#109 Illustrated Black History: Unveiling the Iconic and Unseen Voices of America

Today's Guest: George McCalman

Today, I interview George McCalman who has always found solace in his art, which has served as a safe haven for him to freely express his thoughts and feelings. Against all odds, he rose. An African American in a white neighborhood, he defied discrimination. With creativity as his weapon, he forged his path to self-discovery.

McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco. He is known for his design studio, McCalman Co., which collaborates with a diverse range of cultural clients. George is also a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, where he documents Bay Area culture in his observed and first-person columns. His first book, “Illustrated Black History: Honoring The Iconic and Unseen,” was published in 2022.

George’s journey has not been without its struggles, having experienced the challenges of finding his voice and identity as an artist. Growing up in Grenada and later moving to New York City, George had to navigate being a young boy in a new educational system and culture. However, his introspective nature, sensitivity, and keen observations of the world around him shaped his perspective and artistic talents. 

With the influence of his mother and grandmother, George discovered his love for art and storytelling at a young age. Despite initially doubting his identity as an artist, he eventually embraced it and found his voice through the creation of meaningful illustrations. George’s artistic journey has been marked by a pivotal moment in Mexico City, where he realized that he could merge his roles as an artist and art director. Since then, he has dedicated himself to both disciplines, continuing to explore and celebrate the stories and histories of marginalized voices in America through his art.

Join us as we delve into the world of George McCalman, witnessing the profound impact of his artistry, and discovering the resilience and determination that have propelled him on this extraordinary journey. Prepare to be captivated by his unique vision, as we explore how one individual’s struggle can become an unyielding source of inspiration for us all.


Educated as a fine art painter with a focus on philosophy, McCalman defines himself as an artist and creative director. In practice, that means he illustrates, designs, and writes about the complex concepts he explores in his work.

Other than being an artist, he is a creative director and Co-Principal of McCalman.Co. His background in the editorial world is a foundation of his storytelling, and his fine art practice has reframed his perspective on the importance of design. A culture columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, McCalman’s first book Illustrated Black History: Honoring the Iconic and the Unseen won the 2023 NAACP Award for Outstanding Literary Work as well as profound accolades by The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, NPR, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Fast Company and many others.

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Transcript of Interview

Transcript of Interview

Find Your Voice, Change Your Life Podcast

Podcast Host: Dr. Doreen Downing

Free Guide to Fearless Speaking: Doreen7steps.com

Episode #109 George McCalman

“Illustrated Black History: Unveiling the Iconic and Unseen Voices of America” 

(0:36) Doreen Downing
Hi, this is Dr. Doreen Downing, and I am so happy today to introduce you to somebody that I met a few months ago in San Francisco, showing up at his talk, and it was about a new book he had written on illustrated black history. So he’s not only an artist, he’s a cultural icon, I might say. Hi George.

(01:02) George McCalman
Hi, Dr. Doreen. How are you?

(01:04) Doreen Downing
I’m really happy that I get to open up this space and have a conversation with you today. You sent me a bio, so I’m going to read it the best I can. George McCalman is an artist and creative director based in San Francisco in his design studio. McCalman Co. collaborates with a wide-range of cultural clients.

He’s a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. His observed and first person col  ns document bay area culture. In his first book, the one that I just mentioned, Illustrated Black History, Honoring The Iconic and Unseen, was published on September 20, 2022. And folks, that’s where I first found George, is the day I showed up to hear his talk because I think it’s so important.

For those of you who don’t see me and are just listening, I’m white. And George is black, and I just felt like this was an opportunity for me to get more educated, a whole group of, not only who he is as an artist, but who he’s drawing, who he’s illustrating in this book, and telling stories about that.

So that was my reason for inviting him to come, because it’s all about voices, his voice, as well as the voice he’s channeled all these amazing– as he says, the iconic and the unseen in black America, but it’s our America. We’re all here together. Thank you, George.

(02:44) George McCalman
Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited. Looking forward to our conversation.

(02:50) Doreen Downing
Yes. So I’ll dial back to that day. I stood in line for an hour to get you to sign my book, and somewhere along the line, after meeting you and listening to the talk, I felt like I’ve gotta introduce him to my audience. He knows something about what it’s like to have struggled to have a voice, his own voice in this life, your life as well as going on to illustrating other people’s lives.

So first, that day. Let’s just go back to that day cause you mentioned . What that was like for you.

(03:26) George McCalman
Mm-hmm. Well, I mean the day was on the surface one of many events. I’ve been on a book tour and I still am on, technically on a book tour. I’m actually leaving for Washington DC tomorrow night to speak at the Martin Luther King Library, in the center of DC tomorrow with Emil Wilbekin.

And so these events that I have been a part of, it’s not a very typical book tour in that way. Because this book is very, not typical. It’s very atypical. I am the co-writer and designer of the book. So what that means is that I have a lot of different ways of talking about this experience and that it has given me.

It has given me another way to let the audience in, that it’s not really just about me. It’s not just about my process. It’s not just about my voice. It is basically about, reeducating Americans on the people that they should be paying attention to, that have defined and redefined, what American culture and history actually is.

(04:58) Doreen Downing
Actually is. Yes! With an exclamation point. That’s true. And I think that, taking the time that you did to find who those people are to you, I mean if I sat down and did it myself, I’d probably pick different people. You know?

(05:17) George McCalman
That’s the point. Yes. Yes. That is the point. This book is not a definitive guide.
It’s not meant to be. It is meant to be an accessible guide. To the people that most Americans don’t know. And the beautiful thing about information is that we always keep learning. And American narrative tends to define things in best and, you know, worst and favorites. And that’s really not what it’s about.

And that’s not what this experience was for me. I wasn’t trying to create an all access guide. What I was trying to do was create a personal guide, Yes. That others could find their way into that. I made a book deliberately accessible so that no one could feel that I didn’t want to listen to any excuses from anyone about their awkwardness around this subject.

I wanted it to be accessible to let everyone know that this is no matter what your ethnic origin is. If you are an American, this is your history too.

(06:26) Doreen Downing
Thank you for saying that out loud today so that it can resonate across our airways. So you, however, grew up in America. So if we wrote a book about you and you were illustrated in here, what might that look like?
What would that might, what would the author might say about that? About your life?

(06:51) George McCalman
Oh, I mean that just by virtue of the question, I don’t think I can answer that question cause that’s for someone else to write about.

(07:0) Doreen Downing
All right then. Let me ask it this way, George, where did you grow up?

(07:08) George McCalman
So I was originally born in the Caribbean, in a country called Grenada. And I spent the first eight, nine years of my life there. And my mother and I moved to Brooklyn in 1980 and I grew up in New York and so all of my formal education was there. I learned a lot of things that have served me as a human being, living in that vast megapolis.
And I moved out to the Bay Area 23 years ago, and I’ve been here ever since.

(07:46) Doreen Downing
I will ask you just a few more questions cause I’m a psychologist and I always love those stories about early history. So you moved here with your mom only it sounds like, not a father.

(08:01) George McCalman
Yes. My parents divorced at age six. And so my mother and I, a few years later, moved to New York together. Yes.

(08:12) Doreen Downing
And why New York?

(08:15) George McCalman
Well, we at the time, we had a lot of family there and you know, there are places that you will find Caribbean enclaves in the United States, and New York is one of the largest ones. You know, there’s some cities in Florida that attract candidates.
Toronto. In Europe it’s London, it’s the UK. My mother was looking for a community. She was looking for a place to me, for me to you know, kind of see the world. My mother is a very avid and curious traveler, and so for her, she wanted me to be in a place where I would embrace life.

(08:58) Doreen Downing
Yes. Exposed to life, circulating, stimulating all around you. I was not in the country. Of course, those could also be stimulating, but George. One last question about early history and relationship because that entrance into our educational system sometimes for a young boy, you know, you weren’t born here, but what was that like to go through this early education system and did you feel like you had a voice yourself?
Did you feel like you belonged? Were you, lots of times young kids are teased or bullied. Any memory?

(09:42) George McCalman
Well, you said earlier, you used the word struggle and I don’t know that I would attach that to myself. I’ve always been, I’ve always kind of had a reporter’s brain. I’ve always been a kid that was quiet and very sensitive and very much paying attention to my surroundings.

And I was always very kind of psychological, I’ve always had a kind of psychology and a philosophy to how I think and how I think about the people and how I think about the world around me. And so I am someone that spends a lot of time in my brain, and I’m also an only child and I’m an only child in a very large family, and so I was a kid who knew how to keep myself occupied.

I am not someone who’s easily bored because I come from a family that is very much, we’re doers and we know how to occupy ourselves. And my family is still very much like that. You know, there will be five of us in a room together, and we’re sitting silently and comfortably in each other’s company. And one person is crocheting and one person is writing, and one person is, and my family’s very much still like that.

Whenever I visit my grandmother in the Caribbean, I’ll sit, she’s crocheting, she’s doing word puzzles. I’m reading. We’ll stop, occasionally she’ll read me a passage from what she is writing. It’s very communal, it’s not, we’re not isolated and it’s not cold at all. It’s very warm and communal, but we are all people who know how to find our agency and, and learning that at a young age, sought me, found me, well when I lived in New York because New York is a very isolating place and it still is. But I kind of found my rhythm in terms of how to keep myself occupied growing up.

(11:45) Doreen Downing
Yes, I get the image. That’s wonderful. And what you talk about in terms of articulation and being able to kind of live and think in a world and observe and reflect.
I know that that was one of the things I loved about listening, being in your listening audience, being captivated about the way that you see life, the way you see the world, and when did you begin to do art? If that was a time, or does it always, was it always just natural for you?

(12:20) George McCalman
Always. It’s always been there. Yes. I only started describing myself as an artist, seven years ago. But I have been creative, I’ve been an artist my whole life. You know, I can look back and see the breadcrumbs really plainly. I would say I’m an artist because of two people. My mother, who would not describe herself as an artist and my grandmother, who is.

The person I developed my storytelling skills from, she’s turning 10 next month and is still one of the best storytellers I know, and I’ve said this countless times, but my grandmother is responsible for me being the person that I am. Even more than my parents and my mother, my mother passed away two years ago and she would say she would agree with that.

Mm-hmm. My grandmother has had a very profound impact on me, on my life. But I think that the origin of me was my mother. As a young kid, me asking her to draw things and watching as she made images out of nothing out of thin air. Oh, and I remember just being captivated by that. Mm-hmm. That is just, the stimulation, my senses were just alive. And I always remember just being dazzled by someone being able to create.

Mm-hmm. And I’ve always had an admiration, even though in the years where I did not think that I was part of that tribe, I have always gravitated to, I have encouraged, I have mentored, I have learned from artists, and that’s always been my center of gravity. And when I decided a few years ago that I was going to turn my attention to it, I was surprised at what rushed in it was basically the previous 40 something years of not thinking I was an artist.

It just filled in, it was just like an empty cavern that a whole bunch of rain and water just came in and suddenly I looked and there was a lake.

(14:51) Doreen Downing
Yes. You talked about something that happened in Mexico. Mexico City.

(14:59) George McCalman
Yes, it is. Yes, the event that you came to was the premiere of a 15 minute documentary that was created on the making of illustrated black history.
And in that documentary, Mexico City is a character and a player in that story, in that I went to visit for the first time and. I was, my cells were rearranged from the experience because I saw a physical manifestation of what I had been. That is something I actually had been struggling with, was figuring out how I could be an artist when I had been an art director for most of my career.

You know, it’s, I was trying to figure out the engineering and the mechanics of that. And I was having my, you know, one of my first real existential quandaries and just kind of like, how, how is this going to work exactly? How is this going to work? And I tend to think very pragmatically about things.

I let myself dream wildly, but then there’s the other side of my brain that’s like, how are we going to do this exactly. When I was there, I remember looking around and seeing and feeling that the city was answering me directly, and it was telling me that I could put two tastes together that I did not think would be in the same bowl, and that I could merge those two practices, those two disciplines. That it was, that it didn’t have to be one or the other.

It could have been both. And so I ended that. I ended up doing that. I took a sabbatical and I devoted a year basically to just making art and not figuring out what I was going to do with it. I just basically just jumped. And then at the end of the year, I thought I would want to give up design and being a designer, and it became clear to me that I needed to do both.

And so I’ve been doing, I was, I’ve been doing all of the above since.

(17:20) Doreen Downing
Yes. I know you talked about the studio and it was in the documentary in San Francisco. How important that was as a place and then. You also talked, as we go into the book itself, you know that moment of beginning to just start illustrating people. And so that movement into being more self-identified as not only an artist, but then beginning to be drawn to what you wanted to illustrate. Yes. How did that, what was that moment?

(18:04) George McCalman
Well, it is all gradual. You know, there are no sudden moves in my life. There are sudden circumstances. There’s the stuff that’s outside of me that I have no control of.  And then there’s my internal calibration where, which I pay a lot of attention to. And so when the internal force meets the external force, there’s a change in transformation. And I have always been clear about that and, and I’m pretty grounded about that.

So even when I’m faced with new obstacles, I trust my ability to kind of dial into my internal. Values my core, my center, and, and even that has been a process. I’m, I’m speaking very plainly about it now, but it was a lot of fits and starts and trying to figure out basically how to solve these kinds of challenges and to do so in a way that was fair to me, myself.

And fair to the people that I work with and my clients. And I had a lot of considerations that if I thought too hard about them, I probably probably wouldn’t have done this. You know, there are lots of reasons that we as human beings keep ourselves away from our dreams. Yes and for me it was, is this going to be disruptive to the professional life that I’ve already set in motion?

Mm-hmm. And in being kind to myself in searching for an answer, I found that I really had to slow everything down and take things one day at a time that I was really intentional and declarative in wanting to investigate this. And for me it was always about identity. This is what merges. My design life with my artistic life.

Mm-hmm. And learning that design the, the side of my brain, that, that is an art director and a graphic designer and a brand strategist is one side of my, my reptile brain, which is very analytical and is an engineer and very much about systems and process. But then I have a creative brain that doesn’t work that way at all.

And that is a very different way of viewing things. It’s about the mood that I’m in. It’s about whether I’m in the head space for it. It’s the brain that says I need to take a walk before I pick up a pencil. That is very opposite. And the two sides basically have just been speaking to each other for the last few years.

(20:56) Doreen Downing
And that’s what I just want to come in because as I’m listening to you and my work is about voice, and I’m hearing you talk about these sides that feel like they have voice. It’s a voice that you’re listening to something and being the one, not only one side or the other, but the one who is integrating.

You talked about transformation, so how do you be all of it, all of the voices?

(21:30) George McCalman
And it, you know, it feels, and I think it’s one of the things I find language fascinating because there’s a shared language you live in in America, and people speak mostly English, but then they also speak Spanish and they speak French and they speak Arabian and they speak a lot of other languages.

And there are a few universal words that translate across the board, but then there is cultural language. But I pay particular attention. Attention to personal language. It’s something I think that transcends language. It is the conversation we have with ourselves on a daily basis that no one else has access to.

Yes, what are the stories that we are telling ourselves? And for me, what I wanted to do was really start. Listening to myself more. Yes. Trusting my instincts more. And the main thing, and I think it’s something Americans are plagued with in our society, is plagued with where people feel entitled to understand things immediately.

And being from the Caribbean, means that I have never subscribed to that. It’s a different way culturally of viewing things. I don’t feel an entitlement to understand everything. I don’t understand in the moment. I allow things to take their time. I’m not impatient. I’m very patient with  information and I feel like it always comes and you have to slow down to accept it.

Some of it will show up. Inside of a conversation, inside of a few days of thinking about it, but some awarenesses won’t show up for years. Some won’t show up for months, and if you know that you will be listening for it when it arrives, and so it’s the currency and speed of that voice. Trusting my voice means that I don’t always have the answers.
And that if I don’t have the answer, it doesn’t mean the answer is not going to come.

(23:44) Doreen Downing
Trusting that it will come. I get it. I get that. You are such a teacher, such a profound teacher. Just in sharing your way of being, your way of listening. Thank you so much.

(23:58) George McCalman
Thank you. And it’s all of you. You mentioned that. And I am actually a professor.  I teach design at California College of the Arts and being a professor and being a teacher means that I get to reflect my own lessons that I learn from teaching back to myself and that I see myself as a student also.

(24:25) Doreen Downing
Yes. Yes. Yes, that’s, that’s beautiful.
The way you just described it too, is that there’s not an identity of I’m the teacher, it’s one full and it’s all in you too. Yes. I know we are, it feels like I want to do 10 of these conversations with you, but I really want to come to the book and the voices that you found. Yes. The book before we go, we have to get off here soon, but the book absolutely itself illustrated black history, honoring the Iconic and the Unseen.

There’s a, I just was going to say, this book I just want to read in the cover. This book is a celebration of a vital 40 year or old historical legacy, a reading pleasure and educational tool, as well as one man’s. Extraordinary and ambitious artistic endeavor. Hey, that’s you.

(25:26) George McCalman
That is me.

(25:29) Doreen Downing
So just anything you want to talk about with the book or the voices that, how you found the voices in these beautiful illustrations.

(25:41) George McCalman
Well, the book is unconventional in a lot of ways, and I don’t mean that it is not a book that anyone can pick up, but it’s unconventional in the way that it was put together.
There aren’t too many books where one person does all of the components of it. You know, the process of making books is very parochial. There are a lot of processes. It’s been done a certain way for a long time, and when I decided to do this book, I knew that it was going to be kind of coming up against.

The publishing way of doing things, things. And I come from a publishing background, which is why I know how to do this. But I have to say it was a very h  bling experience because I basically had to relearn the process. And I’ve done things before where I have written, illustrated and designed, so even that was not.

A new thing for me. But in terms of bookmaking and publishing, like my publisher has never had, I ended up being a pioneer in this process. Because Harper Collins had never had an author before who was also the artist and designer of the book. And so even, in the title of your podcast. I had to basically find my voice again for the context of this process.

Mm-hmm. And I really had to kind of define some new terms and parameters for how I wanted to work with this. With the people that I worked with and how I wanted to work with my publisher, and most importantly, how I wanted to work with myself. And it was a six year process. It was mostly grueling. It was a very, very, very difficult process,  for lots of really kind of tedious and corporate reasons.

But what I never lost sight of that I was not going to compromise one iota of what I was doing in terms of the quality because I felt like the pioneers in this book demanded that I not back down in terms of how specifically I wanted to tell their stories and how I wanted it presented, and how I wanted these portraits to be rendered.

(28:09) Doreen Downing
Wow. You’re talking about listening to all these voices and feeling the support for you to keep on going and moving, but also, I wouldn’t say the expectation, but it’s almost like you were chosen.

(28:27) George McCalman
You know, it’s funny, in the making of this, several spiritual people told me this, in personal conversations, and it’s not, it’s something I was too deep in the experience to admit, but it was something that I knew, going into this project that, that I was being guided and I was being called to it and that I was uniquely qualified to be doing this book in this way and that it was. It was a calling.

That I was responding to it because I knew I was ready at a period. 10 years ago, 15 years ago, I wouldn’t have been ready. It’s not a larger universal thing I’m speaking to. It’s my experience, the timing. The divinity of it. Like it was the right time. When it was the right time.

(29:25) Doreen Downing
Divinity and dedication.

(29:28) George McCalman
And dedication. Yes. Yes.

(29:30) Doreen Downing
Well, I honor you for having taken the journey and the challenge and to have done the work and where do people go to find you or get the book? And obviously Amazon, but is there someplace like website? How do we just listen to you more, find you, look you up? Anything?

(29:54) George McCalman
Yes. Well, I’m a very plain spoken person, so I say things that are often or perceived as controversial, but I don’t think they’re controversial. I say to people, anyone asking me about the book. Go to Amazon, but they’re the corporate devil. So you don’t have to go to Amazon to get this book.

It’s found anywhere. It’s in bookstores, all over the country, everywhere. But the thing that I suggest is finding your local and independent bookstore because they’re the ones who need your support. This book is not alone. This book doesn’t need your support alone. The independent bookstore industry needs your support, and even if they don’t have the book, they can order it, call it in.

So it’s just a Google search, a way to find your local independent bookstore. Give them a call or go online or order it from them, and it will be great. Fabulous. That’s, that’s, that’s another way to find for the audience to find their voices.

(31:04) Doreen Downing
Yes. Yes. Making those choices and acting on those.

(31:07) George McCalman
Making those active adult choices every day of our lives.

(31:13) Doreen Downing
Yes. Oh dear. Well, there’s one more thing I think is that if people can find you, they’ll know where you’re showing up to speak, because that is huge. And we could usually buy a book from wherever you happen to be speaking and sign. And stand in line and get you to illustrate like you did for my niece and nephew, Tyler and Lila.

Yes. And you wrote their names on the inside of the cover. And it’s cherished by all of us. Plus you signed. Wonderful. So thank you. And wonderful. I always like to take a breath and see what wants to be said as something closing for you that may want to come through spoken.

(32:04) George McCalman
Yes, I do have something to share. The book itself is a very special keepsake. But the long form of this project is education. And so much of black culture is under attack right now. It is really important for this information to be out in the world because it is part of what this country needs to heal itself.

And so not looking away from this information is a great place. To take it seriously that this is American history and that this is your history, whether you are black or not. And the book itself is being turned into a traveling exhibition that is going to be touring the United States. And so the book is an object but the idea is that you will be able to walk into a room and be surrounded by all of our pioneers.

And so the show is being worked on right now. It is going to premiere next year. My website will have more information on that as it’s developing it. It’s a very thrilling and exciting thing.

(33:28) Doreen Downing
Oh, I’m thrilled. I’m ready and I will be watching. Thank you so much, George.

(33:34) George McCalman
Thank you. Thank you, Dr. Doreen.

Also listen on…

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.

7 STEP GUIDE TO FEARLESS SPEAKINGPodcast host, Dr. Doreen Downing, helps people find their voice so they can overcome anxiety, be confident, and speak without fear.

Get started now on your journey to your authentic voice by downloading my Free 7 Step Guide to Fearless Speakingdoreen7steps.com.