If you are one of the fortunate humans who has shared a meal or a glass of wine with artist George McCalman, you know what a privilege that is. McCalman has an energy that is both chemical and radiant, thermal and nuclear. His artistry is often dauntless, unafraid to confront both strengths and imperfections head on. In his new book Illustrated Black History, this fearless power is on full display. Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen is centered around McCalman’s prolific illustrations and essays, featuring 145 Black figures integral to American history. There are names you will know like Maya Angelou and Nina Simone. And some you may not be familiar with like textile artist Harriet Powers, or Hannah Crafts, suspected to be the first Black woman to write a novel. As an artist himself there is sharp focus on indelible Black artists across time including Romare Bearden, Amy Sherald, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas and Faith Ringgold, to name a few.
Let’s parse its title a bit, starting with Illustrated. McCalman is a classically trained painter that spent the majority of his career as an art director and graphic designer. Each illustration is a poignant portrait. It is one thing to recognize the names of these luminaries. It is another to look them in their eyes, to bring their spirits to life, and so much so, that they radiate off the page. Black. Every gorgeous page of this book is filled with Black excellence. Black hardship and Black pain. Black joy and Black pride. Black creation and Black invention. Black loss and world gain. And History. McCalman’s book is the first of its kind, with each drawing accompanied by essays that are short in nature, yet ripe with the knowledge of Black heroes and their impact on the world.
“With every person I found and researched,” writes McCalman, “I was angered as to how this country could fail to celebrate the bounty these pioneers had brought to everyone’s life.” In addition to McCalman’s gorgeous historical narratives, the book is accompanied by five essays from Black scholars, chefs and writers that frame the collection. One that particularly stuck with me is that of poet, writer, and artist Marvin K. White who wrote, “We bring history forward. It is always relevant. It is never the bad hand dealt. Is never the snake eyeing you. We have not lost anything. Our bodies remember all of the moves.” McCalman’s book echoes that history is made by those able to document it, and those unafraid to remember. —Shaquille Heath