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Now Sheba Sings the Song by Maya Angelou; illustrated by Tom Feelings (Dutton/Dial: $18.95; 55 pp.)

August 09, 1987|Juana D. Kennedy | Kennedy is an editor in The Times business section.

Tom Feelings, the award-winning children's book illustrator, and Maya Angelou, an accomplished writer, performer and activist, have combined their talents to create a paean to black women though drawings and poetry in a book intended for readers of all ages. In its evocative, celebratory style, this short book is in many ways reminiscent of similar efforts done in the 1960s, works that glorified the beauty, wisdom and resilience of black women. And therein lies both its weakness and its strength.

The simplistic tone of the book may have been part of the publishers' effort to "cross adult and juvenile frontiers." But its historic references and sensual allusions may be a bit obscure for younger audiences. While its insistent focus on the "beauty" and "spirit" of black women, without real attention to their more cerebral attributes, may seem stereotypical to more sophisticated readers--regardless of hue. This is a limited view black parents probably would not want to encourage.

Despite the considerable talent behind the project, its very nature makes it seem somewhat dated. One would like to think that in 1987 we would have progressed beyond the need for revelations about qualities that at long last simply should be accepted as obvious.

The 84 sepia and black-and-white illustrations were born out of Feeling's own discovery of the "power" and "balance" of these women over the course of 25 years of travels throughout the world. He chose his long-time friend Angelou to write the accompanying verse because of her shared perspective as a black woman.

Angelou was not a bad choice. She has published five volumes of autobiography, including the acclaimed "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," as well as four collections of poetry.

Although her poetry in this book lapses into I-am-woman, hear-me-roar kinds of cliches in spots, it nevertheless is the stronger portion of the effort. She opens with:

Mother told her secrets to me

When I rode

Low in the pocket

Between her hips.

History does not dissolve

In the blood.

Later, she writes:

I must stiffen my back

Quieten my face and teach a lesson in Grace.

As for Feelings, his skill as an artist certainly is apparent in the drawings--a few are so striking that they should be framed. But too many of them have an undistinctive, student-sketchbook quality that fails to capture the complexity and endless physical diversity of his subjects.

Ironically, Feelings' written introduction to the book is richer than his illustrations.

This is particularly puzzling when you consider that this artist illustrated Julius Lester's "To Be a Slave," a John Newbery Medal Award winner, for children's literature. And his own "Moja Means One" and "Jambo Means Hello," both won the Randolph Caldecott Medal, an award given to illustrators for the most distinguished American picture books for children.

"Sheba" began long before Feelings was aware of it. During trips to Africa, the United States, South America and the Caribbean, he took to making "random" drawings of what he calls "the extraordinary ordinary women" he observed along the way.

"I tried to capture a sense of the primal importance of black women, fueled by my growing awareness of their strength and beauty, so undervalued in the world."

One hot day as he was standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus in Ghana, he saw "a middle-aged Ghanaian woman . . . with all her kitchenwares piled . . . gracefully high on her head. She flashed a sunlit smile at me. . . .

"I knew at that moment that all I had . . . been taught about black being ugly was a lie. For based on those values, this woman was supposed to be ugly, yet I was looking at the most beautiful sight my eyes had ever seen.

"For me . . . as an artist and as a man that's what I had come to Africa to see, feel and have affirmed."

It is tragic that history has made this sort of affirmation still necessary for so many.

Angelou has the right attitude:

I am mate to Kilimanjaro

Fujiyama, Mont Blanc and Sister to Everest

He who is daring and brave will know what to do.

Now that Feelings apparently is no longer dominated by the influences that made him question the value of his own image, he should turn his artistry to stories about what these "sisters of Everest" are doing. There is no shortage of timely subjects. An excellent start would be Dr. Mae C. Jemison, of Los Angeles, who recently became the first black woman to be selected for the astronaut corps.

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