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An Interview with Jerry Pinkney Part I

Updated on August 8, 2009
Photograph of Jerry Pinkney “Books give me a great feeling of personal and artistic satisfaction."
Photograph of Jerry Pinkney “Books give me a great feeling of personal and artistic satisfaction."
Jerry Pinkney (1939-  ) Underground Railroad and Resistance Cover for National Geographic Vol. 166 No.1 July, 1984 Watercolor
Jerry Pinkney (1939- ) Underground Railroad and Resistance Cover for National Geographic Vol. 166 No.1 July, 1984 Watercolor
Jerry Pinkney (1939-  ) Cover for Underground Railroad Official National Park Handbook Reprint 1999
Jerry Pinkney (1939- ) Cover for Underground Railroad Official National Park Handbook Reprint 1999
“I always wanted to show that an African-American artist could make it on a national level in the graphic arts. I wanted to be a strong role model for my family and other African-Americans.”-Jerry Pinkney
“I always wanted to show that an African-American artist could make it on a national level in the graphic arts. I wanted to be a strong role model for my family and other African-Americans.”-Jerry Pinkney
"First of all, being an African-American and just being interested in the way African-Americans speak to one another, in terms of language and body structure, in terms of body language, expression is very, very important. " -Jerry Pinkney
"First of all, being an African-American and just being interested in the way African-Americans speak to one another, in terms of language and body structure, in terms of body language, expression is very, very important. " -Jerry Pinkney

Please enjoy a two part interview I did for my 2002 MA thesis at Syracuse University with Jerry Pinkney, Award winning African-American Children's Book Illustrator and Lecturer

Part I

April, 20, 2002

Laird: The first question I want to ask you is, when did you first take an interest in illustrating African-American subject matter?

Pinkney: I was born in 1939, so at the age of about twenty it was the sixties. I was living in Boston at the time and Boston was the hot bed of folks who were very much interested in civil rights. Also, Boston was a publishing town. So, the two things were kind of connected or parallel. One is the fact that the young person looking for work, as an artist looking for work, and in the town of Boston, which had a huge publishing industry, that was one. The second was being a young person in Boston during the sixties with the tremendous consciousness towards civil rights and the lack of participation of African-Americans in mainstream anything. At the same time, the publishing industry was becoming very sensitive to the lack of published authors as well as illustrators, but mainly, in the beginning, it was authors. I had four children searching for books that they could find themselves mirrored. It was very difficult. So you have all the forces coming together at the same time which created not only a place for me to get work but it also became a way to somehow fill that void of material, that dealt with, maybe not so much in the beginning not so much African-American, but African at that time because I was doing mainly folklore and things like that. So, all the stars were aligned and I was in that right place at the right time.

Laird: Okay, the next question is, and you might have answered this earlier, where did you grow up?

Pinkney: I grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Laird: Did you grow up in a mostly black community or was it ethnically mixed?

Pinkney: Good question. We lived on a street, a block, which was actually happened to be a dead end block which was all African-American. As far as a neighborhood or community, we lived in a community which was Italian and Jewish. This is kind of interesting, too, in that our immediate community, because there was community within community, was African-American, but it was very small because it existed of no more than I would say twenty structures, twenty houses.

Laird: So you played and cohabited with a lot of other children other than just African-American children?

Pinkney: No, I went to an all African-American elementary school. It was a kind of tightly knit. Again, I think we can call it a block, a community, with very few recreational playgrounds or swimming pools and stuff like that without taking a car or some sort of transport. So, the thing that is particularly, I think interesting for us is where I came from. It was always a means to get from one place to another. I always had to move from one community to another. So, even though there was very little interacting within those communities, there was also a sense of curiosity about other cultures and other races. That is really kind of interesting because it leads very much to the kind of work that I do. Only probably fifty percent of my work deals with my own culture. The other works really celebrate other cultures as well.

Laird: Jerry, what period in African-American history interests you the most?

Pinkney: I think slavery, plantation. With slavery I shouldn’t say, essentially. I think plantation life, but where you would have the institution of slavery and then you also have the Underground Railroad, which is really the first time where African-Americans could look up and actually see national heroes.

Laird: Could you tell me, speaking of the Underground Railroad, how it came to be that you were commissioned to do the work for National Geographic on this subject?

Pinkney: Oh, I was going say how did that happen. It probably happened and aligned itself with doing the first nine stamps for the U.S. Postal Service on the black heritage series. It was a very early realizing that I needed to put myself in a place where my art spoke to the largest audience possible. Being African-American, I knew that certainly in speaking in a way through visual of my own culture that I went to those places, I mean National Geographic knew about me, the U.S. Parks Service knew about me, National Geographic knew about me. I can go down a list of places where when the opportunity arose;  they were looking for some, intentionally African-American to visualize a project. When they looked around they had a portfolio of Jerry Pinkney nearby.

Laird: Okay. Where I discovered a bulk of your Underground Railroad images is from the National Park Service.

Pinkney: And you haven’t seen half of the work, much was not ever published.

Laird: How many pieces do you think you did?

Pinkney: Well the Underground Railroad we started out by with commission to do about seven pieces. I executed four, I think they used two. Right, they used two out of the four, but I had done drawings on all seven images, but that’s not a bad percentage when you work with National Geographic, but to answer your question I executed four.

Laird: Okay. It’s not a bad feather in your hat to have an illustration on the cover, when predominately, National Geographic in photography either.

Pinkney: Right, right, that was a pretty big coup, and the effort not necessarily to get the cover but to speak to and about the images that I did for them. Being a photo journalistic magazine, they only use art if they can’t find a photograph to suit their purposes. They had three photographers working along with me trying to provide visuals. The photography won out to some respect, but we, in a sense, were able to get that piece used. It was important because it became the cover piece for it. And that was the first art cover, I think the one before it was sixteen years prior to my cover.

Laird: Wow, I think the great thing about using illustration is, if you have an understanding of the Underground Railroad, it was very mystical.

Pinkney: Exactly.

Laird: There was not a lot of information known about it.

Pinkney: No. You can pretty much align it with what happened with the west. The most we know about the west really through myth, through news paper articles, and drawings and paintings which were greatly enhanced in a way that we really don’t know the true west.

Laird: Jerry, when asked to do an illustration of an African American what are some of your methods of capturing the particular traits of this group of people?

Pinkney: First of all, being an African-American and just being interested in the way African-Americans speak to one another, in terms of language and body structure, in terms of body language, expression is very, very important. 

Laird: Who is your favorite illustrator or illustrators  in the past that have illustrated African-Americans?

Pinkney: Well, Charles White III, who is a graphic artist. I don’t know if you know him.

Laird: Yes. He’s in about ten pages of my thesis.

Pinkney: Well, when I discovered his works, that was really what turned my head around. I mean, Romare Beardon and Jacob Lawrence, even though I admired what they did and certainly they inspire my work as well, I was always looking for a less stylized way of portraying African-Americans. Charles White, there such power and dignity and individualism in his people that that’s what has to move me more than anything else and in terms of a muse there are times when I feel in a place where I’m trying to figure out where to go. I have stacks of books and one would be of Charles White. The other is of Gordon Parks, the photographer. And I can just rub those stacks of books and I know where I need to go. 

Laird: Do you feel that the realistic aspect of Charles White’s work is why you were drawn to it, since you work itself is also realistic?

Pinkney: I think I was drawn, I mean, first of all, to the power of just the aesthetics. I mean, it’s pretty powerful drawing. I’m a drawer more than anything else. So, the power of his drawing drew me, but there’s a certain sense of being uplifted by his work. There’s a certain sense that no matter what the pressures or the uphill climb, no matter how steep that is, making that climb is important.

Laird: Next question, has black social or racial issues ever motivated or inspired you to take on a particular illustration project?

Pinkney: That’s hard. Yes and no, I mean if I go back to the sixties there were certain things that I did that were really certainly political and social in as much as the effort to get out and understand the value of voting and stuff like that. In terms of my art, there is a wealth of material that is exciting and rich to actually speak to in terms of art. That is another thing, that’s separate from the political and yet it does serve in a political and social way. I think that’s where if you move away from illustration and commission work, you look at the work of most artists who made their largest contribution they were speaking about something in their work. Yet the drive was a need to also express how one sees paint or a surface and all those things. What works best is when you make statements that begin with the need to make a mark. 

Laird: When doing an illustration where African-American themes are presented, where do you often go to gather your inspiration? You’ve said you look at White. You look at Parks. What are some of the other things you might look at as far as reference goes?

Pinkney: The reference really then becomes more text than visual. Again there’s so much to be mined in the kind of process that went to how African-Americans survived. Perhaps that becomes the real key to the inspiration, is that in some way when Toni Morrison speaks of a race of giants, she speaks of the fact that with so much to overcome, African-Americans survived in a way that actually became a contribution. You can’t strip away the African-American experience out of America.

Laird: That’s one thing that’s always drawn me to the African-American experience, is the fact that in my history, in the history that I learned, to come from those odds and now and present day, it’s unbelievable.

Pinkney: It’s amazing, and along the way, even when they were denied access to that part of that contribution. It’s kind of amazing that you could add so much to a country and to a people and not have access even to your contributions.

Laird: It’s like socially changing the world inside of a jail cell.

Pinkney: Exactly, that’s a good point.

Laird: That’s exactly right, even in the days of slavery the slaves were still making change. Phyllis Whitely, Scipio Moorhead, which are unknown to many people, that’s incredible that the third woman to ever publish a book was an African-American woman.

Pinkney: Right, right. Think of that aspect which was never recorded and those craftspeople who built the most, a lot of the furniture, that they never got credit for. Or all of that aspect building things and making things work that we have no idea what extent that is.

Laird: Jerry, would you consider your depictions of African-Americans unique?

Pinkney: No, no, I don’t. I mean, I think perhaps what might be unique is what every artist searches for, and that is a sense of a point of view or, I don’t like the word style, but you could use style. I visited South Carolina recently and it was absolutely amazing how much art you see in the south that depicts African-American life. So no, I’m not unique, I mean, I think that where I might be unique is the place where I am in terms of being able to command an audience and have publishers who are very interested and have people who follow, but the way I approach it is individual.

Laird: Let me ask you this, and it could sound a little provocative, but have you ever turned down an assignment because you might have felt it fringed on being racist? I’ll give you an example, maybe Little Black Sambo, which I saw you’ve illustrated. Have you ever had an assignment given to you that you just didn’t feel comfortable doing?

Pinkney: Yes. The only example that comes to mind very quickly, and maybe because it’s huge, there was a time when in textbooks they began to think about that was an absence of any people of color in their material. They actually somewhat masterminded a chart to identify other races, and that chart was given to me to help me draw African-Americans, not only African-Americans, but Asians and the whole thing. I turned it down.

Laird: What was your rebuttal in the reason that it was turned down?

Pinkney: It was simply that I thought it was stereotyped. They thought that in their interest of trying to inform artists about people other than themselves they used to stereotypes to demonstrate that. They thought they were doing well. but at the same time, it had the opposite effect. It showed African-Americans  only with curly hair or with broad lips. They were not looking at African-Americans. I want to tell you something, this is very important, I was sitting in a workshop. I was actually a visiting artist at a lecture on the history of illustration. In that history of illustration, they dealt with that time period where all minorities were open to exploit. It was very interesting for me as an African-American to realize that there was a time in this country when everybody, an immigrant was open to be stereotyped. It isn’t that you were Irish, or you were Italian, or certainly if you were Jewish, there are examples across the board of how that was looked at and portrayed in a very, very negative and malicious way. I think that’s important only because in a sense, you have to understand that and put that in perspective. You really are trying to not necessarily to correct but to change things. This existed in this country, not only for African-Americans, but for all minorities.

Laird: I have a chapter in my thesis, I think you would enjoy reading my thesis, but it was an article that was taken out of Step by Step or Graphics magazine. The title is  “Dirty Pictures.” It’s the historic depictions of Jews and African-Americans in American illustration. Figures were shown. It did point out that the most horrible and deplorable stereotypes were probably African-American stereotypes.

Pinkney: I’m not sure that I would say that’s true. I would say that it went on longer, where eventually there was a pocket, with the exploitation or the stereotyping of the Irish and the Italians, were a shorter period of time. It was brutal for all minorities, the problem was this, it continued for African-Americans much longer.

Laird: That is a good way to get into my conclusion. I point out, and I’m somewhat defending the statements that you just made. I use four or five particular golden age illustrators as examples. One is Thomas Nast, the other is E. W. Kemble

Pinkney: I know a lot of Kemble’s, but Nast?

Laird: A. B. Frost and, of course, Norman Rockwell, and the point that I’m making is that in order to look at these images, feel free if you disagree with me, I’d like to get it on tape. In order to fairly look at these images before one makes an instant judgment on saying this is a racist piece, one should A) look at the context, B) look at the period when it was done and look at who the illustrator was doing this assignment for. And in the defense of Thomas Nast ,and some of these other illustrators, if you look at it in that content they do in many ways have a defense.

Pinkney: Yes.

Laird: I say numerous times, it was blind ignorance nevertheless, there were certain illustrations, in particular by Thomas Nast, which changed society. He was probably one of the biggest supporters of  the African-American reformation cause. He probably did more for the African-American cause during reformation. He was instrumental in getting Johnson impeached. He did, however, have a constant acceptation and that was Irish Catholics. They were depicted in Nast’s drawings as monkeys. They looked like gorillas. They were horrible. So, I’m glad you bring that point up.

Pinkney: It really is, and I came about Nast and Frost through the works that really spoke about their craft, the draftsmanship, and their sensitivity. And it was only later that I discovered, and I still have a hard time making that leap to some of the other that works now. The question I would ask you, you’ve studied it, how could they make that big a jump, even understanding historically where they were coming from or were they so good that they could give you exactly what you wanted? It’s a really interesting thing. If you look at Frost and the sensitivity of his drawings, especially his animals, it’s amazing, absolutely amazing. And yet, there is a sensitivity and an understanding about his works where he understood the animal, but  is to understand the personification, then you have his African-American figures, which are not necessarily crude in their craftsmanship, but there is an effort not to be sensitive. Nast is the same way. There is no effort to be sensitive.

Laird: Well, I have found, uncovered several images and I really should try get a copy of this thesis to you. It would really be interesting for you to see it.

Pinkney: You’re going to have to after this conversation; you’re gonna be held responsible.

Laird: I will, I will, promise to. But there are some depictions that Thomas Nast did that you will not believe. He did one of an African-American lying down with a bullet through his head.It is so sensitively drawn. It was an illustration he did for Harper’s about the atrocities of the KKK.

Pinkney: Oh gosh! Where did you find it?

Laird: Then there is another piece that it just so happened that Murray Tinkelman introduced me to. We went to San Francisco. I went to Jane Eisenstats’ house. She has an enormous collection of golden age illustrations. Well, first Murray shows me this stereotypical A. B. Frost piece, but I had researched and found some earlier pretty sensitive depictions and it just blew my mind.

Pinkney: Murray Tinkelman’s lecture is the one I was referring to. 

Laird: Yes, well that image that you probably saw, it has a man holding a possum, the black man holding the possum.

Pinkney: I don’t remember, but go ahead.

Laird: He takes me in the back room and pulls another piece out and says this is probably, along with Norman Rockwell’s Man in the Dining Car, one of the most sensitive depictions of a African-American man. The image shows on the right hand side, a man leaning against a poll talking to two white men across from them. It’s just like a black man in a casual conversation with these men. He’s very casual, very relaxed, and it’s a very sensitive picture. So, it made me think a lot about these particular artists.

Pinkney: Yes, right, exactly.

Laird: And I understand too that it wasn’t right, but it was somewhat the style or the fashion of the day.

Pinkney: It was the style or fashion at the time. Again, for the African-American, it was less painful when you realized that. With the Jewish people, or Irish, or Italian you begin to see that the same thread ran through all of that and this certain sense and the need and the desire of Americans to protect themselves and to use that as a way of placing those folks in a certain perspective. The difference, of course, is the fact that eventually, the Irish were white, the Italians were white and they were able to assimilate where African Americans were never able to do that.


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