Bibliography: Shange, Ntozake. Nelson, Kadir. Ellington was not a street. 2004. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. New York. ISBN-13: 9780689828843
Ellington was not a street is an illustration of Ntozke Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo.” This true story follows the childhood memories of Shange in the early 1950’s. Growing up with a loving and protecting family, Shange was shielded from the pain of the outside world as a small child. In the safety of her family home, she grew up in an artistic community among prominent and influential Black men and women who to helped to shape her identity. Shange dedicates this book to “what our lives were and what we wish our children’s lives to be.” The book encapsulates the goodness of her childhood memories, while remembering the realities of racism at that time and the beginnings of the Civil Rights Era.
This story is an ode to the men “who changed the world.” With one line of the poem per page referencing a famous Black man, the illustrations create the world in which these men inhabited Shange’s life. The beautifully textured illustrations capture the image and essence of each man. The end of the book provides small paragraphs of historical information about each man in the story. These “men who changed the world” include Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois, Duke Ellington, Ray Barretto, Earlington Carl Tilghman, John Birks Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Virgil Akins, and The Clovers. These men were artists, presidents, athletes, actors, musicians, composers, and innovators.
This art helps bring Shange’s memories to life. In each illustration of young Shange, her father is found interacting with famous men in their home. She watches them and lives beside them. She writes, “i remember…i was there…i listened in the company of men.” She grew up in a comforting community and safe space among brilliant innovators. This idyllic childhood time she writes “our doors opened like our daddy’s arms held us safe & loved.” The illustrations add an element of emotion, because the reader can visualize the love and affection in her childhood home.
Illustrating artist Kadir Nelson uses dark and rich blue, green, and brown hues. The children are always found in light blue attire and they stand out from the crowd, drawing the reader in. The illustrations are beautifully textured and portray a strong likeness to “the men who changed the world.” Nelson also pays close attention to detail to the family home. The reader is transported back in time, feeling the nostalgic memories of Shange’s childhood. The front cover pictures a young Shange gripping a Duke Ellington record, with hope and innocence in her eyes and a small smile. As an adult she clutches the record, sitting in a turtleneck looking away to the distance.
“Ellington” is not just the name of a street and not just the name of an influential composer. Ellington’s music reminds Shange of a time and space where she lived among a kind of innovation that changed the world.
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