Ellington Was Not a Street by Ntozake Shange, illustrated by Kadir Nelson (2004).
The words of this book are taken from Ntozake Shange‘s 1983 poem, “Mood Indigo.” And that title is taken from Duke Ellington’s famous song. In the same way, this picture book circles back to the past and brings it forward again.
Which leads us to its title: Ellington Was Not a Street. Ellington was Duke Ellington of course. And Duke Ellington was one of the many influential men who gathered at Shange’s house when she was a child.
The art in this book is by Kadir Nelson, who is a painter’s painter, a master of beautiful realism that draws you in. No matter what’s pictured, it’s the little girl in the blue dress we look for. Her stance. The look on her face. The way she is an observer as well as a part of something bigger.
(By the way, did you guys know Kadir Nelson created Michael Jackson’s posthumously released album cover??)
“it hasnt always been this way/
ellington was not a street”
This book takes us back in time. Back to when the great men of Shange’s childhood weren’t mere remembrances, but were living, breathing, creating, pioneering people. Right in her home as a little girl. I can only imagine the impact such a childhood must’ve had on her. Listening around a corner to conversations about race and struggle. Meeting Dizzy Gillespie at the door.
“du bois walked up my father’s stairs”
“hummed some tune over me sleeping in the company of men
who changed the world”
“politics as necessary as collards/
music even in our dreams”
There is a tinge of sadness to this book because the writer is looking back to a more vital time. She’s asking us to remember, to travel back with her. And Nelson’s illustrations transport us.
I put this book in my “older set” section because there is, of course, a history lesson here. And the glossary at the back with details of the men depicted would be a wonderful starting point to a study of African American history, music, jazz, or civil rights.
There he is at the end of the book, Duke Ellington himself, echoed by the girl on the cover holding his record, her gaze saying, “Come, listen.”
All images from Kadir Nelson’s website.