By Holly Johnson, PhD, University of Cincinnati and Samira Gaikward, doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati
To prepare for the Tucson Festival of Books, Worlds of Words focused on stories and ideas presented at the festival. Dr. Holly Johnson and Samira continue this conversation in their discussion of Freedom in Congo Square as they reflect upon a Festival panel’s topic: freedom.
HOLLY: I had the opportunity at the 2019 Tucson Festival of Books (March 2nd and 3rd) to moderate the session: The High Cost of Freedom. There were four authors on the panel, and they discussed their newest picturebooks and/or chapter books. The four authors included Kathi Appelt, who discussed her new book, Angel Thieves (2019) and Corey Ann Haydu, who talked about her forthcoming book, Eventown (2019). R. Gregory Christie was also on the panel to discuss his illustrations especiallyy in the picturebook Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop (2018). The fourth member of the panel was Daniel José Older, who shared ideas about freedom in some of his books, specifically The Dactyl Hill Squad (2018).
One idea of freedom included the reality of escaping from slavery through Mexico not often discussed in history books but excitingly chronicled in Angel Thieves (Appelt, 2019). Appelt’s book and the concept of freedom prior to the Civil War and Emancipation reminded me of R. Gregory Christie’s illustrated Freedom in Congo Square (2016), which was written by Carole Boston Weatherford and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book as well as Caldecott Honor Book for 2017. It won the New York Times Best Illustrated Book for 2016 and the Charlotte Zolotow Award. This book juxtaposes the daily lives of those enslaved and their short half-day of “half freedom” in Congo Square, New Orleans, Louisiana. The book, written in poetic language and illustrated in bold colors, highlights the type of work required of the enslaved. Their work was enforced six days of the week, but on Sunday, they were “free” to participate in their own activities. To meet at Congo Square meant a celebration of being together as they were able to enjoy each other’s company, dance, sell items at a market and find out what was happening in each other’s communities. From a reader’s perspective, it is a celebration that is both joyous and heart-wrenching. It is a reminder of both the joy of momentary freedom from oppression, yet also of the horrors of one group dominating another. Ultimately, it is about a people who celebrate their existence “free” from white encroachment and domination. What do you think of the book, Samira?
SAMIRA: As someone born and brought up in India, I see how the topic of slavery is only shallowly discussed in history class at the secondary level, and almost never at the postsecondary level. My move to the U.S. gave perspective of the far-reaching effects of that awful enterprise. Even in present day racism is not behind us. Freedom in Congo Square‘s focus on the personal lives of enslaved Africans brings the human aspect of this truly dark time into focus. We often talk about the facts of slavery with the obvious conclusion of it was bad. This story isn’t simply a retelling of slavery but centers on the lives of those enslaved to explore what it means to find hope for survival when there is no immediate solution in sight. The book’s rhythmic stanzas juxtapose the harsh reality of everyday life for the enslaved with the song of joy for Sundays when they get to be human and not enslaved.
HOLLY: You bring up some interesting points about enslavement with a South Asian perspective. We also have ideas that slavery only happened in the USA and that it has stopped. We know people are still enslaved, but it may be some time before we will be able to address that issue and those experiences more fully. I am not sure we will ever get beyond the enslavement of Africans and African Americans until the USA rectifies the situation as a nation.
There is another book I thought of that connects with Freedom in Congo Square, and that is Ashley Bryan’s, Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life (2016), which is also a Coretta Scott King Honor and Caldecott Honor Book. This picturebook chronicles the lives of 11 slaves based on actual documents from the Fairchilds Plantation. Again, readers gain a sense of the work required of those enslaved with Bryan’s sensibility of what they might have felt about their enslavement, renaming, and worth. The two picturebooks together illustrate enslavement with a human quality that often goes missing when we talk about “slaves.” History and language often allow for a distance that should not exist when we are talking about people.
SAMIRA: Yes, the two books go well together with Bryan’s focus on a real, historical document to write about the personal lives of those enslaved. The book starts with the illustration of the Fairchilds estate and a short biography of the white slave owners’ fear of revolt. The illustrations for each of the 11 slaves consists of their portrait and a “price tag” with a short biography of who they were before capture and what their tasks are as slaves. Then, another illustration follows in which they are surrounded by the other slaves who are considered family, or that depicts them as doing something they enjoy in bright, vibrant colors with a short paragraph of their dreams and hopes for freedom. This contrast highlights how these people were viewed through their labor and monetary valued and robed of their humanity. Both books, one with its historical record and the other with its storytelling, bring to readers’ attention the oft-ignored humanity of those enslaved.
HOLLY: These books should certainly not be ignored! Angel Thieves (Appelt, 2019) is a wonderful novel set in Houston with both historical and current quests for freedom. If someone wants to use a text set addressing the concept of freedom with Angel Thieves as the central text, Christie’s book, Freedom in Congo Square would introduce the inquiry well. Bryan’s book adds to the richness of understanding, as would Christie’s Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop (2018) and other texts that address enslavement and the quest for freedom in U.S. history.
Title: Freedom in Congo Square
Author: Carole Boston Weatherford
Illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (little bee books)
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
Angel Thieves by Kathi Appelt
Eventown Corey by Ann Haydu
Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop written by Alice Faye Duncan and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
The Dactyl Hill Squad by Daniel José Older
Freedom over Me: Eleven Slaves, their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan
This is the last edition of March’s My Take Your Take. Recently, we have looked at books, authors, and topics related to the Tucson Festival of Books. Check out last week’s post here.