Tom Feelings, an award-winning illustrator, chose to paint the works of The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo
(1995) in response to a Ghanaian friend who asked him exactly what the African slaves went through when slavers captured them.
The book is composed only of black and white paintings depicting the horrors of the procurement and shipping of African slaves. It opens with Feelings’s description of how the images flashed through his mind when his friend asked him what his people went through.
As Feelings began his research, he found real accounts to base his paintings on and many rationalizations for what had occurred. For this reason, he chose to "write" his story with no words. Feelings points out that racism is innate in the English language, giving him another reason to tell the story through his art alone. He mentions the pain he felt delving into his people's dark history, only to see some of the same offenses in contemporary America. He says that his work is important to Africans around the world who share a "race memory" of the shackles of their ancestors that will become spiritual links.
Before he began work on The Middle Passage
, Feelings spent several years illustrating the "beautiful side of the black experience" for African children. It wasn't until 1972 when he went to Guyana to teach other illustrators how to tell the true historical story of the colonized people there that he realized he wanted to convey the same message in his work.
Feelings used personal accounts from captains, traders, and historians to guide his pieces. He moved back to America because "that's where the pain was." Run ragged by the emotional toll researching and painting the dark subject had taken on him, Feelings said he would stop to sleep only to be visited by his dead grandmother who encouraged him to push on.
In his introduction, Kadir Nelson describes how he was drawn to the book at a bookstore. He says words were not necessary for the powerful images and that the lack of a color palette successfully oversimplifies the reality: the different tribes of African peoples and the varied European colonizers are all portrayed as just black and white. He agrees with Feelings's assessment that there are no words to represent the pain and suffering of the African slaves accurately.
Kamili Feelings, the author's son, has written the second introduction. He notes that his father worked on the book for thirty years, reacting emotionally to the stories he was painting. They left him feeling "alone and overwhelmed." After its publication, Feelings continued to seek out conversations with critics that "allowed him to grow as an artist and as a storyteller."
Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf describes conditions on the slave ships from firsthand, historical accounts. The middle passage was the leg of the triangular route whereby slaves were taken from their homes and brought to other countries. Women and children were often near the back of the vessel unbound while the men were packed away on "shelves" below deck, shackled together and cramped into a squatting position. Their bodies created so much heat that it came out of the vents onto the floors of the ship like steam, sometimes reaching up to 130 degrees. Despite the heat, they were only allowed two mouthfuls of water a day.
Thousands of vessels held up to 700 people at a time. On one ship, the Rapida Emperatriz
, a thousand Mozambique peoples were aboard, but only 840 survived. The ships were rife with rats, lice, and fleas. People died from diseases due to poor conditions, suicide by drowning or starvation, and some were hanged or shot during insurrections. The slavers sexually abused the women, and both women and children were made to work as domestic slaves on the vessels.
The book opens with Feelings' paintings of Africa: the calm sea, the sun, and a bird in the sky, all in a charcoal-like black and white painting. Next, white men are beating Africans with sticks. Africans flee from white men in uniforms brandishing long rifles.
The Africans then stand in a long line, tied together at the neck, hastened along by men with guns and whips. A few African men assist the slavers, and victims lying prostrate on the ground. The swell of the ocean is just off the edge of one image.
In an artistic description of a woman torn from her family, Feelings has painted a surreal photo of the woman, grieving with her head in her hands. The image of a man's face looms over her, looking pained, and an African baby hovers over his head, flanked by two spears.
Feelings also portrays the atrocities that took place on board the ship: a man force-fed, brandings, and heaps of diseased bodies being tossed into the ocean, where sharks have begun to swarm. There are images of women gripped forcefully, men committing suicide by scrabbling over the nets and into the sea, children caged, and a cutaway illustration of the ship showing all of the African men crammed into the ship's bowels. Feelings paints a man who has died from the filthy conditions and is being feasted on by a rat. Insurrectionists are hanged from the mast and some shot.
In every painting, the theme is evident. Feelings expresses the emotional and physical turmoil that the Africans went through along the middle passage. The paintings depict a people who simultaneously lost their homes, their right to their bodies, their humanity, and their freedom.