*Photo credit: Steve Babuljak
Black History Month may be coming to an end, but the contributions and rich history that Black people have brought into this world continue to be celebrated all year round – including the work of Black queer people. One person ensuring that happens in George McCalman. As a Grenada-born, Brooklyn-raised, San Francisco-based artist, author, and designer, the multi-hyphenate creative is honoring Black changemakers in his new book Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen.
The book honors greats like author James Baldwin, comedian Richard Pryor, singer Nina Simone, fashion icon André Leon Talley, and more with vivid portraits that highlight the soulful essence of 145 Black heroes. The portraits are paired with essays from Emil Wilbekin (Editor in Chief, Vibe), Bryant Terry (Author, Black Food), Patrice Peck, (Editor, Cosmopolitan) Oriana Koren (Editor, For the Birds Trapped in Airports) and Marvin K. White (Poet, Glide Memorial) that celebrate these icons, manifesting a project that’s been years in the making. But all of that hard work has culminated into an artistic endeavor that truly honors Black legends throughout the United States’ 400-year-old history and shows that Black history is American history.
INTO spoke with McCalman (who just won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work) on the inspiration behind his latest project, the road to bringing it to fruition, and how he pays homage to Black queer changemakers in Illustrated Black History.
You’re a multi-hyphenate creative, but which artistic medium do you feel most comfortable with?
That is the first time I’ve gotten that question. The thing that I’m going to go to my death bed saying is that I am a graphic designer, all right? Being a graphic designer has allowed me to do everything else that I do. That’s kind of the origin point. And it is still. I have a lot of rarefied titles that I can save when I describe myself professionally. But I just love being the “farmer” of the creative community. You’re just down on the ground floor. You’re putting words and images together. You’re utilizing a little bit of technology, but it’s mostly your brain that you’re using. It’s mostly communication. It’s mostly language. I love being at that [intersection].
I could probably assume your motivation, but could you tell me what was the inspiration behind this project?
I wanted to make something that didn’t exist. I felt that American culture is too casual about the lack of focus on Black history as American history. And when I started looking around and seeing what was in the landscape, there just was no book like it. So, I felt this kind of passion [that] was just like itch in my throat that I just had to [scratch]. A friend of mine told me I was doing this book before I knew I was doing this book.I have those kinds of friends, I’m very fortunate to say.
It was basically out of my desire to educate myself, too. And then, potentially, what came of it would allow me to offer it out to the greater community so that people could see themselves in American history. It would be easy to assume that this book came after The 1619 Project. But the truth is, I got my book deal a year before The 1619 Project came out. So, there was really nothing at the time when I first started this project, and I felt this kind of isolation that I was kind of building something that didn’t really exist. And in the middle of working on the book, The 1619 Project came out, and I felt a lot less like it was just me figuring this stuff out. But the truth is, we need more.
I don’t want people getting comfortable just because The 1619 Project is there or because there’s Illustrated Black History. Like, these two projects existed outside of each other’s ecosystem. We mush things together, and the truth is, it’s part of the larger narrative of us reclaiming our own history. But there is room for more examples of this.
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100% agree. No “crab buckets” here. We are in it together.
We’re in it together. I love that. No “crab buckets” here. I’m going to write that down.
With your book tour underway, what has been the response towards Illustrative Black History?
It has been wild. It’s been amazing. But it has just really been beyond my expectations. It’s been emotional. I’ve received a lot of letters from people, strangers who have read the book, and enjoyed it as gifts. I have been written to by people in the book. I don’t think I anticipated receiving messages from the pioneers in the book, but receiving them has just kind of confirmed how important it was to document [them].
And this is just a sliver. This is not even the whole thing. I have a list of over 500 names, and I would love to make two or three more of these [books] because we need them.
You also have a film connected to Illustrated Black History. How do you hope it helps to expand upon what you’ve already created within the book?
Well, the film is a documentary. It’s a short film on the making of the book. It was a real saga to have this book made. There were a lot of challenges along the way, some I had anticipated, but a lot that I just kind of never really thought about. I’ve been in the publishing industry for so long, I thought it would be a breeze, but I got to learn and relearn how difficult it would be to make a book and how much the publishing industry is not always as progressive as it might seem on the surface.
But there were a lot of internal obstacles and I had to kind of double down and really rely on myself and rely on my community. And the film is about the community that really rallied to help me, the Black community, that helped me get this to the finish line.
I cannot wait to see the behind the scenes look for Illustrated Black History. Especially when I heard that it took a few years to get this book out into the world, right?
Yes. The original project I worked on was almost seven years ago. And then it took another two years to work up the courage to put a pitch together, to get myself ready, and kind of sharpen my senses and my body. In all, it’s taken a lot of years.
And now, it’s out for all of us.
Out for your mama, for your uncle, your sister, your nemesis, your lover. It is for everybody.
There are plenty of Black queer movers and shakers who don’t always receive their flowers. How do you pay homage to these Black queer changemakers?
Well, for me, there are two entries in particular. I think about the fact that they were gay and thinking about them as well-rounded human beings. And I’m speaking specifically about James Baldwin and Langston Hughes. There are a few entries in the book where I did multiple portraits of people, and what I was trying to do was kind of dismantle [the way we look at them].
We use the word iconic a lot in our field, and it is meant to hoist and elevate, but sometimes it can kind of trap people in amber, where it doesn’t always render them as flawed, interesting, funny, weird, people who make mistakes like the rest of us. It kind of freezes you in time.
The same way that Martin Luther King Jr. has always shown in black and white, despite the fact that it was in the ‘50s and ‘60 when there was plenty of color photography. And Malcolm X is never shown smiling, even though he was, by all accounts, really charming and funny. All of these things give you a limited view over time, it kind of shrinks your understanding of the complexity of the humanity of the people that we hold as pioneers.
And what I wanted to do with the two portraits of each of them, showing them at different stages of their lives, and I wanted to show them as queer men. I wanted to show them as kind of young, mischievous, sexy, and funny. I wanted to say, “no, these were vibrant gay men.” I wanted to really show that there is a complexity to these figures. And I did that a few times. And there are several queer icons in this book where I really try to not show them as they have been shown before.
The distinction I was making, too, is that white people are afforded that complexity as just an everyday state of being. And we as Black people are still going through this emergence, this renaissance, where we’re like, “no, we’re going to give ourselves the same latitude too.” And that’s one of the reasons that in the book, every portrait is rendered in a different style.
I wanted to show that history gives a more complete picture of a person, but if we just reduce them to one image, one aspect of them, we lose the rest of what has happened, what is actually still being fed into our culture. There’s a way that we can talk about people in a more holistic, much more complex way that is actually more honest and direct in terms of how we as everyday people actually live our lives. No one’s life is binary. We’ve all got a lot of complicated sh*t going on at all times. Somehow when we talk about historical figures, we just kind of slip away all of the kind of messy bits [and] just focus on a few quotes here and there.
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We will. And since you made it to the finish line, what is the biggest takeaway you have?
How emotional [the process] was. I remember being in Grenada and then flying to San Francisco because I was going to take part in a Black food conference. And I got home and there was a box waiting for me, and it was the first copies of my book. And it was like it was a perfect storm because my flight had been delayed. I ended up getting into my apartment at four in the morning, and Josh, let me tell you, I did an Oprah ugly cry for an hour, and I cried myself to sleep.
And it was just this release of pent up, four years of hard work and labor. It was just like childbirth. And then the baby is there, like I did a home birth. The baby’s sitting there looking around and no one’s around and you’re like, ”okay, it’s just me and you, kid. What are we going to do?” I don’t think there was a doula. It was just breathing and pushing and voila.
So I start back into the next phase of the [book] tour at the beginning of February, and I’m basically going to be touring in some way, shape, or form around this book for the next year. I’m going to be going to universities and cultural centers and museums. The film is premiering at the de Young Museum in San Francisco on February 18. And then I take the film with me on tour. And then I also am doing a fine art tour. All 350 pieces from the book are going to be going on tour with me at some point this year.
That’s an amazing thing to experience this year. What else do you hope to achieve in 2023?
You know, I am really in a fortunate place in my professional life. I really love what I do. It is both a really beautiful thing and an insane thing. But I did not take any time off while making this book. I was running my studio the whole time. And that gave me perspective. It reminded me that it wasn’t just about making this book, that it was about the cultural aspect of the book that I was making.
When you’re working on a thing that’s difficult, you can just complain about the difficult thing that you’re doing. I never lost perspective that I was fortunate to be able to do this and continue the work with all of my clients. It kept me grounded. It didn’t allow me to become that obnoxious person who was just only talking about my book all of the time. I know plenty of people where the book becomes the only thing you’re talking about. I did not want to be that guy. I did not want to be that b*tch. So, it was really important for me to kind of temper what I was doing with the book.
Alongside being in service to my clients and the Black community that I work with in the Bay Area, in New York, it was really important to just continue working, and so I want to continue that. I am fortunate with the projects that I get to do, via my design studio. So, I’m just really happy that I get to do that.
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