The Undefeated

h1 May 15th, 2019 by jules

“The righteous marching ones / who sang we shall not be moved /
because black lives matter.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


It’s likely you’ve already heard this year about Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated (April 2019), illustrated by Kadir Nelson. For one, it received NPR coverage: You can listen here to an interview with Kadir.

This is a publication of Versify, Kwame’s new imprint with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And it’s a tribute to black Americans and African-American history. “This is for the unforgettable,” Kwame’s poem opens on a spread featuring a painting of four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. (“It begins with Jesse Owens literally jumping out of the darkness into the light,” Kadir told NPR’s Ari Shapiro.)

Turn the page, and see those who “survived America by any means necessary.” This is followed by the book’s most striking spread, sans any art: “And the ones who didn’t.” These five words sit in copious white space, the absence of any art speaking volumes.

The pages are also filled with dramatic, arresting portraits (rendered in oils) of African-American luminaries; the book’s backmatter includes notes on who each is — Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Wilma Rudolph, Michael Jordan, Duke Ellington, Sheryl Swoopes, and many more. There are also backmatter notes about slavery, black soldiers of the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Kadir depicts the transatlantic slave trade by painting the transport of enslaved Africans to the New World, also known as the “Middle Passage.” Slaves are lined up in rows, naked and chained. You can see this spread at the NPR link, where Kadir states:

The subject matter is very difficult. It’s not pretty. So even though I’m an artist and I try to create images that are visually pleasing, it was important that this subject be portrayed in the way that I think it should be. It’s striking, it’s unsettling, and it also gives you pause. This really happened.


“… who shine / their light for the world to see / and don’t stop / ’til the break of dawn.”
(Click to enlarge spread)


Kwame’s text is, at turns, sober and stately (“This is for / … the dreamers and doers who … / show us / the majestic shores / of the promised land”) and rhythmic and playful: “This is for the unbelievable. / The We Real Cool ones.” The font plays freely with size and italics. On the final spread, Kwame switches to a second-person voice, addressing readers directly: “This is for the undefeated. / This is for you …. / This is for us.” A closing note explains the he started this poem in 2008 — when his second daughter was born.


“This is for the unafraid. / The audacious ones /
who carried the red, white, and Weary Blues / on the battlefield /
to save an imperfect Union.”

(Click to enlarge spread)


If you haven’t seen this one yet, be sure to find a copy. It’s a history lesson, a conversation-starter, and an all-around triumph.

* * * * * * *

THE UNDEFEATED. Text copyright © 2019 by Kwame Alexander. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Kadir Nelson, Inc. and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Versify, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston.

2 comments to “The Undefeated

  1. […] and nonfiction books are no exception. Just look at Kadir Nelson’s museum-worthy masterpieces in The Undefeated [], Eric Rohmann’s finely detailed oil paintings […]

  2. […] second picture book we’ll read is Kwame Alexander’s The Undefeated, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. Winner of the 2020 Caldecott Medal and a Newbery Honor, this is, […]

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