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He Gives Kids the Big Picture

Books: In 'The Middle Passage,' Tom Feelings relies on drawings to convey the horror of Africans' journey into slavery.

May 13, 1997|DONNA MUNGEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The route to "The Middle Passage" was a 20-year creative and spiritual odyssey that has taken illustrator Tom Feelings from the curbstones of Brooklyn to the shores of West Africa, into the multicultural South American nation of Guyana and, last month, to UCLA to keynote a conference called Reading the World Through the Arts.

Addressing a crowd of 150 Southland educators, the trim, youthful-looking Feelings, 63, used slides to explain how he developed his landmark work. "The Middle Passage" (Dial Press, 1995) uses drawings to visually examine the horrific experience that brought millions of captured Africans to the Americas as slaves.

Using charm, a soft tone and sprinklings of humor, Feelings repeatedly emphasized the deep responsibility teachers hold.

"Sometimes the history is denied, especially if it is painful and especially for children," he told them. "But we all have a duty to tell children the truth. The younger, the sooner, the better it is."

Because Feelings believes most children receive the bulk of their information visually, he contends that pictures are vital tools in educating them.

"Never underrate the importance of children to read pictures," he admonished the attentive crowd. "They might not understand all the information right now, but they're constantly growing and six months later they'll see things they didn't see before."

He added that it is possible to touch adults by reaching for the "child" that resides deep inside each of us.

*

Seated in his hotel room the night before the conference, Feelings credited his mother's "Mama-made books" with sparking his interest in art.

"She would take paper, sew it on a machine, give it to me and tell me to draw a book," he recalled. He later learned rudimentary drawing skills in an after-school program taught by a Mr. Thipadeaux at the Police Athletic League. Today, Feelings laughingly recalls how he sometimes became annoyed when Mr. Thipadeaux insisted he redo his drawings.

"He would say, 'One day, you're going to thank me for this.' "

Such thoughts sustained Feelings during the two decades it took him to conceptualize and execute the 55 drawings that comprise the core of "The Middle Passage." There were times when he became frustrated with the slowness of the process, until he recalled the words of the late writer John O. Killens: "Too often, blacks tend to be 100-yard dash runners when in a lot of cases we need to be long-distance runners."

The long process at last led Feelings to a deep spiritual connection with his readers.

"This is not a quick read, rather it's like a long novel," he said. "So I did the drawings over and over again, because I was trying to do two things. One was to project the huge panoramic feel of the experience, because this happened to millions of people, but at the same time I wanted to create an impression, so you got the feeling like it happened directly to you."

*

Feelings believes exploring painful history in a creative manner can serve as a wonderful healing process.

"There was a conscious move on my part not to evade the pain, but to orchestrate these pictures to make them move like dance, flow like music, so you could examine both the joy and pain in a celebratory experience. I make people work: If there are not words, they have to decipher it for themselves."

After finishing high school in 1953 and a military tour of duty, Feelings sold his first professional work, a weekly cartoon strip to the now-defunct, Harlem-based New York Age. But by 1964, Feelings had migrated to West Africa in response to President Kwame Nkrumah's call to help build the newly established nation of Ghana. He landed an illustrator job with African Review magazine; it was during this period that Feelings was finally able to touch both the joy and the pain of the African experience.

"My mother had always made me feel loved, but in the 1960s the things happening to black people and children being killed as they tried to integrate the schools [added to] the painful experience of being black in America."

Away from the steady diet of negative black images, Feelings was able to finally see the hues, colors and richness of African life and relish in the joy. It was also during this time he started thinking about drawing the "middle passage."

He returned to New York City in 1966 and embarked on a successful career in illustration.

"I started doing children's books because I wanted to project what I thought about living in Africa. I also wanted the kids here to see, feel and maybe one day even go to Africa and see it for themselves."

*

As UCLA's annual literature conference came to a close, clusters of teachers compared notes and sorted through what they had learned.

Jerome Hurowitz, a South Gate elementary teacher who also conducts adult literacy classes, said he planned to incorporate the works of Toni Morrison and Tom Feelings into his next social studies lecture on slavery.

Lois Clark, a Riverside English teacher, was confident her students could benefit from Feelings' book. "I've just started teaching the novel, and I was about to give them an assignment to read a book about a slave fugitive. But before I do that I will use 'The Middle Passage' as a bridge."

Janis Beckford, an English instructor at L.A.'s Washington Prep High School, was still marveling at Feelings' ability to confront the brutal truth. "I was touched by his explanation to never be ashamed of your past," she said, "but to grow from your experiences, even if it has been horrendous."

Feelings returned to his home in South Carolina to finish his next project, which picks up where "The Middle Passage" stopped--the arrival of slaves in the South.

"I've already done the drawings, but once the slaves got there, things got very convoluted and complex, so this book will have text written."

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