Feelings, Muriel L. 1938–
Muriel L. Feelings, 1938–
Muriel Feelings brought to American children a window into the majesty of Africa’s cultures and landscapes. Barbara Bader wrote in a 2002 Horn Magazine article that Feelings’ books are among the most important titles to shape the emergence of Afrocentric literature in America and new growth of multiculturalism in the 1970s. She wrote of Feelings’ Swahili counting and alphabet books that “… an image of African beauty—Ashanti or Zulu or Masai—was as fixed in the minds of many American youngsters as the Greek, or European, ideal.” Feelings’ drive to share with children of all races, but especially with black children, the richness of African beauty, history, and wisdom propelled the momentum of her service through writing and teaching.
Born Muriel Grey on July 31, 1938, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Feelings was raised by a mother and stepfather who valued art and education. Though her mother was not formally educated beyond high school, she became self-taught through the many books that filled Feelings’ childhood home. She even pursued a working knowledge of French, which had taken root earlier with her preliminary French studies in high school. Feelings told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that she admired her mother’s compassionate commitment to befriending and helping a neighbor who was a French-national war-bride.
After high school, Feelings dedicated herself to pursuing art studies at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, later known as the University of Arts in Philadelphia. After a year, she went to live with her mother and sister who had moved to California, where she continued her studies at Los Angeles State College, now California State University in Los Angeles. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in art with a Spanish and education minor. In Los Angeles, Feelings socialized with several students from Latin American and Africa. Upon graduation, she and a close friend planned to go to Africa one day to serve in some capacity.
Before realizing her goal of reaching Africa, Feelings made good use of her college education and interest in serving others by teaching. For one year, she taught at a junior high school in Philadelphia. Then she moved to New York, teaching in the city’s public school system.
Feelings wanted to travel and serve in Africa apart from American political entities. She was, therefore, disinterested in serving with the United States Peace Corps. She explained to CBB that at the time rumors were circulating that Peace Corps activities were closely tied to U.S. government political policies. Like many other young activists she had met in Los Angeles and in New York, Feelings sought informal, nonpartisan service in satisfying her commitment to promoting human rights and mutual cooperation and understanding among peoples.
At a Glance…
Born Muriel Grey on July 31, 1938, in Philadelphia, PA; married Thomas Feelings, February 18, 1969 (divorced, 1974); children: Zamani, Kamili. Education: Attended Philadelphia Museum School of Art, 1957-58; Los Angeles State College (now California State University, Los Angeles), BA, 1963.
Career: Teacher of Spanish and art in elementary and secondary schools in Philadelphia, PA, and New York City, 1963-66; teacher of art at a boys’ secondary school in Kampala, Uganda, 1966-68; teacher trainer and writing teacher in Guyana, 1970-72; writer, 1970-74; Multilingual Education Resource Information and Training Center, Temple University, graduate assistant, 1976-78; African American Museum of Philadelphia, director of education and coordinator of volunteers, 1980-85; Pan-African Studies Community Education Program (PASCEP), Temple University, director, 1986-2001.
Memberships: Art Sanctuary; Columbian Design Society; Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, Philadelphia.
Awards: American Library Association Notable Books for Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book and Jambo Means Hello: A Swahili Alphabet Book, 1972; Caldecott Medal runner up for Moja Mean One, 1972; American Book Award nomination for Jambo Means Hello, 1982.
Addresses: Publisher—do Dial Books, 2 Park Ave., New York, NY 10016.
While preparing for service in Uganda, Feelings said that she underwent “a very significant experience in New York, which was meeting Malcolm X.” She eagerly embraced Malcolm X’s post-Nation of Islam message, which charged Americans with boldly implementing programs and peacefully demanding policies that would remove barriers to self-determination and tolerance for all peoples. She committed herself to Malcolm X’s newly formed Organization of Afro-American Unity, which grew out of his recent, life-changing hajj (a pilgrimage to Mecca), during which he had befriended Muslims of all races and various cultures. “[Malcolm X’s] vision was bigger than the Nation of Islam, bigger than the Afro-American,” Feelings told CBB.
Feelings was at the rally at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, New York, on February 21, 1965, where Malcolm X was fatally gunned down by three men in front of his wife (pregnant with twin girls) and four young daughters. She said that, despite Malcolm X’s untimely death, his good work became preserved in developments emerging out of his vision for African-American self-determination, including the black arts movement, black educational institutions, and black studies programs. Feelings believes that the interest in the 1970s among publishers to develop literature for African-American children is tied to Malcolm X’s call to American blacks to find and understand their true roots; publishers finally took notice of a promising market—the African-American readership.
Feelings told CBB that Malcolm X profoundly influenced her in considering how critical it is for American blacks to understand their heritage, as she put it to CBB, “the importance of knowing who you are, where you come from.” Her experiences in New York as a teacher, friend of Uganda nationals, and acquaintance of Malcolm X and other black activists worked together to prepare her to serve in Africa. “I learned so very much too,” she said, “and what I learned I wanted to share with children.”
In 1966 Feelings began teaching art at a boys’ high school in Kampala, Uganda, where she would remain for two years. Her experience as a teacher in Uganda, she reported to CBB, actually turned her into a student of Uganda. Her pupils became her collective teacher, and from them she drew inspiration for future projects. She recalled in particular an assignment she gave requiring pupils to bring in a family folktale to use as a visual art theme. Her pupils had come to Kampala from all over Uganda, a country rich in cultural diversity. Until Feelings analyzed the results of the assignment she had not realized just how diverse the cultures of Uganda were. She said that even the students “gained a greater appreciation for each others’ cultures.” During her stay in Kampala, Feelings also traveled when she could, during school breaks and holidays. She visited Central Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya. She was most impressed and inspired by Kenya—its gregarious, hospitable communities and its vigorous, traditional marketplace.
Feelings returned to New York in 1968, where she rekindled friendships with those she knew before Uganda, including artist Tom Feelings, whom she had met in the mid-1960s at the home of historian John Henrik Clarke. She and Tom were married in early 1969. Tom suggested that Feelings pen a children’s book, which he would illustrate. Feelings tapped into her memories of Kenya to write her first children’s book, Zamani Goes to Market, which was published in 1970. About the same time the couple had their first child, whom they named Zamani, a Swahili word connoting time, such as “infinite” or “a long time ago.”
The family moved to Guyana, formerly a British colony and trading center for slaves from Ghana. Tom Feelings, having had spent time in Ghana, became interested in the Guyanese government’s efforts to enlighten its citizens of the nation’s African heritage. The Guyanese Ministry of Education commissioned Tom to train artists in book illustration and Muriel to train teachers. Later the government asked Muriel to assist with Tom’s text book project, training writers and editing manuscript. In 1972, Feelings returned to the United States with young Zamani, an American toddler who had, Feelings joked, picked up a Caribbean accent. Tom remained in Guyana for another two years.
While in Guyana, Feelings and her husband created their second children’s book, Moja Means One: A Swahili Counting Book. The well-received book, still in print, reaped sterling reviews. Feelings had intended the book to spur a curiosity in black children for African cultures. Feelings told CBB that she sought to fill some of the African-heritage gaps that had traditionally been left out in American history books, whether intentionally or by chance due to simple-mindedness. She sought to help black children understand their place in the world, thereby encouraging them to master their own future.
In 1974, the couple, now the parents of two boys, the youngest Kamili, also a Swahili, Kenya-inspired name, brought forth another hit in children’s literature, Jambo Means Hello: A Swahili Alphabet Book. Embraced by educators as enthusiastically and widely as the Feelings’ previous work, Jambo attracted similarly complimentary reviews. Horn Book lauded it as a “beautiful vision of African life” with illustrations of “monumental figures that glorify the power and beauty of man.”
Feelings told CBB that, although she is officially retired from professional life, she still hopes to further her experience of Africa, reporting that she regularly dreams of returning there. Meanwhile, she lives quietly in Philadelphia close to her sons and in pursuit of completing several pet projects, including publication of a collection of allegories and more children’s stories she has composed over the years. Feelings also busies herself with a program called Art Sanctuary, which works to present new works by black artists and writers to the larger public. She also conducts workshops on the black experience, children’s education, and children’s literature.
Feelings also dedicates her talents and energy to her church, Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, participating in its African Heritage Ministry. In an article Feelings contributed to the church’s newsletter, she wrote, “Our story as people of color starts at the Beginning… before the advent of the Middle Passage and the arrival of our ancestors on western shores—even before the emergence of the magnificent empires of ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, the fabulous civilizations of Mali.” Feelings explained that the mistake of overlooking God’s inclusiveness and the importance of Africa and her people in Biblical history has contributed to a “negative self-image in Africans and African descendents, and prejudice on the part of other groups.” Feelings wrote that as anthropologists have concluded scientifically that Eden was in Africa, so believers of the Bible ought to embrace this fact as enriching to their understanding of Biblical teaching. “What was revealed in Genesis has been finally acknowledged by science,” she wrote, “that God formed, from the brown earth, our ancestor Adam, made in his image and likeness. He placed him in Eden with its great beauty of plant life, rich in gold, and other precious metals and stones, for which Africa/Eden is known today.”
Zamani Goes to Market, (illustrated by husband, Thomas Feelings), Seabury, 1970.
Moja Means One: a Swahili Counting Book, (illustrated by T. Feelings), Dial, 1971.
Jambo Means Hello: a Swahili Alphabet Book, (illustrated by T. Feelings), Dial, 1974.
Horn Book Magazine, November 1, 2002.
“Inside the Tabernacle,” Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, www.enontab.org/apr02_sp.htm (March 23, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Muriel Feelings on March 23, 2004.