We are the ship: the story of Negro League Baseball.There are many tales in the history of baseball. Some, even about the founding of baseball itself. It's widely believed that baseball was invented by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the mid 1800s.
According to Kadir Nelson, author and illustrator of We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball (Hyperion, 2008), however, "That is just another tall tale, 'cause no one really knows for sure."
But one thing is certain: Soon after that, baseball was played just about everywhere in this country, by all sorts of people, including African Americans. Ultimately, teams were organized and then they became professional.
The origins of Negro League baseball can be traced as far back as the post-Civil War period, all the way to 1947, when the great Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers and helped propel the team to a National League pennant. In this first year of major league baseball, he also earned the honor of National League Rookie of the Year.
From the mid-19th century through the mid-20th century, professional baseball was segregated, forcing African Americans to form their own teams and leagues. In the late 1900s there were more than 200 black independent teams throughout the country.
By the 1920s, black baseball had become the most popular entertainment for urban African Americans. The Negro National League was formed in 1920 with eight teams from the Midwest, followed by the formation of the Negro Southern League and the Eastern Colored League.
The history of Negro League Baseball, along with painted illustrations, entitled We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, with text and paintings by Kadir Nelson, was published in 2008. Nelson spent seven years researching, writing and creating the art to document the long and involved history of Negro League Baseball.
He interviewed former players, traveled to museums, studied old photographs, and collected baseball memorabilia, uniforms and sports equipment to put himself into the shoes of a former Negro League player, and to re-create an authentic depiction of life in the Negro Leagues. The author dedicated this and, by extension, the exhibition, to the preservation of the history of the Negro Baseball Leagues.
The book and the exhibition present the history of the Negro Leagues, a story of gifted athletes and determined owners; of racial discrimination and international sportsmanship; of fortunes won and lost; of triumphs and defeats on and off the field.
It is also a mirror of the social and political history of black America in the first half of the 20th century. But most of all, according to Nelson, "...the story of the Negro Leagues is about hundreds of unsung heroes who overcame segregation, hatred, terrible conditions, and low pay to do the one thing they loved more than anything else in the world: play ball."
The New York Times praised We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball as one of the Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2008. Kadir Nelson was also named the 2009 Coretta Scott King Book Award Recipient.
Nelson is the award-winning illustrator of several children's books, including Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford (Hyperion, 2006), Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange (Simon & Schuster, 2004), and Just the Two of Us by Will Smith (Scholastic, 2005), among others.
We Are the Ship is the first book he has both authored and illustrated. The paintings used in the book as illustrations are now the subject of a traveling exhibition of the same title. The exhibition, containing 33 paintings and 13 sketches, originated in 2009 and will travel to museums across America through 2013.
The exhibition, We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball, was developed and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Art Services, an exhibition tour development company in Kansas City, Mo.
June 5-July 31,2011
Aug. 21-Oct. 16, 2011
Fort Wayne, Ind.
Nov. 6, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012
Feb. 7-June 10, 2012
July 1-Aug. 26, 2012
Feb. 3-March 31, 2013
HISTORY THROUGH ART
From ancient times to the present, artists have observed and documented civilizations, religions society, individuals and important events in a variety of media.
The history of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome is visually documented in sculptures, reliefs, mosaics, paintings and architecture. Medieval cathedrals--through sculptures and stained-glass windows--visually tell the stories from the Bible.
Impressive paintings document kings, emperors, presidents, heroes and even everyday people at work and play. In modern times, photographers capture images of wars, disasters, politics, sports and celebrations for almost instantaneous reproduction in print, television or the Internet.
Kadir Nelson is connected to this long lineage of visual reporting. His painted illustrations, based on years of research, document Negro League Baseball. Some images are based on visual evidence; others are
interpretations drawn from a variety of documents. This author/illustrator has created a visual history that will inform current and future generations of an important historical aspect of American life. It's a story that deserves to be documented and needs to be told.-M.M.J.
Mark M. Johnson is Director of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, Ala., and serves on the Arts & Activities Editorial Advisory Board.
* All paintings by Kadir Nelson.