20 Sep

Interview with Author, Obiora N. Anekwe, on His Latest Children's Book, The Adventures of Blind Tom

Posted by Obiora Nnamdi Anekwe

The Adventures of Blind Tom depicts the life story of Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins, an African American enslaved classical pianist, composer, and singer who performed to audiences around the world. As illustrator and writer of this children’s book, Obiora N. Anekwe uses poetry and collage imagery to tell the extraordinary life story of Blind Tom. His book is appropriate for children and parents affected by the challenges of autism and other audiences who want to learn more about America’s forgotten musical legends. This illustrative work also demonstrates how any child can overcome mental and physical challenges in order to become a successful and productive adult.

Author and educator Yvonne Southerland conducted an interview with Obiora N. Anekwe, author and illustrator of the children’s book, The Adventures of Blind Tom, on September 1, 2016.

Yvonne: Welcome all.
Today we are fortunate to be interviewing Obiora N. Anekwe, author of The Adventures of Blind Tom.
Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Tell us a little about yourself and your background?

Obiora: I’m a writer, visual artist, and educator who lives in Brooklyn, New York with my wife, Alexis Sutherland Anekwe, and our son, Amari. I was born in Tuskegee Institute, Alabama and reared  in Lagos, Nigeria for five and a half years. Most of my childhood and early adult life was spent in my hometown of Columbus, Georgia. As a child, I always made artwork, especially during the summer months when I was out of school. I love jazz and contemporary music and find inspiration in the music I listen to and the people I meet. 

Yvonne: Give us an insight into your main character. What does he/she do that is so special?   

Obiora: My main character’s name is Blind Tom. He was autistic in the 1800s during a time when autism wasn’t formally recognized as a disability. He lived as a slave in Columbus, Georgia. When his slave master discovered that he had a unique ability to replay music on the piano after hearing it once, he employed the same music teacher that taught his daughter to teach Tom how to formally play the piano. As a slave, Blind Tom toured the world playing in concert halls and even vaudeville shows. He was the first African American musician to formally be invited to entertain a president in the White House. During the Civil War, he wrote music in tribute to soldiers in the South. His music was sold in order to raise money for the South to fight in the war. Blind Tom is known as the last slave after the Civil War because he was involved in a legal guardianship battle from the South to the North until his death. Tom worked for his guardians as a traveling musician without compensation even after slavery was abolished.

Yvonne: Why was collage used as a form of illustration in your children’s book?

Obiora: I decided to use collage as a form of illustration in my book on Blind Tom because it offered a sense of flexibility that other forms of artistic expression did not offer to me. I could essentially layer and build upon the materials used with collage and also allow each piece to be unique and original. I’ve always liked the usage and expressive quality of collage since I was a child and I wanted to express this love in my own illustrative process as a children’s book author.

Yvonne: Describe some of the collages you created for your children’s book on Blind Tom. 

Obiora: There are a few collages that I would like to extensively describe. The first collage is entitled, “Blind Tom Plays the Piano at the White House.” In 1860, Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins Greene was the first African American musician to play at the White House under the presidency of U.S. President James Buchanan. I refer to Blind Tom as the “Original Piano Man” because he not only eloquently played the piano, he also sang and composed his own original music inspired by the modern classical music of his day. Because of his unique ability to entertain massive audiences throughout the world, President Buchanan invited Blind Tom to entertain dignitaries at the White House. Blind Tom often referred to himself in the third person when he introduced himself on the stage before he performed his music.

The left side image of Blind Tom shows him playing the piano at the White House. His piano is drawn in red, white, and blue in order to symbolize the united colors of North America. My drawing of Blind Tom is in black and grey in order to depict the simplicity of Blind Tom physical appearance juxtaposed against his extraordinary musical talent as an entertainer. The right side photograph of the White House was an image I photographed during my visit to the White House a few summers ago. This particular image of the White White was historically significant to me because it was taken during the presidency of Barack H. Obama, the first African American President of the United States. I was especially proud of the fact that I was able to visit the White House during Barack Obama’s tenure as president.

In my collage artwork entitled, “Bind Tom under a tree,” Blind Tom is depicted innocently playing the piano under the tree where his body is buried at the Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. I took the photograph of the tree shown in the collage, then I developed it, and used colored pencils to show the tree in vividly enriched colored form. I chose to minimize the image of Tom in order to emphasize the immensity and symbolism of the tree. The tree symbolically means that the aged tree covers and supports the innocence of Blind Tom. I believe that the tree also symbolically represents how much one of his most valued parental caretaker, Eliza Bethune, wanted to remind Tom that he would forever be covered and supported throughout eternity.

The next collage I would like to discuss is entitled, “Blind Tom: An Autistic Genius.” Thomas Green “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908) was born into slavery in Columbus, Georgia. He became one of the nineteenth century’s most extraordinary musical performers and composers. Known as the first African American musician to perform at the White House, he began touring the world at the age of nine or ten. During the mid 1850s , he earned an estimated $100,000 per year. Most of his earning income was managed and owned by his slave master, even after the abolition of American slavery.

Blind Tom’s all-consuming passion for playing the piano and his ability to replicate musical scores was mind-boggling to many concert audiences, including writer Mark Twain, who attended his piano recitals for three consecutive days. Blind Tom spent his final years in Hoboken, New Jersey, where he resided with his guardian, Eliza Bethune. He died in 1908 at age fifty-nine after suffering a stoke. He was buried in the Cemetery of the Evergreens in Brooklyn, New York.

My collage image shows an enlarged bodily image of Blind Tom, who musicologists claim played the piano more proficiently when he was large in size. I added the imagery of piano keys at the bottom of the collage image of Blind Tom in order to emphasize Blind Tom’s intrinsic nature to play music on the piano. The collage was entitled, "Blind Tom: An Autistic Genius," because it is presumed that Blind Tom had autism. Although he was autistic, he succeeded as a musical virtuoso who amassed a memory of at least 10,000 songs while becoming an accomplished composer in his own right.

The last collage I would like to discuss is simply entitled, “Blind Tom.” I first learned about Blind Tom as an undergraduate student at Clark Atlanta University. During my junior year, I was debating whether to do my honors program senior thesis project on Ma Rainey or Blind Tom, both former residents who were born in Columbus, Georgia, my hometown. I decided to explore Ma Rainey, Mother of the Blues, and successfully completed my senior thesis project on her. Since then in 1997, I have always had a desire to learn more about Blind Tom and how people with special needs are perceived. I believe that it is contingent upon us to highlight how extraordinary artistic talents, such as those of Blind Tom, and facilitate a means by which these talents can be used as a mechanism to enhance learning for people with special needs.

My collage about Blind Tom shows numerous concert poster advertisements promoting his musical concerts. As I researched these posters for my collage, I noticed that although Blind Tom possessed enormous musical talents, he was still referred to as a Negro slave. In the center portion of my collage, I decided to place a collage image of Blind Tom playing the piano. The usage of the color orange in my collage symbolizes the vibrancy, electric genius, and resilience of Blind Tom, despite the limitations of his mental disability.      
Yvonne: Which writers inspire you?                                                                                             

Obiora: The writers who inspire me the most are those who are originals in their craft. They know the rules of language, but at the same time, they are willing to break them in order to transcend barriers found in language. I like authors who are different and who don’t try to mimic others. In the realm of children’s book authors, I don’t necessarily have a favorite author, but more so, I admire illustrators who are really creative. I tend to get inspiration from people in general who are original and not afraid to take chances in their own artistic expression.

Yvonne: What are your previous books about?                                                                              

Obiora: Most of my previous books have been in the field of education and bioethics. I’ve always used art as a medium to translate meaning in my books, no matter the genre. To date, I’ve written eight books, including my recent book on Blind Tom. It was my first children’s book. Mostly all of my books can be purchased through Amazon on-line. Simply type my name (Obiora N. Anekwe) in the books section on Amazon and my books will come up.

Yvonne: What draws you to this genre?                                                                    

Obiora: I was drawn to write The Adventures of Blind Tom as a children’s book because I discovered that most people had never heard of Blind Tom. So I thought that I should begin first with youth people in educating them about Tom through the genre of a children’s book. Another reason why I was drawn to write and illustrate a children’s book was because of the birth of our baby boy, Amari. I wanted to write books for him that would encourage and inspire him to achieve beyond heights. Because there is a lack of diversity in American children’s books that show images of black people in historical narratives, I thought that it was best that I use my talents as an artist and writer to create those images for him to see and appreciate.

Yvonne: Which actor would you like to see playing the lead character from your Blind Tom book?                                                                                                                                          

Obiora: I have this dream that Forest Whitaker would be the perfect actor to play Blind Tom.

Yvonne: How much research do you do?                                                                                   

Obiora: For this particular project, I conducted a great deal of research. I read several books about Blind Tom, looked at a few documentaries about him, and referred to photographs of him from the internet and the National Archives, which all helped me in developing the images and story I created.

Yvonne: Why do you write?                                                                                                       

Obiora: I write because I have a passion to tell stories that most people are unaware of. But I believe that telling the stories of the vulnerable or those who are unable to speak their truth is essential to bringing closure and healing to past wrongdoings that affect us all. 

Yvonne: Where do your ideas come from?                                                                               

Obiora: My ideas come from listening. The skill of listening helps you discover things that you otherwise would not know. This means listening to other people when they tell their story, reading books and articles that you are interested in, or simply allowing your spirit to speak to you through meditative silence. These are all skills that I use to discover ideas that have existed from the beginning of time, but I have discovered through the skill of just being still and listening.

Yvonne: If this book is part of a series, tell us a little about it?                                                    

Obiora: Yes, it is part of a series of children’s books I am writing about black people from Columbus, Georgia, my hometown, who have made extraordinary contributions to the world.

Yvonne: Tell us about the cover and how it came about.                                                             

Obiora: The book’s cover was composed from found objects that my mother gave me from a thrift store in Columbus, Georgia and other objects I saved. For instance, I used golden paper clips to make Blind Tom’s feet. His pants were made from burlap clothe. His shirt was made from a paper cut-out. The most interesting portion in the collage was the seat, which consisted of a golden circle with a penny image of Abraham Lincoln. I tend to insert Lincoln’s image in some of my artwork, especially in my artwork related to children with disabilities, because he actually had a disability himself that affected his physical growth. Abraham Lincoln’s father forced him to work as an indentured servant in order to help pay for family expenses. Thus, Lincoln understood what it meant to be vulnerable as a human being.
Yvonne: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?                                                           

Obiora: Follow your passions and your heart and never give up! Most importantly, try to do something everyday that leads you in the direction of achieving your goals.

Yvonne: How can readers discover more about you and you work?                                                  

Obiora: Readers can discover more about my work by viewing my website at www.ethicallyspeaking.net. I also have a video trailer for my children’s book on my youtube channel. Simply type in on youtube under the search engine: The Adventures of Blind Tom. 

Yvonne: Thank you very much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to take part in this interview.