Catching Up with Pellom McDaniels

Visual Artist, Athlete, Scholar and Curator

Juliette Harris

Pellom McDaniels at the stables. Emory Photo and Video, 2014An art competition about the history of professional African American football players! Wonder if Pellom McDaniels knows about this. After all, he’s a former NFL defensive player who's a visual artist and historian.

(Punches keypad) 

Pellom McDaniels (left) and Maurice Oliver, Birmingham Fire, 1992Hey Pellom, did you know there’s $25,000 commission for a painting that commemorates the four black men who jumpstarted the integration of pro football in 1946?

McDaniels did not know about the commission and quickly visualized a concept, but was too busy to develop and submit it by the May 6, 2016 deadline.  (See commission call below.) 

Pellom McDaniels, Kansas City Chiefs, tackling Tim Brown of the Oakland Raiders, 1995. Photo: Harold McCardieHe was speaking from his office at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library where he’s curator of African American collections. 

Yes, a former NFL defensive end and tackle turned librarian!  McDaniels excels in the 360 degree life. He’s also a prolific scholar and author. 

McDaniels’ numerous publications include the book which has been optioned for a major film production, The Prince of Jockeys, the life of Isaac Burns Murphy. Issac Burns Murphy (1861–96) was the first jockey — not just the first African American jockey — to win the Kentucky Derby three times and the only rider ever to have a 44 percent rate of victory in his thoroughbred horse racing career.

Pellom McDaniels, Kansas City Chiefs, sacking Kordell Stewart of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 1997. Photo: Harold McCardieAcknowledging that he’s a “pretty good” portrait painter, McDaniels would have had a shot at the $25,000 commission. But his current work is pure abstraction. Shown below is a work from his “End of Everything” series.

Raised by his grandparents in San Jose CA, Pellom McDaniels received a football scholarship to Oregon State University and started out as a fine arts major.  He switched majors when he found that his scholarship did not cover canvasses and other art supplies.  He's been painting for about 20 years as an essentially self-trained artist.

Pellom McDaniels, The End of Everything series, #4,  acrylic, wax and paper on board, 8"The End of Everything” series springs from McDaniels’ research and contemplation about African American masculinity in the shadow of white supremacy. He believes that the myth of white men’s inherent superiority is embedded in the general conception of the nation and points to recent white supremacist rallies as an effort to shore up the myth.

However, the disintegration of the myth is accelerating, he says — a disintegration most prominently symbolized by the rise of Barack Obama (another former athlete) to become the leader of this country and the most powerful leader in the world. 

He predicts this "end of everything" unraveling of mythical notions of American manhood will lead to “our reconstituting ourselves, how we think, and how we move in the world based on a truth based narrative.” And, as a result, “the world will look differently and so will we.”

Pellom McDaniels, Saint Joe Louis and the Book of Negro Redemption, 2010McDaniels’ scholarly expertise is in the area of masculinity and sports history.  His voice and manner are very gentle. The 360 degrees again.  All emanating from the core of strong family and spiritual life — son and daughter, ages 14 and 12 and spouse, Navvab, a health educator.

His pro ball career began with the Birmingham Fire (World League of American Football) and continued in the National Football League with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Atlanta Falcons.

He says that after his injury-impelled retirement from pro football, he pursued graduate studies at Emory University "to answer questions lingering in my head."  These questions were about “the impact of black athletes in the U.S., the stereotyped limitation imposed upon our futures, and how black players themselves sometimes adopted the ‘natural athleticism’ narratives as a badge of honor.”

McDaniels earned his Ph.D. in American studies from Emory in 2007. His dissertation, “The Angle of Ascent: Race, Class, Sport and Representations of African American Masculinity,” examined the intersecting contexts which influenced athletes like Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson to develop Pellom McDaniels, Jack Johnson collage, mixed mediumsthe character and resilience they maintained in the face of adversity.  "The Angle of Ascent” phrase in his dissertation title is from a poem by Robert Hayden.

An advisor to media productions about sports such as NBC's "More Than Gold" documentary on Jesse Owens and the 1936 Berlin Olympics (which can be viewed in it's entirety here), McDaniels also watches sports and sports-related media as a scholar as well as a fan.  

The film "Concussion," starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist, touched McDaniels for a number of reasons.  As a former NFL player, he is concerned about the possibility of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) affecting his life and that of his family.  “We will have to wait and see,” he says with a bit of trepidation in his voice.  

  Pellom McDaniels, Save Us Joe Lewis, multi media on canvas, 52 x 36”As for the film, McDaniels had a realization: "Only Dr. Omalu would have made the conclusive connection between the former players' brain degeneration and concussion because culturally speaking, he was extremely respectful and intimate with the bodies of the men who lost their lives.”  

CTE was thought to mostly affect boxers before Omalu’s investigations, which including talking to the bodies of former football players to seek guidance from their spirits.

“This talking to the dead and respecting life in all its stages is a very West African tradition,” says McDaniels.  “It is the perfect interdisciplinary example of how sports, science and humanities can coexist and provide new insights into a world right in front of our eyes.” 

His current projects include Breaking Barriers: Sports for Change, a major traveling exhibition sponsored by ESPN and the Center for Civil and Human Rights. He is the associate curator of this exhibition that will premiere at the ESPY Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles, California on July 13, 2016.

Still Raising Hell title panel design for upcoming exhibition about lives and careers of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch.  Emory Creative, 2015McDaniels also writes and curates exhibitions about African American art history and contemporary art. His work in this area includes Still Raising Hell: The Art, Activism and Archives of Camille Billops and James V. Hatch. This major exhibition about the lives and careers of visual artist/archivist Billops and dramatist/archivist Hatch who have for more than 50 years shared a love of life, art, and speaking truth to power, opens September 15, 2016 at the Rose Library and will include a 100-page catalog.

What Must Be Remembered composition by Paige Knight, 2014Moreover, he brings his creative touch to exhibition design. For What Must Be Remembered, an exhibition inspired by Natasha Trethewey's poem, "Native Guard,” McDaniels collaborated with photographer Paige Knight to create “visual compositions” by combining various antique, archival and found items with photographs drawn from the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

Pellom McDaniels’ well-rounded life is a model for how all of our lives can be.  We know from people who lived in traditional cultures that, unless we are severely disabled, we all have inherent ability to work creatively and productively with our hands and our hearts, our bodies and our minds.

$25,000 National Painting Competition For “The Forgotten Four”

Deadline May 6, 2016

Kenny Washington collectible football card.  Washington is one of the four athletes who will be commemorated in the commissioned paintingCanton, OH is the birthplace of the NFL. ArtsinStark, the County Arts Council, invites any professional artist living in America to submit concept for a $25,000 commission to create a painting celebrating the fact that in 1946 — a full year before Jackie Robinson began playing professional baseball — four African American football players brought about the permanent reintegration of pro football: Marion Motley, Bill Willis, Woody Strode, and Kenny Washington. This call is just for a concept for the painting. The artist selected in May will receive $25,000 to create the painting. ArtsinStark will display the painting, and also use the image to celebrate this important historical moment in other forms, including making it into a large mural for the Canton Arts District as part of The ELEVEN project. Details of call at Go to to submit concept by May 6. See trailer for “Forgotten Four.”