moment of pause to provoke thought about all of those who didn’t make it...and all of those voices who have been silenced.”