Award-winning illustrator Kadir Nelson makes his authorial debut with We Are the Ship (Hyperion/Jump at the Sun), which tells the story of Negro League baseball. Bookshelf chatted with Nelson about his new endeavor.
What made you decide to write and illustrate a book about the Negro Leagues?
In 1999 or 2000, I had recently completed three paintings on the Negro Leagues. I hadn’t intended to publish them in a book. I was just really inspired to paint them. I showed [the paintings] around and ended up selling all of them. Someone asked if I had thought about making a book of these images, and I thought that was a good idea.
Did you intend to write it?
I didn’t think I was going to be the one to write it. I didn’t consider myself a writer. But at the same time, I knew what I wanted the book to say and I knew what direction I wanted to head in. I didn’t feel that it was right for me to tell an experienced writer what to write. So I figured I’d give it a shot myself.
So how was the writing experience?
It was really rewarding. I had never written anything outside of my assignments for college, so it was great for me to be able to use a different part of my brain—the part that I don’t necessarily use while I’m painting.
Was it ever difficult?
I don’t think so. I spoke to Nikki Giovanni, whose work I really admire. We were doing an event together, and someone asked her if she ever had writer’s block. She said that there’s no such thing as writer’s block; there’s only a lack of information. And if you ever come up against a wall, it’s because you don’t have enough information. So I kept that in mind while I was working. I read a ton of books on the leagues, which really helped when it came to composing my own manuscript.
This project took you eight years to complete. That’s an incredible commitment.
I was initially supposed to deliver the book in 2002 or 2003, but it kept growing and became a lot bigger than what I thought it would be. One of the most challenging aspects of creating the artwork was finding the right visual reference because everything doesn’t always match up. There are a lot of gaps in Negro League history. You have to match uniforms, make sure the ages of the players are accurate. You have to find the stadiums that they played in, and many of them have been demolished. Every last detail has to be accurate. That was the puzzle that I had to put together for each painting. And I also had other deadlines to meet for different books and projects. Over the last seven or eight years I had to put this project down and then come back to it.
Was the illustrating process any different this time around because you also wrote the book?
There were a lot of moving parts. Usually what you’ll do is have a layout for the book and you’ll know where the illustrations are going to fall and which text is going to accompany the illustrations. This book was different because I didn’t use that process. I wrote the manuscript and then I created all the artwork. Where there were gaps, or where there seemed like there really needed to be an illustration, I’d fill it in. It was really an organic process. This time around I didn’t have an author to answer to—not that I always have to answer to one, but I didn’t have to worry about adding illustrations here and there or nipping and tucking words. It was all coming from me.
You got a chance to speak to and hang out with some of the players from the Negro Leagues. How was that experience?
It was a thrill, a once in a lifetime thing. I got to meet Buck O’Neil (first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs) and watch part of a baseball game with him. It was great to hear him make comments about some of the players and to hear him talk about his days in the Negro Leagues. That’s one of the reasons why I chose to present the history in my book through an everyman type of player, because when you hear history directly from someone who lived it, it makes it all the more real. You can relate to it easier than if you were just reading a textbook.
Is that also why you asked Hank Aaron to write the foreword?
There’s only one Hank Aaron and he’s a baseball icon. He played in the Negro Leagues, even though it was only for about a season, but he knew the history and he’s a shining example of the leagues. The tragedy of the Negro Leagues is that it’s full of “what ifs.” What if Satchel Paige was able to play in the major leagues? Or what if Josh Gibson was able to play in the major leagues? What if Hank Aaron wasn’t able to play in the major leagues? He wouldn’t have been able to create the history and set all the records that he did.
What do you think is a lasting legacy of the Negro Leagues?
One of the great things that came out of the Negro Leagues is that they created something beautiful out of something that was negative. Instead of giving up and throwing their hands in the air, and not be able to play baseball on the grander stage, they decided to create their own grand stage. It’s something that I inspire to do in my artwork, to leave something in better shape than I found it.
Did that legacy influence the selection of your book’s title, which is taken from a quote by Rube Foster [founder of the Negro National League and owner of the Chicago American Giants], which says, “We are the ship; all else the sea”?
I had a different title in the beginning, which was The Golden Age of the Negro Leagues. I had that title for years and it was one that I really liked. But as I continued to work on the book, I realized that it wasn’t about the golden age of the Negro Leagues. It was bigger than that. My agent asked me if I was married to the title and suggested that I come up with something a bit more poetic. I came upon the quote and read it over many times. I didn’t think there was any better all-encompassing statement that personified the Negro Leagues. It took a while for the folks at the publisher to come on board with it because it wasn’t a traditional baseball title. But finally it grew on them as it grew on me.
Do you think this is a traditional baseball book?
I really don’t think so. It’s a portrait. There are more portraits of players [in the book] than anything. I think when you think of a baseball book, you think of action shots. I haven’t really seen anything on this scale that has as many paintings and so much narrative text. I describe it as a combination of a chapter and picture book. I wanted it to be a very readable book that people would accept and receive well.
Do you want to write more books in the future?
I do. What those are going to be about, I’m not sure. This was a labor of love and I’m thinking I would like to have something else that would be similar in scope, but it’s about finding the right project.