Three award-winning picture books are my focus today. Read on.
Life-altering changes brought by the stroke of a pen or the tick of a clock—the beginning of African-American History month brings many thoughts to mind. One is how the official dates we commemorate, such as Emancipation Day on April 16 or the Presidential Inauguration on January 20, note only legal changes. The real transformation in people’s lives is often a much longer and messier process, if it occurs at all. Along the way, we may also find ourselves celebrating other dates, such as June 19 (Juneteenth), the day in 1865 when African-Americans in Texas finally learned of their freedom.
Similarly, many Americans and others world-wide right now have found more to celebrate in January 21, a day of massive protests against President Trump, than we did in his January 20 inauguration. Ironically, while African-American History month is about reclaiming and naming little-known or unknown events and people, it is the massive amount of information already available about President Trump and his views which galvanizes our opposition to him. Inauguration has not transformed the belligerence, prejudice, and ignorance of world events and their complexity he displayed as a candidate. With one stroke of pen last week, rather than officially free a race this president essentially outlawed the immigration of a religious group from seven countries! I despair of his interest or ability to probe beneath the surface of events, to learn about the silenced or hidden stories which impel the fine books I am highlighting today. President Trump’s superficial and narrow-minded outlook makes it even more important for us to discuss such books ourselves and bring them to the attention of young readers.
Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan (2016); Freedom in Congo Square (2016), written by Carole Boston Weatherford and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie; and My Name is James Madison Hemings (2016), written by Jonah Winter and illustrated by Terry Widener all examine lives shaped by the U.S. laws and “best” business practices of their time—in other words, slavery. I have little doubt that President Trump, so boastful of his past use of legal loopholes to avoid paying taxes and now deploying business “savvy” and self-interest to guide his administration, might prior to 1865 himself have owned slaves. If this pernicious system benefited his “bottom line,” why not? I see little in the “prosperity Christianity” our 45th president espouses or his non-existent history of civic involvement that would have allied him with abolitionists. This thought makes the premise of author/illustrator Ashley Bryan’s remarkable picture book even more chilling.
Freedom Over Me is multiple award-winner Bryan’s moving meditation on a routine business document—an 1828 estate sale offering Bryan found among a collection of pre-Civil War, slave-related documents he purchased years ago. Along with farm animals and equipment, as just more items to be sold, eleven slaves are listed solely by name, gender, and price. In interviews, Bryan explains he imagined the ages of these people, visualized them with the faces of his own family and friends, and then contemplated not only what jobs they might have had on a small cotton plantation but also what their hopes and fears—their dreams—might have been. In Bryan’s words, they then “told me . . . [their] dreams.” Bryan wrote free verse poems to accompany his dramatic, profound visual depiction of the lives lived and longed for by these eleven people as he sensitively imagined their plight.
Each person is depicted twice. A frontal, full-page facial portrait is first, heavy pen and ink lines shaping water-colored features, with this portrait displayed against a collage of contemporaneous documents (ads, newspaper headlines, laws). The muted tones of these pages’ backgrounds are recreated for the page-long accompanying poems, each titled by the slave’s “official” name, and describing that person’s life on the plantation. How much that life thwarts the dreams that slavery distorts but does not destroy is evident in Bryan’s second portrait of each slave-for-sale.
Vivid colors there depict the many strands of past life, present hopes, and future ambitions that a second accompanying poem describes. Some images are realistic but others are expressionistic in their swirled layering of scenes or juxtaposition of elements. Each of these “Dreams” poems, displayed on its own vibrantly-colored page, contains the hidden or imagined African name the enslaved person might have prized, one connecting him or her to heritage and skills denied and demeaned by U.S. law. Readers can observe how music is so important to each person and within their community of slaves. Expressions such as the “song of my hands,” “our songs and stories,” and “bodies [used] to beat out rhythms” are tellingly frequent. Frustated and furious, metalworker Bacus finds voice in another way, with a “heavy hammer . . .” [sometimes] serving, “striking the note,” while earth tiller Mulvina recreates in her dreams “African song patterns” in Christian hymns that offer a different kind of comfort: “ He’s got the whole world in his hands.”
In Freedom in Congo Square music is also foregrounded as a force which sustained and united slaves. This picture book, though, highlights one specific historical location. As the Foreward by historian Fredi Williams Evans and Author’s Note by Carole Boston Weatherford explain, Louisisana retained French laws specifying Sundays as holy days of rest. Even slaves were exempted from work on Sundays, able then to pursue their own interests, including small money-making projects. Congo Square in New Orleans, today on the National Register of Historical Places, was a place where slaves from surrounding areas congregated on Sunday afternoons to sell or trade their wares and produce. Just as importantly, they could sing, dance, and share news—all activities that briefly liberated their spirits.
Organized by days of the week, Weatherford’s rhyming couplets detail the labor and harsh treatment slaves endured as they anticipated Sunday’s respite. On one page, she writes “The dreaded lash, too much to bear. Four more days to Congo Square.” This daily countdown is illustrated by single and double page illustrations populated by elongated, often angular figures posed in moments of emblematic labor. Even in sleep, their servitude weighs on them. Christie depicts plantation nighttime with even more grim simplicity, positioning rows of stick-like slaves within stark, hull-like houses—a visual reminder of how shackled prisoners were brutally transported on slave ships from Africa.
As Sunday nears, Christie’s illustrations show the impact of increasing anticipation. Figures unbend and facial features become more apparent. And—oh—what a transformation Sunday itself brings! As people leap and sway in rhythmic curves, playing musical instruments and dancing, Weatherford’s words themselves curve and bend across doublespread pages. The book’s intense color palette brightens along with people’s spirits. One doublespread illustration stands out in particular, featuring musical instruments and tribal masks against a background patterned as a tribal woven cloth. A glossary at the back of the book will help younger readers of this book, which does not stint in language or approach to the complexities of slave life in the United States.
This complexity—and the fallibility of more than one president—is also on display in My Name is James Madison Hemings. As Jonah Winter explains in his Author’s Note, this book is based on an 1873 newspaper interview with Hemings, who claimed and is widely believed to have been one of President Thomas Jefferson’s six children with his slave, Sally Hemings. Winter used details from this interview as he imagined what James Madison Hemings might have thought and experienced as a child and teen, telling this fictionalized biography from that young person’s viewpoint. “How could a father enslave his own flesh and blood?,” when voiced by the child himself, becomes an even more damning and perplexing question for readers.
Emotionally-distant Jefferson is literally a half-seen or distant figure in most of Terry Widener’s illustrations, painted in soft, quiet colors that convey a past lit by daylight and dim candle or firelight. These somber colors also reflect bemused James Madison’s life of work and limited opportunity. Although he was spared harsh field labor, he received no formal education, becoming a woodworker and learning to read only through the kindness of one of Jefferson’s legitimate adult daughters. Jefferson, author of the stirring words “all men are created equal,” nonetheless listed his children with Sally Hemings as possessions—along with livestock and equipment—on his plantation documents. He only granted these children freedom in his will, after his death. While we know from his newspaper interview that James Madison Hemings became a successful carpenter, readers may wonder along with him whether his “father would [ever have been] proud” of his son’s achievements.
Similarly, I can know President Trump’s thoughts and feelings about more recent events only through his words and deeds. For me, these remain dismaying. So far, for instance, he has not explicitly apologized for ignorantly describing Congressman John R. Lewis, civil rights leader and hero, as “All talk, talk, talk—no action or results.” If I thought this president had the patience and interest to read it, I would recommend to him the three volume graphic autobiography of Congressman Lewis, March (2013 – 2016), written by John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and illustrated by Nate Powell. (March, Book 1 was reviewed here in November, 2014. I reviewed Book 2 here in May, 2015.) March, Book 3  recently won prestigious American Library Association awards in addition to the 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. This trilogy is such further fitting reading—for President Trump, for anyone–for African-American History month! Realistically, though, I would be heartened just to learn that our new president is reading and listening to reports from legislative leaders and heads of government agencies, giving serious consideration to any edicts he signs and messages he sends.
I wonder what news the upcoming Presidents Day—this year observed on Monday, February 20—will bring. Officially held in honor of Washington and Lincoln, what celebrations or protests will mark this holiday during the first year of the Trump Administration? Will other days in the coming month—for better or worse—prove more memorable?