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Caldecott Medalist Pinkney discusses the artistic process behind A Place to Land, his recent collaboration with Barry Wittenstein that’s centered around the days leading up to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and the resonance those words still have in today’s turbulent climate.
“I understood that in my art I had to redirect the tone of Dr. King’s remarks to fit the challenges of this 21st century, to view the “I Have a Dream” speech as a call to continue the struggle. As marching orders.”
Most children know about Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered August 28, 1963, at the March on Washington. But not too many know that the “I Have a Dream” portion of his speech wasn’t in the original remarks. Civil rights activists and advisors thought that King had used the “dream” metaphor too many times, and they wanted a fresh approach—something like “A Bad Check.” After all, the march was about jobs and freedom. But when King was at the lectern with the Lincoln Memorial as a backdrop, he could feel that his prepared remarks weren’t moving the crowd. Mahalia Jackson, a gospel singer who had performed that day, urged him to tell about his dream. That was when he put aside his prepared speech and began preaching. Barry Wittenstein’s A Place to Land, illustrated by Jerry Pinkney, takes readers behind the scenes the night before the march, when King stared at a blank page and contemplated his remarks. The book is a perfect marriage of Wittenstein’s lyrical text and Pinkney’s art, a brilliant use of collage, watercolor, and line sketches that illustrate the time and place and the sheer emotions King felt as he struggled to find the right words to inspire the crowd. It speaks to the power of art in defining history and offering hope for the future. I recently spoke with Jerry Pinkney about his work.
SCALES: In “A Note from the Artist” at the end of the book, you talk about your role in “visualizing and interpreting” Barry Wittenstein’s manuscript. Take us through the visualizing and interpreting process.PINKNEY: When I was in my twenties, the civil rights movement occupied a good deal of my attention, especially Dr. King’s speeches, the marches he led, and sadly, his death. So naturally, I entered A Place to Land with great reverence for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his “I Have a Dream” speech. I was intrigued by Barry Wittenstein’s moving and nuanced narrative that takes us behind the scenes of Dr. King’s famous speech.
The text was my muse and challenged my visual storytelling voice. Over the years, I have immersed myself in illustrating the history of the African and African American presence and contributions in shaping this country. I have often focused on individual experience to tell that story, and of course, my role as the illustrator for this book was to pull out clues from the text that expressed Dr. King’s emotional landscape: anger, frustration, elation at a taste of victory, and disbelief at how entrenched some of this country’s citizens were in their efforts to keep people of color down. But A Place to Land required a different approach to my image-making practice in that here, I also sought to harness the spirit of a pivotal moment in history, visually suggesting the mood and tempo of the time. The application of collage was meant to set a sense of place, and I kept my pencil-and-watercolor lines sketch-like even in their final form—very much like a courtroom artist of a high-profile trial—to speak to the urgency of the movement.
SCALES: It is clear that you conducted a lot of research before illustrating this book. Do you approach the research as a puzzle? When do you know that all the pieces are in place?PINKNEY: I begin each project with the mindset that the more I know and understand about my subject, the more options I have for creative exploration. A Place to Land is about the key players and organizers of the 1963 March on Washington. These are real people in history, and—particularly in the case of Dr. King—people who are already familiar to the general public. There was an overriding need for hard research, so I immersed myself in the photo documentation of all the many facets of the movement: photo portraits of MLK and his council, as well as photographic references of locations such as the Willard Hotel, the National Mall, and the White House Oval Office.
There are two paths to my research. The first is what I need for authenticity and accuracy, and the other is more abstract. I’ll often come upon an interesting photo vaguely related to the subject, but I’m not really sure I will use it. For example, the next-to-last spread where we see Dr. King and his fellow marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge. While doing my research, I came across a newspaper article about the successful march Dr. King led from Selma to Montgomery. In the photo the marchers were wearing Hawaiian leis around their necks. This photo had nothing to do with the March on Washington, but it stoked my curiosity, so I tucked it away. Later, I discovered that Hawaiian leis are a symbol of love, and I made the decision to use that symbol alongside rainbows to project a vision of hope (see illustration, p.10).
SCALES: The very first illustration is a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. in deep thought. This indicates his emotions as he contemplates the task at hand. Speak to the importance of end pages and first illustrations in foreshadowing the narrative.PINKNEY: I wanted to suggest Dr. King’s backstory, growing up in the segregated South, becoming a preacher and then a civil rights leader and activist, as well as where he’s at in this moment of writing his “I Have a Dream” speech. At its center, A Place to Land is about Dr. King’s arduous preparations as he crafted his remarks to be delivered at the march, so I wanted the opening image to suggest mindfulness. There were many factions and groups with differing opinions during the civil rights movement, and I believe Dr. King understood the weight of his words to bridge the divide with one goal: equality. I collaged in yellow legal pad paper, which he used for starting his drafts. The torn page is left blank to suggest someone who is deep in thought, taking in history, memory, present, and future, contemplating the magnitude of the task and figuring out where to begin.
SCALES: The illustration of the Willard Hotel, the reflecting pool, and the Lincoln Memorial on the title page establish the setting of the book. You have said that you are always interested in details. How do you know when you have applied the right amount of detail to establish an element like setting?PINKNEY: The title page is a roadmap and a starting point, very much like square one on a game board, and it should allow the reader’s imagination to open up to take in the content that lies ahead. I just trust my instincts, adding as much as I feel is necessary. I do my best to keep my artistic tendency to overwork my pictures in check.
SCALES: You used various items in the collage—wallpaper, legal pad, wadded up paper, etc. Tell us about specific items in the collage.PINKNEY: The march was well documented—there are numerous volumes on the subject—and I did not want to repeat exact images or reconstruct an event that was already seared in our collective memories. My use of collage provided a way to go deeper, and to see things a bit differently. I used photos to identify real places. But no one photo could show the pivotal moments of reflection and decision-making Dr. King employed in drafting his remarks, so I had to use my imagination. The addition of pencil and watercolor played the role of showing emotional interactions between the people who participated in the march. My aim was to infuse the art with the feeling that you were there: at the Willard Hotel, checking in at the lobby; at the Mall, listening to protest songs, clasping hands, and singing spirituals; and outside the Oval Office, peering in through a window.
SCALES: The names of civil rights activists who were advising Martin Luther King Jr. and historic figures are labeled in the illustrations. The messages on the signs and the cameo sketches of Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, and Barack Obama put the “I Have a Dream” speech in present-day context. This definitely tells the larger story. Tell us about your decision to take the reader into present day.PINKNEY: Originally A Place to Land set out to take the reader into the world of what went into drafting Dr. King’s remarks and how his iconic speech moved us all with a clear vision of America’s aspirations to become a nation moving forward toward equality and democratic ideals set out in the U.S. constitution. Then at one point, with the robust research phase behind me and the thumbnail sketches in progress, I began to reflect on those historic fractures and unsettled times of social and racial unrest—the systemic, institutionalized biases that MLK had worked to change. I asked myself, could Dr. King voice those very same words in today’s climate? And sadly, the answer that came back to me was yes. Marchers today could very well carry placards with the wording of the 1960s demands for equality: “We demand decent housing now!” “We demand an end to bias now!” “We march for effective civil rights now!” And knowing that, I understood that in my art I had to redirect the tone of Dr. King’s remarks to fit the challenges of this twenty-first century, to view the “I Have a Dream” speech as a call to continue the struggle. As marching orders.
What is imperative here is that we face reality in our current time, as Dr. King and so many others sought to do. In the last spread you’ll find shining examples of that continuum: Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, and the high water mark of America electing its first Black president, Barack Obama. I think of this spread as the arc of promise.
SCALES: What is the role of books like A Place to Land in helping children understand the dream? To what extent has the dream been realized? How might books give children hope that the dream can be accomplished?PINKNEY: If children are our future, they need to understand our past, and they have to feel invested in America’s history. I think it’s so important to find a way to meet them where they are. The language must be accessible to young people and presented in such a manner that they can find something that connects them to the content. This country was shaped by struggle, but I think it’s important to make sure the conversation ends on an upbeat note. Children need to hope.I believe Dr. King knew that more battles would need to be fought—his message was also a plea for going forward. Now we see initiatives like the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements, as well as the push for LGBTQ rights. We also see what is taking place on the American/Mexican border, and continued attacks on First Nations peoples. Today, the protest signs read: “Build bridges, not walls.” “We’re all immigrants.” “Make racism wrong again.” Dr. King’s message continues to grow. Young people must see that there is value in participating in efforts to strive for full respect for everyone.
A Place to Land. By Barry Wittenstein. Illus. by Jerry Pinkney. 2019. Holiday House/Neal Porter, $18.99 (9780823443314). Gr. 2-5.
Further Reading: Speaking Out for Civil Rights
Freedom Walkers: The Story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. By Russell Freedman. 2006. Holiday, $18.95 (9780823420315). Gr. 4–7.
A vivid account of the civil rights boycott that occurred in Alabama in the 1950s and sparked a change in the segregation and Jim Crow laws that had defined the South.
Heroes for Civil Rights. By David A. Adler. Illus. by Bill Farnsworth. 2008. Holiday, $16.95 (9780823420087). Gr. 3–5.
Thirteen civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, Ralph Abernathy, and Rosa Parks, are featured in one-page vignettes with accompanying large portraits.
I Have a Dream. By Martin Luther King Jr. Illus. by Kadir Nelson. 2012. Random/Schwartz & Wade, $18.99 (9780375858871). K–Gr. 3.
This powerful and familiar speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is illustrated with oil paintings that give a literal and symbolic interpretation of King’s words and scenes from the actual event.
John Lewis in the Lead: A Story of the Civil Rights Movement. By Jim Haskins and Kathleen Benson. Illus. by Benny Andrews. 2006. Lee & Low, $17.95 (9781600608490). Gr. 3–5.
One of the “Big Six” civil rights leaders who was brutalized on Bloody Sunday, Lewis was an adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. in the days that led to the March on Washington.
Martin & Mahalia: His Words, Her Song. By Andrea Davis Pinkney. Illus. by Brian Pinkney. 2013. Little, Brown, $17.99 (9780316070133). Gr. 2–4.
This story of a preacher and a gospel singer who met at the Montgomery Bus Boycott tells how the two came together to speak and perform at the March on Washington.
Martin’s Big Words. By Doreen Rappaport. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2001. Disney/Jump at the Sun, $15.99 (9780786807147). PreS–Gr. 4.
Words taken from some of King’s most famous speeches illustrate the profound meaning of his work and how he effected change in a racially divided nation.
Rosa. By Nikki Giovanni. Illus. by Bryan Collier. 2005. Holt, $16.95 (9780439898836). Gr. 6–8.
Courageous and brave, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, which sparked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer; Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement. By Carole Boston Weatherford. Illus. by Ekua Holmes. 2015. Candlewick, $17.99 (9780763665319). Gr. 4–7.
Written in verse and illustrated in collage, this 2016 Caldecott Honor and Robert F. Sibert Honor book relates Hamer’s workto gain equal voting rights for Black people in Mississippi.
Pat Scales, the author of Encourage Reading from the Start: Essays, Articles, and Interviews from the Field (2018), was recently honored with the opening of the Pat Scales Special Collections Room at the University of Montevallo’s Carmichael Library.
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