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New Children’s Book Celebrates Ellington

One day in the early ’80s, poet, novelist, dancer and educator Ntozake Shange put her daughter in a stroller and went for a walk in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Surrounded by boarded up buildings, Shange thought, “This is not the Harlem I remember.” Then, suddenly, she stopped dead in her tracks. Shange had come upon Ellington St.

She was horrified. “How could a street sign possibly convey the importance, the influence, the elegance of Ellington?” Shange lifted her young daughter out of the stroller, pointed to the sign and asked: “Do you know who that is?” After her child flunked the pop quiz, Shange rushed home, put her daughter in the high chair, put on a Sun Ra album, and began to educate her child on Duke Ellington.

Later, Shange put her passion on paper. The result is the poem “Mood Indigo,” the second in a trio of poems that opens her 1983 collection, A Daughter’s Geography.

“Mood Indigo” tells of Shange’s childhood in Harlem during the 1950s, when she was surrounded in her home by her surgeon father’s friends: Paul Robeson, Sonny Til, W.E.B. DuBois, Dizzy Gillespie, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah and, of course, Duke Ellington, who was often an overnight guest because many hotels refused to accommodate African Americans.

Last month Simon and Schuster released Shange’s children’s book, Ellington Was Not a Street, in which Shange’s poem “Mood Indigo” is set to bold and beautiful illustrations by Kadir Nelson.

Shange hopes the book’s famous subjects will provide father figures for those boys and girls with no father to read to them.

Nelson’s rich, soulful oil paintings give the poem life, placing its characters in various rooms and situations in Shange’s home. Toward the end of the book is a picture Nelson painted that mimics Art Kane’s famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph taken in August of 1958. As a coda, the book includes biographical sketches and small illustrations of all mentioned legendary figures.

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Originally Published