Black as Ink: Revisiting Black History Through SF Artist's Work

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Portraits from McCalman's project, Illustrated Black History.  (Courtesy: George McCalman)

While discussions over Beyonce's Super Bowl one-two punch and the continuing controversy ignited by #OscarsSoWhite packed this year's Black History Month, art director George McCalman and content strategist Ebony Haight sought to commemorate the occasion by showcasing lesser-known pioneers in black history.

The two collaborated on a a series of portraits of Edna Lewis, Gordon Parks and other notable individuals, which are posted on McCalman’s company Instagram under the hashtag #illustratedblackhistory.

Haight initially posted stock photos and short biographies of obscure figures in black history on her Instagram, which inspired San Francisco artist McCalman to create a personal project.

“I didn’t think about it again until I painted a portrait of Rosa Parks on her birthday, and it flashed in my head to do a series of portraits,” McCalman says. "I just wanted to get to know and foster my own sense of history - it was just an itch I had to scratch."

The black-and-white portraits are done in a mix of pen, pencil, ink and watercolor, each in styles that McCalman felt would reflect his connection to the subjects best.


“I feel like I’m communing with people I’ve never met before through the course of researching them, and I feel inspired all over again when I paint them,” he says.

McCalman seeks to produce 29 portraits by the end of Black History Month, though he says there may be plans to extend it to a full year, or even publishing a book on an illustrated guide to black history.

“I grew up in an era where black history was something you learned in school, but there tended to be more focus on Civil Rights than the real history throughout the creation of the United States,” McCalman says.  “The past year I just realized how critical it is, because even though we have so much technology, we’re still so ignorant about history. I think this is just a different way to access our legacy."

Below are a few examples of McCalman's work, from his Instagram feed:

A day late but not a dollar short. My friend @isawstephen wrote this poem about Frederick Douglass and Valentines Day yesterday and I thought it was amazing! / Painting: @mccalmanco The Internet has images of hearts and sweethearts on lock today. Instead I'll use this space to embrace the greatest essayist and orator to ever grace this nation. Frederick Douglass was born a slave who did not know his birthday, so he chose Valentine's. He did not read until he was a teen. Knowledge was the pathway for slaves, he would later say. But you need feet for freedom too. "I prayed for twenty years But received no answer until I prayed with my feet." Just one of the infinite number of thought provoking quotes he spoke or wrote. When I think of my words and legacy, my liberties and the things I'd like to leave behind, I find I channel him more than any other man, because of his eloquence, grit and wisdom that continue to outlive him. "People might not get all they work for in this world, but they must certainly work for all they get." I'm flexin my hustle muscle. When I compare my struggle, I'm absolved of my trouble, but emboldened to open doors closed - And move forward. Progress doesn't idle, I suspect my idol would utter. I don't know why he chose Valentine's Maybe because love is liberation It's worth dying for It is a relentless fight with no culmination in which freedom is not uniform and must be formed within the designs of the love you opine - It is a divine celebration. Love is strength and hope. It is your wife the seamstress on the Underground Railroad sewing your clothes like a tailor in the mold of a sailor so you can meet her on the shores of freedom's sea. Love is the opposite of isolation. It is emancipation, and I suspect that's why this birth date was picked by the great abolitionist. #HistoricPOC #BlackHistory #AmericanHistory #BlackBeauty #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackLivesMatter #BlackTwitter #BlackInstagram #OurHistory #EducateYourself #History #Herstory #blackhistorymonthphotochallenge #IllustratedBlackHistory

A photo posted by @mccalmanco on

Alain LeRoy Locke (b. 1885 - d. 1954) was a writer/philosopher credited as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. He graduated from Harvard University and was the first African American to win a Rhodes Scholarship. He was denied admission to the University of Oxford because of his skin color. He then went on to teach at Howard University after he received his doctorate in philosophy and bachelors in literature. Locke is well known for promoting the arts within the Harlem community and calling on artists to look at Africa for inspiration. / Painting: @mccalmanco #HistoricPOC #BlackHistory #AmericanHistory #BlackBeauty #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackLivesMatter #BlackTwitter #BlackInstagram #OurHistory #EducateYourself #History #Herstory #blackhistorymonthphotochallenge #IllustratedBlackHistory

A photo posted by @mccalmanco on

My friend @marianisel is a fan of the legendary Celia Cruz (b. 1925 - d. 2003) and I asked her to write a tribute to La Reina de la Salsa. Here is what she said: "Celia's music has been the soundtrack to much of my Latina life: family cookouts, road trips, deep-house cleaning, and moments when I need an emotional tune-up. She was always around; and as I grew spiritually and politically, so did my love and admiration for Celia. Celia sang with fierce Afro-Cuban pride; she sang of her blackness and her beloved Orishas. There is a long and messy history of anti-blackness in the Latinx community, and Celia was having none of it. There is a moment in the documentary "Soul Power" when Celia lands in Zaire, kneels and kisses the ground. She was not allowed to return to her native Cuba for political reasons, but I think that day in Zaire she returned home in a deeper way. In 2003, I was working at Latina magazine when Celia passed. I remember someone yelling the news around the office, and silence fell. We worked diligently to honor her legacy. I had to work on a round-up of her life in pictures, all the while not believing she was gone." / Painting: @mccalmanco #HistoricPOC #BlackHistory #AmericanHistory #BlackBeauty #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackLivesMatter #BlackTwitter #BlackInstagram #OurHistory #EducateYourself #History #Herstory #blackhistorymonthphotochallenge #IllustratedBlackHistory

A photo posted by @mccalmanco on

Kathleen Neal Cleaver (b. 1945) is a lawyer, professor and former Black Panther. She attended a quaker high school and went to Oberlin for college. While there, she became invested in activism and dropped out in 1966 to become involved in the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). She met Elridge Cleaver and became involved with the Black Panther party was in its infancy. She became the first woman involved in its central organization and among a small group of women prominent in the party. They were married in 1967. Kathleen went back to school in 1981, attending Yale University, then Yale Law School. She and Eldridge divorced in 1987. She is currently serving as a senior lecturer at Emory University School of Law. / Painting: @mccalmanco #HistoricPOC #BlackHistory #AmericanHistory #BlackBeauty #BlackHistoryMonth #BlackLivesMatter #BlackTwitter #BlackInstagram #OurHistory #EducateYourself #History #Herstory #blackhistorymonthphotochallenge #IllustratedBlackHistory

A photo posted by @mccalmanco on