Telling the Truth of the Middle Passage

An Interview with Tom Feelings

Following is an interview with Tom Feelings, whose latest book is The Middle Passage (New York: Dial, 1995). The book uses 64 narrative paintings to portray the journey of enslaved Africans as they were stolen from their homelands, crowded onto “death ships,” and brought under nightmarish conditions to the Americas. Feelings is the award-winning illustrator of a number of books focusing on African culture and the African- American experience, including Soul Looks Back in Wonder, which includes poems by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and Margaret Walker, and Now Sheba Sings the Song, in which he collaborated with Maya Angelou. Feelings was interviewed by Barbara Miner of Rethinking Schools.

How did you come to write the book? In 1964 I went to West Africa, to Ghana, to find out something about my heritage. Living here in the 1960s, and going through that period of particular pain of being Black in America, I wanted to find the source of joy. In Ghana, for the first time in my life, I felt what it was like to be in a majority, and to be surrounded by people who looked like me, and to live in a society connected to thousands of years of culture. One night, a Ghanaian friend asked me, “What happened to all you people when you were taken away from Africa to the Americas?” And I couldn’t answer him. But it set off in my mind the thought that one day I might be able to answer, not necessarily for him but for myself, what happened on those slave ships. It was 10 years, however, before I was able to start working on the project.

You started the drawings in 1974, and the book was just published this fall. Why did it take so long? I started working on the book in South America, where I was working for the government of Guyana. Guyana is a small Third World country that was colonized first by the Dutch and then the English. And they had brought in Africans to work the land as slaves, and East Indians to work as indentured servants. So the population of Guyana is overwhelmingly Africans and East Indians. When the country finally got its independence in 1966, the government decided to project this reality of who really were the people of Guyana — because all the school books were English images and English history. I was brought in to work with young illustrators and teachers in the Ministry of Education to help them show in their textbooks, in as honest a way as possible, the true history of Guyana. We were working on books for children and we decided to do coloring books showing how each race, each group, was brought to Guyana.

This experience showed me how the form of a picture book might be used to tell the story of how Africans were stolen from Africa and brought to the New World. So I began to work on the book.

I also had to figure out how to deal with the pain of the slavery experience. I’ve always been aware how difficult it is to tell a painful story, in terms of images, in a way that shows more than pain. It is clear in Black music, say in the blues, that there is both pain and joy. The lyrics might be painful, but there is also a rhythm within the song that is sometimes almost joyful. But that joy doesn’t evade the pain; there is a balance. I wanted to do this in my art: to show both the pain and the joy. It was difficult, and it took a long time.

It was the middle of the book that took the longest. I knew when I started what the first picture and last picture were going to be. And I knew both would be life-affirming. The last picture, for example, is not of a people beaten down but a strong, dark force still moving forward.

There are no words in your book. Why?

When I began to work on the book, almost immediately I realized that there were inherent problems in dealing with words to describe the Black experience. If you pick up a dictionary, there are over 90 negative connotations for the word “black.” And it’s the opposite for “white.” As a result, people are programmed by our language into thinking of black as a negative and white as a positive.

I wanted to see if, as an artist, I could use images to get past that racist programming. The more I worked on the pictures, the more I realized that maybe

I didn’t need the words— that the words might even get in the way — and I could rely on the emotional impact of the pictures to “tell” my story. I also wanted to get a kind of “call and response,” to make people work to get the meaning.

I did the line drawings for the book in two-and-a-half years. The painting in many different tonal values, which took another 18 years or so, were to add volume, to get the images to come off the surface of the page while going below the surface of the page, and to flow back and forth across the page. In the pictures, some things are clear and you see them right away. Some things are not so clear, and your mind, your emotions, have to go into them and work with them to feel them out.

A lot of people were involved in this book. One of the things I did, which I had never done before, is make a dummy copy while I was working on the pencil drawings. And I would let people look at the copies and make comments. Many people talked about very painful things in their lives that they remembered as a result of seeing the drawings. Even though they were talking about pain on an individual level, I was trying to take it in collectively. When it came time to paint the drawings, I tried to take that collective pain and incorporate it into the pictures. So there is far more experience than my one life reflected in these paintings.

Do you consider your book a children’s book? An adult book?

I consider it a family book. Any child who picks up the book and sees the images is going to come to an adult and ask, “What is this? What is happening? Why?” And the adult will have to explain it, to tell the truth of the images and that history.

This is something that has not been done in this society. To the extent one sees historical images of slavery in the middle passage, they were done by Europeans who didn’t have a vested interest in projecting the painful truth. They are wooden images.

There are no photos of the middle passage, but I used a lot of photos as reference material to help me with my images, especially photographs of dancers. I wanted a sense of Africa’s rhythmic dance consciousness there, reflecting the dignity of the people and of their bodies. I wanted to make sure that, no matter how painful the situation and images, it was clear that the person telling this story had a reverence for the people going through that experience.

I also put the map at the end for a specific reason. I didn’t show exactly what port the slave ships were coming into. So if somebody in Haiti happens to get a hold of the book, when they come to the end, they’ll know Haiti on the map, and they will know how their people got to that island. And the same will be true of people in the Dominican Republic, or Guyana, or Brazil, or in the South — or anywhere in the world where there are now Black people. They will know their connection to African people in the rest of the world. The book, and the map, helps answer my Ghanaian friend’s question, “What happened to all you people when you were taken away from Africa to the Americas?” But the answer is also collective. It tells the story of all of us who came from Africa.

I know it isn’t easy to categorize my books. What I have done is the same thing that many other Black people have done — which is, to start within a restricted form but to improvise within and ultimately transcend that form. You see the same phenomenon in music, in dance, and in sports. I try to do it with my art. I use the form of the children’s book, but am trying to also reach teenagers and adults. Now Sheba Sings the Song, for example, is an adult picture book about Black women. Soul Looks Back in Wonder is a picture book for teenagers. Again, I try to improve and move past the form, to go beyond what has been said the form could do.

Did you write The Middle Passage specifically for Black people?

Yes. But since it is a book, it can be opened up by anyone. Therefore, anyone is open to see, to feel the experience, to understand that the problems we are having right now in this country can be traced back to the slave ship. In the end, it is left for each human being who goes through these pictures to read the story for themselves.

Do you plan a follow-up book?

When I started, I thought I might do a book on slavery in general. I already have done 20 drawings on the South, so there will be a book on the Black experience in the American South.

I also hope that The Middle Passage will encourage young Black artists to go into the most painful parts of our experience and tell the hundreds of thousands of stories out there. The more artists deal with this painful past, the more the truth will be revealed. Even though this book took 20 years, I hope young artists realize that it didn’t kill me. It was painful, but I survived.

Black people are blessed to have a profound and dramatic history. It may not be an easy story, but it is a story of hope and triumph. I really believe that human beings can change things for the better. If I didn’t, I think I would have made as much money as I could, moved to an island in the Caribbean, and painted pretty flowers for the rest of my days. But the spirits of my ancestors don’t give me that luxury, and I don’t ask for it.