Feelings, Thomas

views updated

Feelings, Thomas

May 19, 1933
August 25, 2003

Born in New York and raised in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, author and illustrator Tom Feelings graduated from the George Westinghouse Vocational School in 1951 and the School of Visual Arts, where he studied cartooning from 1951 to 1953 and illustration from 1957 to 1960. His education was interrupted by four years in the air force, in which Feelings served in the graphic arts division.

In 1958, while still in school, Feelings published a comic strip, "Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History," in the New York Age. The strip, featuring a boy educating himself about black history, was celebratory, pedagogic in intent, and directed largely at childrenconcerns that dominate all of Feelings's art. Upon graduation, he sought freelance work while occupying himself drawing pictures of black people and places in and around his Brooklyn neighborhood.

In 1960 Feelings joined the African Jazz Art Society, a group of musicians and artists inspired by the teachings of Marcus Garvey. In 1964, unable to establish a freelance career, largely because black illustrators found it difficult to get assignments, Feelings emigrated to Ghana. He worked as an illustrator at the Government Printing House and also did freelance commissions. The Ghana experience changed Feelings's illustrative style: His previous drawings had been somber and mostly monochromatic; his new pictures were colorful and livelier. Following the 1966 coup in Ghana, the press where Feelings worked was closed and he lost his job. He returned briefly to the United States, then headed the children's book project at the Ministry of Education, in Guyana, from 1971 to 1974.

After returning to the United States, Feelings lived mostly in New York and illustrated more than twenty books, winning numerous awards and citations in the process. In 1968 he illustrated Julius Lester's To Be a Slave. Mojo Means One: Swahili Counting Book (1971) and Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book (1974), both works authored by his wife at the time, Muriel Feelings, seek to introduce the young African-American reader to a traditional, simple, communal black America. His 1972 autobiography, Black Pilgrimage, looks at what it means to be black and a minority in the United States as compared to being part of a majority in independent Africa.

In 1982 Feelings was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Visual Arts Fellowship. Now Sheba Sings the Song, a series of drawings of black women done over twenty-five years, accompanied by a poem by Maya Angelou, was published in 1987. In 1990 Feelings became the artist-in-residence at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Soul Looks Back in Wonder, his first full-color picture book, along with poems with uplifting messages chosen from some of the best African-American poets, appeared in 1993. Like almost all of Feelings's output, it celebrates the African and African-American experience for the benefit of a young audience. The last book that Feelings both wrote and illustrated, The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo (1995), is considered by many commentators to be his masterpiece. A moving depiction of the journey of enslaved African Americans on slave ships bound for North and Central America, The Middle Passage was awarded the Coretta Scott King Book Award for illustration in 1996.

On May 18, 2003, family and friends joined Feelings for his seventieth birthday celebrationthe first birthday party he had ever had. Feelings passed away on August 25, 2003, after a bout with cancer, leaving behind a picture of a legacy.

See also Angelou, Maya; Garvey, Marcus; Lester, Julius; Literature in the United States


Dunbar, Ernest. The Black Expatriates: A Study of American Negroes in Exile. New York: Dutton, 1968.

Feelings, Tom. Black Pilgrimage. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1972.

Feelings, Tom. The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. New York: Dial, 1995.

Harrison, Barbara, and Gregory Maguire, eds. Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard, 1987.

Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2002.

qadri ismail (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005