Picture horror beyond words Enslaved: Illustrator Tom Feelings' book, 'Middle Passage,' is a wordless narrative of the enslavement of Africans.

February 09, 1996|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

Middle Passage, the deadly journey of enslaved Africans to the Americas. Millions survived that horrific crossing. Yet, their story is rarely told.

Tom Feelings, an illustrator of several award-winning children's books, understands why.

"It was so painful," he says. "The pain of the experience of black people is very heavy. Sometimes the pain of the present seems overwhelming, but the reasons why are rooted in the past."

Mr. Feelings, 62, spent nearly a third of his life researching that past, collecting stories, opening himself up to a collective pain. The result is "The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo," a narrative without words. The story is told in 64 black and white illustrations.

Working on the book brought to mind Mahalia Jackson's interpretation of "Motherless Child," says Mr. Feelings, who will discuss the book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Enoch Pratt Library's Wheeler Auditorium. He wanted the same effect in "Middle Passage," beauty and affirmation rising from sadness.

The preliminary line drawings took 2 1/2 years to complete. Then came 17 1/2 years of refining and reflecting, reworking, sometimes making six or seven drafts.

"Because it was a book, a story that is related to so many Africans in the diaspora and a very painful story, I decided to share it with people by letting them see what I was working on," he says.

Through this effort the book became more than one man's reflection on history. It became a challenge to tell the story of a people.

"I kept saying I must do my best work. Everything I had learned I used," says Mr. Feelings, who lives in South Carolina. "What I was afraid of is that I might not have developed the skills to do this, but this is an experience that came through me."

The book won the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award last year. "We were blown away," says Averil Kadis, a spokeswoman for the Pratt Library, who first saw the book at the ALA's convention last year.

The seeds of the work were planted in 1964 when Mr. Feelings lived in Ghana. One night a friend asked, "What happened to all of you when you were taken away from here?" Years later, he went to Guyana to train artists in illustrating texts about the former British colony's history. Mr. Feelings says he quickly realized he could apply the same techniques. He started researching slavery, particularly the Middle Passage. He read histories, accounts by slave traders and ship captains. Slowly, he began to build a narrative. "Essentially, I am a storyteller," he says.

Beginning in 1501 and continuing until the mid-19th century, about 10 million to 20 million Africans were packed into the galleys of countless slave ships. Mr. Feelings begins his story with a pastoral scene of an African village. From there on, nothing is held back. All the brutality is shown, the forced feedings, the rat-infested holds in which the dead and living lie side by side, the ocean depths filled with skeletons.

"I've used realism so that you have to identify with the human being who has gone through this experience," he says. "What I want to do is involve people emotionally so that it is something that is happening to you right now. You feel it right now."

He has chosen to do this without words. The English language, with its negative connotations for "black," is problematic for an African-American artist. In the second edition of Webster's New World Dictionary, one of the definitions for black man is the devil, while one of the definitions for white man is "a trustworthy, fair-dealing person." Mr. Feelings says he wanted his readers "to identify with the black and sometimes see the white as negative."

The point of view is that of the African. The cover painting shows a boat load of men, women and children being rowed out to a ghostly white slave ship. They are roped together. Those ropes seem to connect to the viewer, pulling you into the boat. Another panel gives a view over the shoulder of a male African aboard ship. A rape is taking place and he, chained, hands shackled together, is helpless to stop it.

Dropping any accompanying narrative also removed the barriers, the distancing imposed by language or translations. The images stand alone, undiluted.

"If someone gets a hold of this book in Haiti, Peru, Cuba or can not read at all, they can still read their story, our story, through these images," says Mr. Feelings. "I see this as a universally black book. I did it for black people, but because it's in the form of a book, anyone can open up the pages and take part in this dramatic and profound history."

In his poem, "Middle Passage," Robert Hayden calls the event a "journey through death to life upon these shores." Mr. Feelings wants his audience to focus on life, to come away with a sense of affirmation. Yes, there was death and horror, but the survivors and their descendants thrived on these shores. "I wanted to make sure it was clear I was showing a reverence for the people I come from," says Mr. Feelings.

His last panel shows a family of three looking to the future.

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