The poet Langston Hughes once called for a body of African American children's literature "whose dark characters are not clowns and whose illustrations are not only caricatures."
Authors heard his cry, as did a remarkable quartet of artists whose illustrations of children's books are on display at the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis.
"Pass It On: The Art of African American Children's Literature" is truly a unique exhibit that explores not only the richness of American art and literature, but also the essence of illustration itself and, indeed, the symbiotic aesthetic connection between image and word.
Wonderfully evocative of folk traditions is a series of warm-hearted illustrations of the "Tales of Uncle Remus," painted in watercolors by artist Jerry Pinkney, who grew up considering Brer Rabbit and the other characters honorary members of his family.
Pinkney, an illustrator for National Geographic and the designer of several stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, provides some fascinating insights into the illustrator's craft.
The exhibit takes us right along with the artist as he scans his story line, makes note of his options, then sketches and photographs the models who will become his finished figures in works like "Cousins," "The Dowser" and "Ernestine on the Train." It's a fascinating process.
The most overtly autobiographical of the artists is Francine Haskins, a Washington painter, graphic designer, doll maker and storyteller who gives workshops at the Smithsonian from time to time.
In rich, striking colors -- including the pinkest, reddest smiles you've ever seen -- her illustrations from "I Remember 121" evoke the joyous memories of childhood; from her blue-haired Grandma's appointment at the hairdresser to the delectable smells emanating from Aunt Winona's busy kitchen.
More complex are the paintings of Tom Feelings, an artist who worked extensively in West Africa before assuming his current post as an art professor at the University of South Carolina.
"Soul Looks Back in Wonder" is a collaboration between the artist and 13 African American poets who crafted poems inspired by Feelings' paintings. It is the exhibit's single example of the image preceding the word. The most touching of them is the beautiful, somewhat abstract little girl working diligently on her easel who became the basis for Alexis De Vea's inspiring poem, "I am the creativity."
Also striking is Feelings' "Under the Rainbow" in which the realistic face of an African male is superimposed atop an abstract background of vibrant colors.
John Steptoe, the Brooklyn-born artist and only deceased member of the foursome, was a writer-illustrator whose books like "The Story of Jumping Mouse" and "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters" have won Caldecott awards and the Coretta Scott King Award for Illustration.
If I could hang any of these works in my private collection, it would be the impeccably colored, gorgeously detailed "Nyasha and Manyona Absorbed in their Chores" from "Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters."
Above all, "Pass It On" is a celebration, a celebration of the art of story-telling at its most loving, colorful and engaging.
"We don't want our experience just stated or told to us in a flat way -- not even our sorrows," writes artist Tom Feelings.
"Whatever it is, it must always sing for us."
"Pass It On" will continue to sing at Banneker-Douglass through Oct. 26. The museum, at 84 Franklin St. in Annapolis, is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Call the museum at 974-2893 for additional information.