A Tapestry of Black History

George McCalman’s vivid portraits highlight Black pioneers

Artist and columnist George McCalman’s Illustrated Black History doesn’t just showcase icons, but pioneers whose stories are less well-known

A tapestry of overlapping styles
and contours and colours and patterns.
This is how I see the black community.

George McCalman

George McCalman is a visionary. He’s an award-winning writer, an artistic director and now has created what he describes as a cultural offering through his art project, and now book, Illustrated Black History – a gorgeous collection of original portraits and biographies showcasing the depth and breadth of Black genius.

It’s been four years in the making and is a tome dedicated to “honouring the iconic and the unseen”. He describes each individual profiled both through text and an individual portrait as a pioneer. Some are familiar names to a global population – writer Dr Maya Angelou, singers Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone, civil rights activist Tarana Burke who founded the ‘MeToo’ movement. But how much do you know about the influence of the Compton Cowboys, distiller Nathan “Nearest” Green and athlete Althea Gibson?

What about entrepreneur Yla Eason, photographer Roy Decarava and musician Celia Cruz? All of these figures (and more) are shown to have had significant legacies and impact – so the question remains: why doesn’t the world speak more of them and feature their stories more?

McCalman moved to the US from Grenada in the 1980s. He was on the Caribbean Island when he spoke to me about this “tapestry” he’s created and the journey it’s taken him on. The author, who spent 14 years as a magazine and artistic creative director, says that in a way he had an “unfair advantage” having spent his whole career in the publishing industry – thus giving him an insight into how publishing works.

He says: “When I decided I was doing this book I knew I was going to be doing most of it, because I also knew if I didn’t do most of it, it wouldn’t have turned out the way that I wanted it to. It was a measure of efficiency, mostly control. But it was also my belief that I had to guide the whole thing myself for it to actually manifest in the way that I had envisioned it.”

But the book, on which he worked with collaborator April Reynolds, started off life as an art project. In his introduction, McCalman tells the reader he had “the novel idea of doing a daily challenge and painting a Black history pioneer every day for a month, choosing the shortest month of the year”.

He expands on this during our conversation, saying seven years ago he wanted to find out more about Black pioneers he personally didn’t know that much about, and also to see where his art could take him. The project has changed his life, and he now is a full-time artist.

“I was genuinely curious to see if I could tap into my artistic agency to see, to investigate and to discover more about my own history in the history of America and the history of the black community. I was just really curious, and so I devoted a month to this, and it awakened this larger path in my life,” he says.

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His research led him to more than 500 figures and although only 145 could make the cut for this book, he hopes it is just the beginning. The book is an introduction for the reader to enrich their knowledge of the depth of American history that’s not so often widely discussed and yet is there in plain sight.

Althea Gibson was the first Black tennis player to compete at the US National Championship in 1950 and the first black player to compete at Wimbledon – which she won. Annie Turnbo Malone was a millionaire thanks to her hair products, and she used her business understanding to make her mark in the philanthropic world. And Bass Reeves was an American lawman who, McCalman tells us, was believed to be the first Black commissioned deputy US marshal deployed west of the Mississippi River. He was known for his investigative skills, marksmanship and honour.

Althea Gibson is first African American to win Wimbledon

All of the individual portrait images in the book bar one – that of artist Mickalene Thomas – are hand-drawn using different styles. McCalman referenced Thomas’s own artistry and created her figure in a collage style using digital media. But acrylics, watercolours, pen and ink – he used them all for the other profiles featured. He adds that creating the art was an intuitive and organic process and he didn’t often know what style he would be using for each person until he started. He says: “There was a large part of me that felt like I was actually communing with the spirits of some of these people who were asking me to render them in a specific way.”

There was a large part of me that felt like I was actually communing with the spirits of some of these people who were asking me to render them in a specific way.

Richard Pryor by George McCalman

He said one of the first portraits he created was of Dr Maya Angelou. “I wanted to render her at the point in her life where she knew that she was revered, and she knew she was respected. And once I did that, she became kind of the Guardian Angel in my studio.”

McCalman keeps Maya Angelou pinned up as a “spiritual ancestor guide”

It felt when he put her portrait up in his San Francisco studio, it was like she was watching over what he was doing.  And as he worked on the images, he would go into a kind of fugue state, though he adds: “There was no portrait that I had to do over – when I was finished with them, it was done.”

George McCalman in his San Francisco art studio in San Francisco
George McCalman in his San Francisco art studio in San Francisco | Photo by Steve @Babuljak 

The book took four years to create with the first two years spent on researching origin stories and figuring out what he wanted to showcase. He said that he and co-writer April Reynolds would talk and talk and talk and it’s why the style of the book is both rigorous and conversational – as that’s a facet of working with someone else. He wasn’t going to originally write the book himself but as he got more immersed in the process and his words would get incorporated into the original drafts, McCalman, who has a newspaper column, got more involved as a writer as well as being the artist and the other roles he took on.

McCalman is the author and illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle’s monthly ‘Observed’ column

The book is a unique offering – as well as the images and short profiles, it also contains guest essays by Bryant Terry, Patrice Peck, Emil Wilbekin, Marvin K White, Oriana Koren. But McCalman says what he has created also offers up his philosophy on the Black community. He says: “It is my personal thought process and my own vantage point that I view us certainly as a diaspora and a collective and I think it’s hard for people to understand this.

“I am saying yes, we are a diaspora and we’re also very individual people – we are a collective. And each style is different because each person is very, very uniquely distinct. And I think I would have been doing a disservice frankly to the subject matter if I had rendered everyone in the same style,” he says.

“What I wanted to do was to create a tapestry of overlapping styles and contours and colours and patterns. Because this is how I see the black community. It is how I see us. And so the symbolism of that started to take shape early in the process.”

Influential writer James Baldwin helped to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression

He created the artwork while in his studio in San Francisco, at a friend’s home in Napa Valley and at his mother’s home in Florida. McCalman says: “My mother passed away the year that I finished the book – in May of 2021 from terminal cancer. I was working on the book all throughout the experience of her death and she was very much involved in a lot of the decisions I made in the book. It was really a very bittersweet thing to have her involvement and her investment in this book.”

But what about the art now – well McCalman is planning a fine art tour of the United States so that people can commune with the originals for themselves. And, as this book was intended to be an education, he’s pleased that half of the sales so far have come from libraries and schools.

McCalman’s work is timely. Samenua Sesher OBE, founder of the Museum of Colour – a digital museum celebrating cultural figures in the UK – tells me she is impressed by the work of McCalman’s that she’s seen, adding: “This book is important. It is both a beautiful and a necessary cultural offering. Illustrative portraiture of icons along with less known subjects, gives this book a deeply personal feeling, it makes it special. What a gift we have been given.”

But for McCalman, personally and professionally, the project has been life-changing: “It has transformed everything that I do, and it has set me on a path that I never could have imagined.”

Exclusive Excerpts

These extracts from lIllustrated Black History by George McCalman (2023) are reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Maya Angelou

“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.”

Maya Angelou by George McCalman

They say you’ve lived a good life if you’re around long enough to smell the flowers. We all know Maya Angelou. She’s a poet. An icon. An auntie. We speak her words without attribution because we speak her poetry when we believe we are grown-ups. “I know why the caged bird sings” is not rarefied speech closeted in her books; it is the shout given in church, or between girlfriends who don’t know what else to say. “When people show you who they are, believe them” is a direction on how to survive. In her lifetime, which was decorated with awards and acclaim, this St. Louis–born girl named Marguerite Johnson would be a dancer, actress, composer, film director, playwright, civil rights activist, editor, and professor. But her greatest feat was that she managed to do what most Black folks could not: Maya Angelou got to sit down and survey the world she shaped; she got to smell the flowers. With breathtaking consistency, in book after book, poem after poem, speech after speech, Angelou found ways to resuscitate the heartbeat of language. Her tongue is Black, feminine, American. Her poetry is aspirational, inspirational. Black or white, if you are of a certain age, you remember when you first heard Maya Angelou’s poetry. For me, it was during Clinton’s inauguration. My eleventh- grade teacher rolled out the television. In the middle of a winter day, there was Maya Angelou. Her words sang hope and caution. All these years later, Black folk know we say her words whenever we want to be wise.

The facing illustrated portrait captures this Black poet at the tail end of her life – the Oprah years. Oprah told the world what some of us already knew: Maya Angelou was brilliant. And Angelou was probably startled to hear that, because she was used to people not recognising her beauty, her grace, her strength. Her words carried her singular style, clear and alive with imagery, physicality, and a deep love of sound. This seminal woman knew herself, knew the world, and broke conventions left, right, and center. She lived a lifetime of exhausting change. But in that moment when I captured her image, she was getting to relax just a little bit. Her gaze was settled on other Black artists confirming their brilliance. That is the ultimate fruit of Angelou’s labor: by the time she passed away, she knew she was not alone. Her poetry had inspired and fed generations. Oprah lavished praise, and it was deserved. Maya Angelou got to hear the world’s applause. She knew that at every Juneteenth and Fourth of July, and at some point during Black History Month, some young child dressed in Sunday’s best would stand before grandmothers and uncles who looked on with clasped hands. There’s that young child, brave and trembling, reciting Angelou’s words as if they were his or her own, because they are.

Althea Gibson

“To be a champion, you have to have intensity.”

Althea Gibson by George McCalman

Like many before and after her who earned the designation, Althea Gibson wasn’t interested in being labeled “the first.” She just wanted to play tennis.
She wasn’t drawn into notions of being a pioneer or a spokesperson for other Black people. But when Gibson became the first Black tennis player to compete at the US National Championship in 1950 and the first
Black player to compete at Wimbledon in 1951, she was placed in that elevated spot. In 1957, after Gibson won the women’s singles and doubles at Wimbledon and received her trophy from Queen Elizabeth II, she was greeted by a parade upon her return home to New York.

Gibson started out as a table-tennis player when she was a little girl in Harlem, before taking her skill to the courts. She was known for her athletic, dominating serves. Gibson won her first tournament in 1942 in a series sponsored by the Black-founded American Tennis Association and held the championship title in that association from 1947 to 1957. She played while studying at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1953. Her accomplishments were major—she was the first Black player to be ranked number one worldwide. She was the first Black player to win a Grand Slam title, in the 1956 French Open. She also won the US National Championships in 1957 and 1958.

In 1958 she retired from tennis. A talented vocalist and saxophonist, she began exploring opportunities in the entertainment industry. Her rich alto can be heard on the album Althea Gibson Sings, from 1959; she also appeared on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show twice. She then turned her sights to golf, becoming the first Black woman to join the LPGA Tour, a series of tournaments run by the Ladies Professional Golf Association, in 1964.

Unlike tennis players today, who net high figures and lucrative brand partnerships for winning global tennis tournaments, Gibson played during a time when prizes were few and far between. She had little income to show from her time, dedication, and reluctant fame—she never pursued the spotlight, and she resisted overtures suggesting that she use her position as a galvanizing political force. But her athletic presence, rendered noticeable by her gender and race at a time when so few Black people had access to the sport, helped shift ideas of tennis that still permeate an era that now features such luminaries as Serena and Venus Williams. Gibson didn’t seek out groundbreaking, but she broke ground anyway. She was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1971.

Now win the book!

We’re giving away two copies of an Illustrated Black History by George McCalman. Follow @worldoftopia to enter.

What’s so good about this?

There are iconic Black figures who fought for recognition and have rightfully gained it. There’s now a significant movement afoot to highlight others who changed global history in places where often the barriers they had to break were multilayered. All of these Black pioneers have opened doors for others and should not be forgotten.

lllustrated Black History by George McCalman (Harper Collins, 2022) is available from Waterstones.

Meet the writer

Always up for an adventure, Dhruti Shah is an award-winning author, freelance journalist, producer and storyteller. She is innately curious and has written on technology, business, women changing the world, comics, science and much more. The “ideas factory” has led record-making BBC international partnership projects and is a brainstorm buddy for hire.

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