George McCalman, comedian Richard Pryor (all photos by George McCalman, courtesy HarperOne/HarperCollins Publishers)

A few years ago, while creating a drawing of a Black pioneer every day for a month, San Francisco artist George McCalman got the idea for his book Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen (HarperOne, 2022), which he wrote, designed, and illustrated. McCalman had some misgivings about creating a book — that as an immigrant born in Grenada, he wasn’t the right person, or that he was creating a target for people who would see it as an attack on White people. A visit to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and the nearby lynching memorial convinced him that the book was critical. 

“It was just kind of the bullshit of the narrative of America, that we don’t talk honestly about how this country trafficked in human beings to become a superpower,” he told Hyperallergic during a phone call from Grenada, where he was spending the month of January. “No one can talk about the origin of [the United States] without talking about how the Black community has been ground zero for this nation.”

McCalman has worked as a graphic designer, creative director, and a cultural reporter, so he was familiar with the fine arts world and publishing, and he saw a lot of “White lady gatekeepers” in both. McCalman deliberately chose to define himself as an artist outside of this system, and says that he realized he was not just producing a book but a fine arts catalogue of his work. 

McCalman used different techniques, including pen and ink, watercolors, colored pencils, and acrylics to make the portraits in the book, with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington looking energetic with her face striped in colors, singer Nina Simone drawn expressively in black, and artist Amy Sherald facing forward, looking contemplative in a yellow dress and a solid gray background.

George McCalman, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington

“If I’d done everyone in the same style, it all would have taken on either this sense of nobility or suffocation, and I was clear that I was allergic to that,” he said. “That tends to be the way that Black history is rendered — that we place people on pedestals, and they stop being human beings.”

The 145 portraits include activist and politician John Lewis and writer Maya Angelou, plus Bass Reeves, a lawman who is believed to be the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. McCalman released the book in September, not February, to underscore his point that Black History is American history. 

“There are these same people they trot out every year, and there’s no evolution and no learning,” he said. “Even though the subtitle of this book is ‘the iconic and the unseen,’ I was way more interested in the unseen than the iconic.”

George McCalman, lawman Bass Reeves
George McCalman, artist Mickalene Thomas
George McCalman, journalist and publisher Ida B. Wells

Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen by George McCalman (2022) is published by HarperOne and is available from online retailers.

Editor’s Note, 02/14/23 2:23 pm EST: An earlier version of this post misidentified the location of the Legacy Museum. It has been corrected.

Emily Wilson is a radio and print reporter in San Francisco. She has written stories for dozens of media outlets including NPR, Latino USA, the San Francisco Chronicle, SF Weekly, California Teacher,...

One reply on “Icons of Black American History, Illustrated ”

Comments are closed.