He found truth in art

Angela was taken twice in 1619, once by slave traders and later by pirates who hijacked the ship that carried her like cargo.

Ibrahima was royal prince in Futa Jalon, now Guinea. Taken in 1788, he would be 40 years a Mississippi slave before seeing his homeland again.

Angela and Ibrahima are today embodied in the striking sculptures of Woodrow Nash, one of America’s foremost African-American artists. And their personal stories are now told in a new book, “Sculptor Woodrow Nash: How I Search For My Ancestors,” co-written by Gainesville author Shelley Fraser Mickle.

Mickle is a best-selling novelist (“The Queen Of October”) whose latest non-fiction work “Borrowing Life,” traces the scientific breakthroughs that made human organ transplants possible.

In a marked departure, her new work is a children’s book.

And, before you ask, yes, Mickle is quite aware that a book telling children about the slavery roots of the popular American song “Michael Row The Boat Ashore,” might be viewed by some as teaching “critical race theory” to kids.

“Yes it is,” she says. “And none of that was in play when we began working on this book six years ago.”

“There’s just so much coming to light right now that it seems silly to me to argue about it. The more we learn about ourselves the more we can understand each other.”

For Mickle this book is a rekindling of a long-held passion that began in 1962 when she was a freshman at Old Miss. “A mob had formed, and two people were killed outside my dorm,” she recalled. “I’ve tried my whole life to play a part in making this great wrong better for everybody.”

It was many years later, in 2015, when she saw examples of Nash’s sculptures on-line and, on impulse, contacted him. “We created a friendship and trust through the telephone,” she said. “I almost think that’s a miracle. We’ve never met, but we bonded in a way that he trusts me implicitely.”

Their collaboration aside, it would take half a dozen years to find a publisher – at least partly due to a reluctance in the industry to accept a work about slavery by a white writer.

“We need to understand that the history of slavery is owned by both of us,” she said. “The remnants of that history are still here for us to deal with. It’s not either or, but both.”

The book is a visual showcase that introduces Nash’s intricately carved and painted sculptures to young eyes. But it also tells the story of Nash’s own awakening as he transformed clay into lifelike figures. “While the sculptures are in the kiln, their essence seems to whisper, and I wonder about their histories.”

Nash supplied the images. Mickle provided the histories.

“When I began my research I found slave manifests showing that even 9-month old children were sold and delivered,” she said. “We’re learning things that were not even in the history books years ago. It’s important to know this history, and I see this book as a bridge.”

With the children’s book freshly in print, the collaborators are still looking for a publisher for an adult book that will explore in much more detail the history of slavery as viewed through Nash’s work.

Nor does Mickle shy away from the current controversy over teaching critical race theory in schools, or the political backlash against the New York Times’ “1619 Project” exploring the roots of American slavery.

“I see it very much like what Germany has gone through with the Holocaust,” she said. “They embraced their past and required it be taught in their schools so it won’t happen again.”

“Sculptor Woodrow Nash: How I Search For My Ancestors” is published by Pelican Publishing and sells for $18.99. Shelly Fraser Mickle will have a book signing event on Saturday, May 22 from 1-3 at Wild Birds Unlimited.

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