Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans by Kadir Nelson

2011. Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins. 99 pages, 12 chapters.

Features: Glorious full-color, full-page paintings by the author, bibliography, extensive index, detailed timeline, Author’s Note.

Grade levels: Grades 4 and up (paintings and selected passages could easily be shared with younger students).

Genres: Nonfiction, narrative, biography, history.


Award winning painter and author Kadir Nelson brings his considerable talent to an ambitious project: summarizing the history of African Americans through highlights that span the years from 1565 (when slaves were first brought to Florida) to the present. For this task, Nelson adopts the voice of an “Everywoman,” whose ancestors arrived in America on slave ships, and who lived to cast her vote for the first African American president. We learn about the horrors of slavery, first on ships where “men, women, and children were packed like fish, chained together” and later in the fields of the South, where their beautiful songs “held secrets” about the Underground Railroad via which a lucky few would escape (p. 18). Nelson touches upon life on plantations, Harriet Tubman, Lincoln and the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan, the significant roles played by black soldiers and cowboys, the Great Migration of the early twentieth century, World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen, Civil Rights, Jim Crow laws, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., African American innovators and leaders–and so much more. Though it is difficult to present any topic in depth given the length of the book, the power of this sweeping overview is undeniable. We feel the heartache, grief, and oppression, to be sure, but through this stirring book runs an undercurrent of courage, resolution, and determination that will not be denied. Brilliantly written and visually stunning, Heart and Soul literally builds to a crescendo that will have you cheering even as you read. As one reviewer put it, “I closed the book and held it to my chest.” Indeed. Nelson’s use of the wise, grandmotherly voice–from one who has literally “seen it all”–is an ingenious touch. It personalizes history. But perhaps most magificent of all is the art. I have spent many minutes looking into the eyes of the woman who graces the front cover–is she the narrator? Perhaps. Even before you start to read, take time to let yourself meet the other people whose faces look out from these pages. Yes, this is a writer and artist who wants us to know about inconceivable injustices, but he also takes undeniably joyful pride in his heritage. And ultimately, it is that pride, that sense of achievement that resonates. This isn’t just a history book. It’s a visceral experience of black history captured, remarkably, between two covers. You do not want to miss it. Note: Topics like the sadistic treatment of slaves and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan are described honestly but sensitively, in terms that make difficult subjects sharable even with young readers. For his deft handling of such material we owe a great debt to the author. 

In the Classroom

1.   Background. What do your students already know about African American history? Are names like Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, or Jackie Robinson familiar to them? You may wish to list some names, events, discoveries, or achievements that stand out in their minds. Then, ask them to keep track (in writing) of what they learn as you share all or part of the book with them.

2. Art + Text. Though this is a long book to share in its entirety, you may wish to share selected passages aloud–along with the dramatic and beautiful art of Kadir Nelson. If at all possible, use a document projector for this. Be sure to share the Prologue aloud as it introduces the voice of the woman who serves as narrator throughout this historic tour de force. What sort of person is she? You may want to raise this question at the beginning of the book–and then again at the end.

3. Context. Where does history begin? Obviously, in exploring any culture on earth, we could go back hundreds of years. So how did Nelson know where to begin writing his particular version? Where does American black history begin? Talk about this. Then read Chapter 1 aloud, and renew the discussion. How great a role have African Americans played in building our country?

4. A New Perspective. Many of your students (especially in upper grades) may already know about the Emancipation Proclamation. But this is often presented as the end of the story–when in fact, it was the beginning of a whole new set of challenges. Ask students to think about what it would be like to transition from slavery to freedom literally overnight. You may wish to have them write about this from the perspective of someone making such a transition. Share the paintings on pages 38 (the young woman teaching her father to read) and 40-41 (“Freedmen”). What do we learn just by studying these paintings? Share Chapter 6 aloud. How was the reality different from the simplification so often presented to us? Have students write a short persuasive piece on what is essential for true freedom. How does their personal definition apply to the freedom people seek throughout the world today?

5. New events and names. In deciding what parts of this book to share (in the event you do not read it all with your class), consider what is best and least known. While many history texts treat the topics of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement to some extent, for example, fewer deal with somewhat lesser known topics such as The Great Migration (Chapter 7), black cowboys and frontier school teachers (Chapter 6), or the role of African Americans in securing the vote for women (Chapter 8). In sharing any of these chapters, ask students to identify information they find new or surprising. They might also write about this.

6. Comparison. Consider any chapter in the book–and compare it to the handling of the same topic in any history textbook (whether from your school or another source). Are the topics covered in the same way–or somewhat differently? Does the perspective of the person recounting historic events make a difference? Write about this, using quotations from both sources to support any points about similarities or differences.

7. Those faces! Try to imagine this same book without the art. What would be lost? What do we learn from the art that goes beyond what the words alone can tell us? Have each student focus on just one piece of art from the book in writing about what this artist’s work reveals.

8. Dedication. Notice the dedication (right before the Prologue). Kadir Nelson tells us he is writing this book for his own family–and also “for every American family whose invaluable contributions and stories have helped stitch the grand quilt of these United States.” Ask students to explain orally or in writing why Nelson refers to the U.S. as a “grand quilt.” What does he mean by that? Is this view important to his message?

9. The big idea. What is Kadir Nelson trying to teach us through this book? What is his main message? Have students write a short persuasive paragraph defining what they see and hear as the main message, and referring to specific text or paintings to support their view. Question: If a history book has a message, does that make it a persuasive piece?

10. Personal research. Critics have sometimes said that certain topics–such as the U.S. involvement in world War II–are not granted enough time or detail in this book (though others counter that the purpose of the book is to provide an overview). What do you think? Is there any topic that needs more time and attention–or anything the writer has left out that your students feel strongly about including? Consider current events in responding to this question. Have each of them choose a topic (one currently referenced in the book or something new) and do some personal research–through interviews (including family members), site visits, newspapers or other documents, or via the Internet. Write short “chapters” (one to two pages) to expand this already large story. What has their own family added to “the quilt”? Note: Students may wish to add art to these pieces.

11. Voice. Talk about the voice of this book. Is this the voice of a typical history book–or something unexpected? Does it work? Why did the writer choose to adopt the voice of a character he essentially invented, rather than just writing as himself? What sort of voice is it? How does it affect us as readers?

12. Author’s Note. Share the Author’s Note (pp. 100-101) and the bio on the back flap of the dust jacket aloud. What do we learn about Kadir Nelson the person from these two pieces? What motivated him to create a book like this? Does his personal story influence in any way your own view of history?

Coming up on Gurus . . .

What are you really teaching when you teach the six traits? We’ll explore that question, and later, we’ll look at Lane Smith’s gorgeous and touching picture book, Grandpa Green. Thanks for stopping by, and we hope you’ll visit us often. Please remember, for the very BEST in trait-based professional development for teachers of writing, contact us directly at 503-579-3034. Give every child a voice.