The Daily Heller: Jerry Pinkney Busted Stereotypes Through Portrayals of Black Themes in Children’s Books

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I was grieved to read the following headline in this past Friday’s New York Times: “Jerry Pinkney, Acclaimed Children’s Book Illustrator, Dies at 81.”

Like Reynold Ruffins, who died at 90 on July 11, Pinkney challenged the taboos and conventions of the depictions of Black American in children’s books. (Watch and listen to him here.)

I did not know him as well as I’d have liked, but at the invitation of Stephanie Plunket, I had the privilege of writing a brief introduction to the catalog for a 2010 exhibition at The Norman Rockwell Museum, Witness: The Art of Jerry Pinkney. The museum also hosted many of Pinkney’s talks and drawing classes over the years. Through the excerpt below I want to honor his life and work as an important American artist and storyteller.

Draw What You Know

By Steven Heller

“Write what you know,” the standard creative writing workshop mantra, applies just as much to illustrators as to writers these days. In this age of merging media it is essential for artists to “Draw what you know”—and what you’d like to know, and what you’d like others to know, too.

Jerry Pinkney appears to have adopted this concept early in his career. Although the majority of his books are not autobiographical in the conventional sense, the fact that he was African American entering a white-dominated field—a field that ostensibly ignored the African American experience except as stereotyped folklore—provided an autobiographical imperative. “I wanted to show that an African American artist could make it in this country on a national level in the graphic arts,” he once said. “I want to be a strong role model for my family and for other African Americans.” Not only that, he sought to bring the classic tales of African Americans to the fore as integral components of the larger American culture. His author collaborators, notably Julius Lester, had the same mission. And Pinkney’s impressionistic representational illustrations for the likes of “John Henry” and “The Last Tales of Uncle Remus” (both by Lester) helped raise the perception of these folkways away from those Disney caricatures that fostered dubious racial archetypes.

Of the numerous stories Pinkney has illustrated, “Back Home” and “The Sunday Outing” by Gloria Jean Pinkney (his wife) suggest the most autobiographical resonance. Whether these are composites or direct recollections does not matter; the portrait, particularly in the latter book, of young Ernestine and her great-aunt Odessa, is a window to a distinctly loving family life that paints an alternative picture to the contemporary urban Black myths and attitudes of today. Pinkney captures the warmth of the family and the essence of the moment in time. And this can only be rooted in “draw what you know.”