“Any man should be regarded as the personification of the ‘Black is beautiful’ philosophy, that man is Tom Feelings. Feelings spent a lifetime as a painter, sculptor, and book illustrator underscoring this message. From the dawn of the U.S. civil rights era, when he came of age as an artist, Feelings was passionately committed to the mission of encouraging Black children to understand their own spiritual and physical beauty. Feelings remained faithful to that mission for more than 40 years.”
~ Biography of Tom Feelings at JRank
On May 19, 1933, a baby boy was born to Anna Morris and Samuel Feelings in New York City, New York. Named Thomas, he would be called “Tom” and was reared in the Bedford-Stuyvesant community of the Brooklyn borough. At only four years old, Tom began actively drawing, selecting to copy characters from newspaper comic strips that he enjoyed. The drawings were completed on the blank pages of a book that Tom’s mother had sewn together.
Within the next several years, he learned of and was then taught drawing by James Thipadeaux, an African-American art teacher who worked within the local branch of the Police Athletic Academy. From Thipadeaux, Feelings learned to be disciplined in expanding his abilities to develop his own subjects. These were inspired by real life people, such as his mother, an aunt and other children, who Tom encountered.
As he began to progress with his art, his interest in Black history was also piqued. The latter occurred when he was about nine years old. He had to undergo research in the adult section of the local library for a school assignment on Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, both of Tuskegee University, a historically Black institution of higher learning in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington, a celebrated orator, author and advisor to U.S. presidents, founded the university. Carver, a pioneer of agricultural science, invention and innovations, was the most distinguished African-American scientist of the 20th century. From this point, Feelings’ deep passion for art and Black culture would forever guide his work and life.
From 1951 until 1953, Tom Feelings matriculated the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. He was able to attend this school, presently known as The School of Visual Arts New York City, due to a three-year scholarship he earned while in high school. In 1953, he enlisted into the U.S. military, which allowed him to work as an artist for the Graphics Division of the Third Air Force in London, England.
Completing his term of service, Feelings returned to the States in 1957, where he resumed his studies at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School until 1961. Although his earliest published work may have been in 1953 with “Scandal”, the third issue of Radiant Love comic book by Key Publications, it would be his own comic strip, Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History (1958) that gained prominence. It appeared in the New York Age, a newspaper published in Harlem that was geared toward Black readers. Carried for more than one year, the strip was centered upon Tommy, a Black boy who inserts himself, via daydreams, in the lives and events integral in Black history.
As described in the biography of Tom Feelings at JRank, “Reproduced in 1991, Tommy Traveler told the story of a Black boy who read his way through all the library’s books on African American history. Referred by the librarian to a book collector named Dr. Gray, an awed Feelings was able to imagine himself back into the lifetimes of Frederick Douglass, Phoebe Fraunces, and other celebrated African Americans. The strip ran for about one year, but Feelings eventually discontinued it because the story form was too restrictive to display his reactions to the world around him.”
In 1959, Feelings began to work freelance, which he continued in this capacity until 1964. His art featured Black people in a diverse light that celebrated their humanity. As the JRank biography stated, he “became a visual art storyteller by expressing the beauty, cadence, and history of his people throughout the Diaspora.” Determined to focus specifically on Black culture, the artist was able to gain assignments with Black publications, Freedomways and The Liberator. His work included illustrating The Street Where You Live, a comic for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1960 and “The Negro in the U.S.” for Look, an American lifestyle magazine, in 1962. In the article for Look, Feelings visited the South, notably, New Orleans, to draw. Though he noticed that the Blacks, especially children, were happier due to when compared to their Northern counterparts, he clearly understood that life for Blacks in both regions was still severely limited by racial discrimination.
In 1964, Tom Feelings lived in Ghana in Africa and later in Guyana of South America so he could further enhance his life and art. For two years, he worked as an educator and illustrator for African Review and art consultant to the government of Ghana, which had recently gained its independence from European colonialism. His visit to Ghana had an everlasting impact that he detailed in his autobiography, Black Pilgrimage (1972).
Feelings championed in Horn Book magazine that “Africa helped make my drawings more fluid and flowing; rhythmic lines started to appear in my work.” The biography at JRank detailed that Feelings’ art showed that “new movement appears in illustrations of robed Ghanaian women that he painted for his 1972 autobiography Black Pilgrimage. Proud and graceful, they often seem to be on the point of swirling off the page. Another picture in the book shows the same state of mind. Against a forest background of gentle greens and beiges, women in Western dress with baskets on their heads actually seem to sway in unison along a path. Ghana proved an idyllic setting for the developing artist. The entire experience was a spiritual odyssey for Feelings. He knew that Africa was the homeland of his people as well as the cradle of civilization before the European slave-traders had docked there. His closeness to such history strengthened the bond he had always felt. It brought home to him the most enduring lesson about himself that he was ever to share.”
After returning to the States in 1966, he experienced two key events that were life- changing. He discovered that the publishing industry, inspired by the advancements made from the Civil Rights Movement, was actively seeking to fill the dearth of Black-themed books, especially in children’s books.
For the following three decades, Tom Feelings focused his illustrating for this genre. He collaborated with others and created his own books. He united with Letta Schatz for Bola and Oba’s Drummer (1967) and Julius Lester for To Be a Slave (1968). The latter work contained first person-accounts, vis-à-vis journals, of enslaved persons curated by Lester that accompanied the moving art of Feelings.
To Be a Slave was received with critical praise. In 1969, it was given numerous accolades and prestigious awards including being celebrated as a “Notable Book” by the American Library Association; “Best Children’s Book” of the Library of Congress Children’s Literature Center; and “Best Book of the Year” by both the School Library Journal and the Smithsonian. Also in 1969, To Be a Slave was the first book of its type to be recognized as a Newberry Honor Book. The following year, the multiple award-winning book by Julius Lester and Tom Feelings received the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award by the School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The other life-altering event occurred the same year that To Be a Slave was published. Feelings became re-acquainted with educator and writer Muriel Grey when visiting Afrocentric historian John Henrik Clark. She had returned to New York City in 1968, after having spent the previous two years teaching at an all-boys school in Kampala Uganda; she had also visited Central Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. Like Tom, she had experiences that strongly influenced her passion to educate others about the diverse aspects of the Africa Diaspora.
Courting, their relationship blossomed and Tom and Muriel were married in 1969. Though they divorced in 1974, their union was graced with two sons, Zamani and Kamili.
During their marriage, Tom and Muriel Feelings collaborated to create their own books. Kenya held the most fondness for Muriel and she used her experience to compose her first book, Zamani Goes to the Market (1970), which Tom illustrated. The main character was named after their son, whose name is Swahili for “a long time ago” or “infinite”.
From 1971 until 1974, Feelings taught and served as a consultant within the Ministry of Education in Guyana. Desiring to greater expand his horizons, he also visited other countries in West Africa, East Africa and the Caribbean throughout his life. While in these environments, he worked as an illustrator and consultant.
He and Muriel continued to work together, producing two more books, Moja Means One: Swahili Counting Book (1971) and Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book (1974). In 1972, Tom Feelings’ art for Moja was awarded the Caldecott Honor. This awarding rendered him the first African-American artist to win this distinguished honor.
In 1974, Muriel and Tom were gifted the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award in the “Picture Book” genre for Jambo. In 1975, Feelings was given his second Caldecott Honor for Jambo. The book won the esteemed “Biennial of Illustrations Award” by BIBIANA in Bratislava, Yugoslavia and in 1982, Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book was nominated for a National Book Award.
Tom Feelings continued to create, always believing in the brilliance, beauty, resilience, strength and wisdom of Black people. As shared in his profile at South Carolina African American History Calendar, this “outstanding artisthas received numerous awards and honors for his visual art, and the more than two dozen books that he has published.” These books include Something on My Mind (1978) with Nikki Grimes, in which Feelings earned a Coretta Scott King Award for “Illustrators” in 1979, and Daydreamers, written by Eloise Greenfield, in which he earned a Coretta Scott King “Illustrator Honor” in 1982.
For his own Soul Looks Back in Wonder (1993), Feelings won another Coretta Scott King Award for “Illustrators” in 1994. Nominated also for the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards for “Picture Book”, Soul Looks Back in Wonder featured pieces about Black children by legendary African-American writers including Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, with whom he collaborated on Now Sheba Sings the Song (1987).
From 1990 until 1995, Tom Feelings was the Artist-in-Residence at the University of South Carolina, a public research institution in Columbia, South Carolina. Also working as a professor of art, he taught courses in illustration. During this time, he created the powerful masterpiece and, perhaps, his best-known work, The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo (1995).
Building upon the varying shades of only black and white, Feelings depicted the life experienced by Africans prior to enslavement and aboard the ships to America. The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo, as per the biography on the artist at JRank, was “illustrated in his trademark style of understated color tones ranging from cream to storm-cloud charcoal to black. The book depicts the journey on slave ships from Africa through the Middle Passage to the Caribbean and North America. With realistic details and no text to explicate his drawings, Feelings shows the terror and horror of slavery. The slaves were shackled together between decks, many were killed by sharks while trying to escape, and torture and starvation were used to force submission to the ships’ overseers. In The Middle Passage, Feelings tried to tell the whole truth about slavery.” In 1996, Tom Feelings won his third Coretta Scott King Award for “Illustrators” and a special commendation from the Jane Addams Children’s Book Awards for The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo.
Because of the sensitivity of the topic, it is suggested that an adult share and discuss the book with a child for greater understanding. The acclaimed author and artist acknowledged the difficulty of the topic but also shared that African-Americans should find great hope and inspiration in being able to not only survive but thrive beyond one of the most hellish episodes in world history!
Retiring from USC in 1996, Tom Feelings continued to create, even after being diagnosed with cancer. On August 25, 2003, Tom Feelings passed away in Mexico, where he was receiving treatment; he was seventy years old. He was working on his I Saw Your Face with poet Kwame Dawes.
Tom Feelings was the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the Visual Artists Fellowship Grant by the National Endowment of the Arts in 1982 and eight “Certificates of Merit” from The Society of Illustrators. From his alma mater, The School of Visual Arts New York City, he was given the “Outstanding Achievement Award” in 1974 and an honorary doctorate in 1996.
His art is contained within the permanent collections and also exhibited in esteemed galleries and institutions, such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The Tom Feelings Artwork collection is held in the archives of Yale University, an Ivy League institution of higher learning in New Haven, Connecticut. This collection, as stated in its thumbnail at archives.yale.edu, contains “original artwork, dummies, prints and posters documenting Tom Feelings’ work as an artist and book illustrator. The collection includes the original artwork for The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo, which consists of 51 drawings, currently housed in 47 frames, created in mixed-media tempera, pen and tissue, heightened with white and collage; the artwork is accompanied by 11 text panels that were part of a traveling exhibition. Other book illustration projects documented in the collection include Now Sheba Sings the Song by Maya Angelou, Soul Looks Back in Wonder, and I Saw Your Face by Kwame Senu Neville Dawes. Also found are numerous portraits of women and children, as well as drawings of a Civil War soldier, New York City, and street scenes that document Feelings’ early career as an artist.”
“I am a storyteller, in picture form, who tries to reflect and interpret the lives and experiences of the people who gave me life. When asked who I am, I say that I am an African who was born in America. The answer connects me spiritually with the past and the present. I, therefore, bring to my art a quality that is rooted in the culture of Africa and is expanded by the experiences of being Black in America.”
~ Tom Feelings