STANDING PROUD AND UNITED, a multi-generational African American family is featured on the February 2017 cover of Ebony magazine. They stand before a brick home on an expanse of land with a city skyline visible in the background. The image illustrates a special package featuring 10 thought leaders weighing in on how black communities can survive and thrive during the Trump administration. The cover line gives a nod to President Obama: “Yes, We Still Can: How the Black Community Will Save Itself.”
The image is by Kadir Nelson, the Los Angeles illustrator who has created several covers for The New Yorker, most recently an iconic image of Martin Luther King Jr., last month. For Ebony, Nelson channels “American Gothic,” the 1930 painting by Grant Wood. Depicting a white farmer holding a pitchfork with his daughter by his side, the original image was intended to evoke 20th century Americana.
In 1942, photographer Gordon Parks captured his own version of “American Gothic,” with a portrait of Ella Watson, a government cleaning woman in Washington, D.C. The singular image speaks volumes about the state of race and poverty in America, opportunities available to blacks and women, and the hard work and dedication working mothers endured in order for their families to survive. Nelson’s 21st century interpretation projects a number of messages about the family, their status, and outlook, all of them positive and empowering.
A PAGE IN THE MAGAZINE features images of Nelson’s pencil sketch for the illustration and the artist in-progress working on the painting. He also shares with readers the meaning and ideas he wanted to convey in the cover image, describing it as a “contemporary spin” on the Wood painting.
“It depicts an affluent African-American multigenerational family in front of their brick home. They lovingly cling together and brace for an uncertain future. The mother and grandmother look on, preparing the family for obstacles; the father pulls them together, protecting his family; the young boy, with the help of his mother, holds an American flag. He glares upward, hopeful yet unaware of what may come,” Nelson says.
“The steeple over the shoulder of the father, juxtaposed with a sprawling Midwestern metropolis over the shoulder of the grandmother, denotes the challenges all families face as they move forward trying to find balance between their faith and the world. This painting offers a glimpse into American ideals, African-American patriotism and the love of family.”
“This painting offers a glimpse into American ideals, African-American patriotism and the love of family.” — Illustrator Kadir Nelson
The 10 scholars and leaders featured in the issue offer recommendations for navigating the latest chapter in America’s checkered history. In many ways, their insights are guided by the three characteristics mentioned by Nelson at the conclusion of his remarks. Each literally declares what time it is in via the titles Ebony editors have given their brief as-told-to essays. Newark, N.J., Mayor Ras Baraka says, “It’s Time to Get Organized.” Jelani Cobb, Columbia University professor of journalism and writer at The New Yorker, says “It’s Time to Learn From History.” Contributors also include author Isabel Wilkerson, Black Girls Code Founder Kimberly Bryant, and Historian Nell Irvin Painter, professor emeritus at Princeton University, who says “It’s Time to Run for Local Office.” CT
Kadir Nelson has authored and illustrated a number of children’s books and received Caldecott and Coretta Scott King awards recognizing his work. His books include “Heart and Soul: The Story of America and African Americans,” “Nelson Mandela,” “We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and “I Have a Dream,” which illustrates Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech.