The Undefeated

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Famous African Americans who made a difference in America.

It should not be possible that a person born into the world with the odds already against him/her should rise from the dust, overcome the odds, and retire from this world undefeated in his or her prospective field and still be forgotten over time, simply because he/she is African American. Yet it happens every day.  That’s why poet and New York Times’ Bestselling author Kwame Alexander’s latest picture book, The Undefeated, is such a breath of fresh air.

In lyrical, soul-searing prose, Mr. Alexander salutes the undefeated. Dark runners, legs stretched forth as they “hurdle” history; muscled boxers staring defiantly at their opponents, cool, clean and spunky musicians smiling out at readers who are discovering their existence after they are long gone. Page after powerful page shows Civil War soldiers proudly clutching regiment colors and nameless families who “survived America by any means necessary…” And there is even a blank page – pure white, depicting those brave ancestors who stood against the odds and DID NOT survive.

This book is such a work of art. Artist Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are deep, dark and rich; fluid with movement, and bursting with pride, emotion and defiance at the odds that would dare try to hold them down. There are familiar faces, including Jesse Owens, Jack Johnson, and Zora Neal Hurston. And there are unfamiliar faces, like families from the “Great Migration,” and images of the wretched bottom of an overcrowded slave ship. There are composites of great athletes, fearless “Black Lives Matter” marches, and even a candle-lit, teddy-bear-and-flower-adorned memorial to young lives lost (Tamir Rice, Trayvonne Martin, Michael Brown, etc.). Familiar or not, Mr. Alexander does not identify any individuals by name; he simply salutes them as unforgettable; unflappable; unafraid… 

This book is quiet and loud; humble and proud; mournful and full of joy — all at the same time! It is a tribute to those who were undefeated in life, and through this book, remain undefeated in death. It offers the author’s back story on how the book came to be, and details about the people in the illustrations for those readers who just have to have more, more, MORE.  Use this book as an inspiration in Social Studies, Citizenship and American History classes. It can also be used in art classes or to jump-start a conversation about something as broad as leaving a family/community legacy.

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