By Hakim Abdul-Ali
It’s a polite and humble honor to recognize the greats of anyone’s culture, especially those souls who make and have made significant impact upon “hue-manity,” no matter whatever ethnic culture they claim as their own. So, it is with absolute joy that I bring to your attention my heartfelt respect and remembrance about an Afro-American giant in the field of art from my culture named Tom Feelings, who died in 2003.
He was a supremely talented and special “hue-man,” and I was blessed to call him a dear friend and buddy for more than a decade prior to his death at the age of 70. My reflections about this gigantic artistic genius truly runs very deep, so much so that I’d like to share some personal vibes about this dynamic brother with you today in celebratory appreciation of his everlasting aesthetic creative greatness.
This native of Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York, born in 1933, was a noted illustrator and a former professor of art design at the University of South Carolina. His fame mainly came from illustrating acclaimed books like “Something on My Mind,” “To Be A Slave,” “Now Sheba Sings The Song,” “Jamboree Means Hello,” “Daydreamers,” and “My Soul Looks Back In Wonder,” among some of his many recognized and other outstanding award winning illustrative book contributions.
He was primarily noted for his personal 1995 monumental classic, “The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo,” a serious piece dealing with the horrors of slavery, the Middle Passage and its aftermath. This best selling literary artistic masterpiece, which featured a foreword by the late, great elder scholar of African History, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, is a rare treasure among serious collectors of Black History and Afro-memorabilia.
The Tom Feelings who I knew, admired and respected was immensely proud of his beloved Brooklyn roots, a city he felt forever connected to throughout his life up until his untimely death. In this beloved New York City habitat, as an evolving youth, he began and nurtured his early love of art and an appreciation of the Black Experience that spanned his life’s interests and pursuits.
As a noted bibliophile and art collector, I’d been an admirer of Mr. Feelings’ artwork through his various book designs for an assorted and distinguished array of authors and poets. We had officially met in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1990s at a meet and greet lecture presentation that he was giving at a local library, long before “The Middle Passage” book’s publication.
You see, I was born in Harlem, and I am a committed collector of things Black Harlem related, plus being a former artist myself, all of which drew Brother Tom and I together in a bond of respectful soulful comradeship and brotherhood. I need not mention to you that our personal vibes of Harlem, Brooklyn and my old habitat, Newark, New Jersey, which often took us to different comfort zones of familiarities with brotherly respect and good natured humor, were very heartfelt. Those were some marvelous and joyously good times. We became close and trusting buddies of one another, and I always felt welcomed in his spectacular and very cozy Columbia, South Carolina, home and art studio.
At the time of his death, Mr. Feelings was dealing with some continuing health issues that eventually claimed his life. As I previously alluded to, I had a wonderful, deep and warm relationship with Brother Tom, highlighted by the fact that I had done numerous earlier documented articles and stories about him for “The Charleston Chronicle” for over a decade.
Being around an artist like myself, I believe, made Brother Tom feel at ease in talking to me about the sensitivities of his artistic visions, past and present. We also spoke about everything, e.g., from the contemporary art scene to the Black struggles here and abroad to the persistent trials facing the American educational system to the (then) troubling present states of African awareness to global geo “poly-tricks,” etc.
Brother Tom Feelings, a sculptor-at-heart and an enthusiastic teacher, was enhanced by his firsthand knowledge of his early travels to and having lived abroad, especially in Ghana and Guyana. He was was a true friend if there ever was one in my life, and I learned much from this awesome scholarly soul.
My fondness for this dynamic, artistic talent was always secondary to my respect for his genuinely caring and sharing persona. Brother Tom was that kind of understanding “hue-man” who could light up a room with his magnetic smile and ever-so-charismatic personality.
On many instances, this brother and I would dine in at some of his favorite restaurants in the Columbia area, and we’d, again, share reflective vignettes and stories of old Black New York from back in the day. Whenever we joined forces, we had much to discuss, and we did. Believe me, it was a blast, just two Afro brothers sharing reminiscences of being proud of Black culture and our states of being.
Over many of our meals, we’d rap about the uncertain ’50s, the turbulent ’60s and the (then) eventful current times with keen observant intellectualism until I’m still feeling his absence to this day. My love for the artist, scholar, teacher and “the brother man” called Tom Porter was/is sincerely remarkable because that’s the kind of talented allied soul that he was.
Forever in search of authentic Black truths and Afro-cultural expressions, Tom Feelings was one of the first artists to be invited to Ghana during the ’60s by its leader, Kwame Nkrumah. In many of our personal discussions about “The Motherland” and other global locales where Blacks existed, he would tell me in depth of the intensified impact and educational grip that being in Africa initially had upon him.
His independent artwork and sculptures reflecting African comparative essences and innately distinctive analogous spiritual values are some of the most prized African centered pieces any collector of these art forms could have in his or her collection. This master illustrator’s stellar artwork emphasized a unique and defined artistic drawing style, that was and is unmatched until this very day. His sculptures were “about us.”
I feel honored to have in my distinct collection and select possessions many autographed books, art posters and other assorted Tom Feelings related memorabilia that were personally signed by Brother Tom to me. To say that I loved his artistic developmental sense of expression is to shortchange his rightful legacy as one of America’s greatest ever designers, cartoonists, sculptors and children’s book illustrators to have ever lived. “He was phenomenal.”
In closing my reflective thoughts about Brother Tom Feelings, he once said to me in describing what he does, he related that, “When I’m asked what kind of work I do, my answer is that I am a storyteller in picture form, who tries to reflect and interpret the lives of the people who gave me life. When I am asked who I am, I say I’m an African who was born in America.
“Both answers connect me specifically with my past and present…therefore I bring to my art a quality which is rooted in the culture of Africa and expanded by the experience of being Black in America. I use the vehicle of fine art and illustration as a viable expression of form, yet I strive always to do this form from an African perspective, an African world view, and above all, to tell the African story; this is my constant.”
Mr. Feelings concluded his explanation of his artistic inclinations with,”The struggle to create artwork, as well as to live creatively under any conditions and strive (like my ancestors), embodies my particular heritage in America.”
That just about says it all in a nutshell what the remembrance and celebration of my beloved brother and pal, Tom Feelings, is all about to me. His memory lives with me always, and for today and always, that’s, “As I See It.”