Monday, August 11, 2014

History Through Picture Books: Slavery in America


It's hard to imagine a time in our nation's history when it felt appropriate to own another human being, and cruelly make them work for free beyond exhaustion, and even separate them from their children, if profit demanded it. How do you wrap your mind around such a foreign idea? It's not foreign to third-world-country citizens dealing with corrupt governments, but to Americans of our generation, slavery is a foreign idea.

And yet, if we can't wrap our minds around our nation's mistakes, how can we avoid making similar ones in the future? Sin packages itself differently, often attractively, so that at first it may not seem like sin. We have to understand our own depravity and always be on the look out for slavery in its various forms. The human heart in America allowed this, and we have to be diligent to guard our hearts and minds to prevent an equally tragic mistake. We are not above reproach. We are not above a self-interest so blatant that it hardens our hearts toward human decency.

Awareness of heart issues starts young, and picture books are an excellent introduction to the many facets of slavery in America. As parents, it's not an issue we can sweep under the rug, thinking it too uncomfortable to grapple with. I think there is that temptation when the discomfort rises up within us and within our children.

Germany can't sweep Hitler's rule under the rug, anymore than we can sweep slavery under the rug. Hitler became a monster there and they allowed it. Why? The answer is valuable and the questions must be grappled with. Children are the future and they must understand the past in order to effectively shape the future for good. We do them a disservice as future statesmen, citizens, and parents when we deem certain historical subjects too uncomfortable.

I don't mean we open up old wounds, so much as explore and understand what was happening before, during, and after the advent of slavery in America. When faced with similar circumstances, how can we avoid the same sinful path, packaged differently? Picture books won't give enough meat to point to the answer, but they will give children a framework and a springboard from which to explore further as they mature. Pictures convey emotion sometimes better than words can do, and I think you'll find excellent material for discussion here.

Mumbet's Declaration of Independence by Gretchen Woelfle (published February, 2014)


Synopsis: (from Booklist) Mumbet is owned by Colonel John Ashley, but she longs to be free. As the Founding Fathers work on the Declaration of Independence, Mumbet overhears the men discussing the phrase, free and independent. Seven years later, when Mumbet slips into the back of a town hall meeting about the Massachusetts Constitution, she hears, All men are born free and equal—and she decides to test the new law. So she visits a young lawyer who is so impressed with her determination that he decides to take her case. Surprisingly, Mumbet won freedom for herself and her daughter, and her case led to slavery being declared unconstitutional in Massachusetts in 1783. Mumbet’s still largely unknown story came to light through letters and journal entries written by her lawyer’s daughter. Delinois’ minimalist but highly evocative acrylic illustrations add depth to the sensitive, inspiring text. A great addition to picture-book collections of American history. Grades 1-4.

Synopsis: (from School Library Journal) Gr 2–4—Elizabeth Freeman, known as "Mumbet," was an African American slave in 18th-century Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 included the provision, "All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights." Using that document as a basis, Mumbet, with the support of a young lawyer named Theodore Sedgwick, challenged the legality of slavery. As a result of their efforts, in 1783 slavery was declared unconstitutional and 5000 slaves in the state gained freedom. Vividly colored illustrations reflect the generally hopeful tone of the story, while bold compositions and thickly layered paint suggest folk art. Freeman's strength of character is reflected in her determined facial expressions and strong stance. While her story is highly inspiring, details about her life are sketchy; information comes primarily from an account written by Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the daughter of Theodore. While this picture book is presented as nonfiction, the story itself is highly fictionalized. An author's note explains what is known about Mumbet and reminds readers that "History is fluid."

Dave the Potter: Artist Poet Slave by Laban Hill (published September, 2010)



Synopsis: (from Booklist) As a closing essay explains, little is known about the man known as Dave the potter. Two things are certain, though: he was a slave in South Carolina, and he was a potter of uncommon skill. As Hill writes, “Dave was one of only two potters at the time who could successfully make pots that were larger than twenty gallons.” He also inscribed strange, sophisticated poetry into the clay: “I wonder where / is all my relation / friendship to all— / and, every nation.” The verses Hill uses to introduce us to Dave are sometimes just as evocative: “On wet days, / heavy with rainwater, / it is cool and squishy, / mud pie heaven.” The book’s quiet dignity comes from its refusal to scrutinize life as a slave; instead, it is nearly a procedural, following Dave’s mixing, kneading, spinning, shaping, and glazing. Collier’s gorgeous watercolor-and-collage illustrations recall the work of E. B. Lewis—earth-toned, infused with pride, and always catching his subjects in the most telling of poses. A beautiful introduction to a great lost artist. Grades K-3.

Synopsis: (from School Library Journal) Grades K-4 The life of an astonishingly prolific and skilled potter who lived and died a slave in 19th-century South Carolina is related in simple, powerful sentences that outline the making of a pot. The movements of Dave's hands are described using familiar, solid verbs: pulling, pinching, squeezing, pounding. Rural imagery–a robin's puffed breast, a carnival wheel–remind readers of Dave's surroundings. The pithy lines themselves recall the short poems that Dave inscribed on his pots. Collier's earth-toned watercolor and collage art extends the story, showing the landscape, materials, and architecture of a South Carolina farm. Alert readers will find hidden messages in some of the collages, but what stands out in these pictures are Dave's hands and eyes, and the strength of his body, reflected in the shape and size of his legendary jars and pots. A lengthy author's note fleshes out what is known of the man's life story and reproduces several of his two-line poems. A photograph of some of Dave's surviving works cements the book's link to the present and lists of print and online resources encourage further exploration. An inspiring story, perfectly presented and sure to prompt classroom discussion and projects. Outstanding in every way

Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story From the Underground Railroad by Ellen Levine (published January, 2007)



Synopsis: (from Publisher's Weekly) Levine recounts the true story of Henry Brown, a slave who mailed himself to freedom. Thanks to Nelson's penetrating portraits, readers will feel as if they can experience Henry's thoughts and feelings as he matures through unthinkable adversity. As a boy, separated from his mother, he goes to work in his new master's tobacco factory and eventually meets and marries another slave, with whom he has three children. In a heartwrenching scene depicted in a dramatically shaded pencil, watercolor and oil illustration, Henry watches as his family—suddenly sold in the slave market—disappears down the road. Henry then enlists the help of an abolitionist doctor and mails himself in a wooden crate "to a place where there are no slaves!" He travels by horse-drawn cart, steamboat and train before his box is delivered to the Philadelphia address of the doctor's friends on March 30, 1849. Alongside Henry's anguished thoughts en route, Nelson's clever cutaway images reveal the man in his cramped quarters (at times upside-down). A concluding note provides answers to questions that readers may wish had been integrated into the story line, such as where did Henry begin his journey? (Richmond, Va.); how long did it take? (27 hours). Readers never learn about Henry's life as a free man—or, perhaps unavoidably, whether he was ever reunited with his family. Still, these powerful illustrations will make readers feel as if they have gained insight into a resourceful man and his extraordinary story. Ages 4-8.

Love Twelve Miles Long by Glenda Armand (published November, 2011)



Synopsis: Publisher's Weekly Inspired by the childhood of Frederick Douglass, Armand’s debut reveals a poignant conversation between young Frederick and his mother, paired with Bootman’s arresting and emotive paintings. Frederick’s mother works long days as a slave in the cornfields, and the boy lives on another plantation; the story takes place on a rare “special night,” when Mama walks the 12 miles between their residences to visit her son, who listens eagerly as she recalls her journey. She devotes each mile to a different pastime: the first mile is for forgetting how tired she is, the second is for remembering everything about her son, the third is for listening to the sounds of the night, and so on. Armand’s narrative smoothly transitions between each of Mama’s preoccupations: “I pray that one day we will all be free. And all that praying makes me feel like singing.” Bootman deftly uses candlelight and moonlight to give his art a lovely iridescence, and presents intimate portraits of mother and son. A brief afterword provides additional background on Douglass and his mother. Ages 6–11

Synopsis: (from publisher) It's late at night, and Frederick's mother has traveled twelve miles to visit him. When Frederick asks Mama how she can walk so far, Mama recounts her journey mile by mile. Every step of the way is special, as it brings them closer together; and Mama passes the time by remembering, listening, praying, singing, and more. Set on a plantation in 1820s Maryland, this story based on the life of young Frederick Douglass shows the power of his mother's love. The faith she has in her son puts him on a path to escape enslavement and to become a champion of human rights, an influential writer and speaker, and an unforgettable leader. Expressive, candlelit paintings illuminate the bond between parent and child in this heartfelt story. Love Twelve Miles Long will resonate with children of all backgrounds who cherish the tender moments they share with those they love.

The Escape of Oney Judge: Martha Washington's Slave Finds Freedom by Emily Arnold McCully (published January, 2007)


Synopsis: (from publisher) When General George Washington is elected the first President of the United States, his wife chooses young Oney Judge, a house slave who works as a seamstress at Mount Vernon, to travel with her to the nation’s capital in New York City as her personal maid. When the capital is moved to Philadelphia, the Washingtons and Oney move, too, and there Oney meets free blacks for the first time. At first Oney can’t imagine being free – she depends on the Washingtons for food, warmth, and clothing. But then Mrs. Washington tells Oney that after her death she will be sent to live with Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter. Oney is horrified because she knows it is likely that she will then be sold to a stranger – the worst fate she can imagine. Oney realizes she must run. One day she sees an opportunity and takes it, ending up in New Hampshire, where she lives the rest of her life, poor but free.

Pen-and-ink and watercolor illustrations bring to life this picture book biography of Oney Judge, a young woman who, in the end, has no mistress but herself.

The Escape of Oney Judge is a 2008 Bank Street - Best Children's Book of the Year.

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson (published July, 1995)


Synopsis: (from publisher) As a seamstress in the Big House, Clara dreams of a reunion with her Momma, who lives on another plantation--and even of running away to freedom. Then she overhears two slaves talking about the Underground Railroad. In a flash of inspiration, Clara sees how she can use the cloth in her scrap bag to make a map of the land--a freedom quilt--that no master will ever suspect.

Synopsis: (from School Library Journal) Grades K-3 Clara, a young slave, works as a seamstress and dreams of freedom. Overhearing drovers talk of escaping North enables her to make a patchwork map of the area. When she escapes, she leaves the quilt behind to guide others. Based on a true event, this is a well-written picture book. Ransome's oil paintings, however, are perhaps too smooth and rich for the story they tell. The world depicted is too bright, open, and clean. For example, in the first scene Clara has been put to work in the cotton fields. Supposedly too frail to last long at such work, she is pictured as a slim, serious, yet sturdy girl. The bright yellow sky and the charming smile of the boy with her belie the realities of the back-breaking work. In another scene, young Jack, who has been brought back the day before from running away, looks solemn, but not distressed, and is wearing what appears to be a freshly ironed white shirt. Again, the image distances viewers from the realities of the situation. Clara's escape to Canada, too, is marvelously easy, although she does say, "But not all are as lucky as we were, and most never can come." It is not easy to present the horrors of slavery to young children; thus, even though Ransome's illustrations, and to some extent the text, err on the side of caution, this is an inspiring story worth inclusion in most collections.

If You Lived When There Was Slavery in America by Anne Kamma (published February, 2004)


Synopsis: (from publisher) This 24th book in the highly-regarded series explores an important aspect of America history often overlooked in textbooks.
It is hard to imagine that, once, a person in America could be "owned" by another person. But from the time the colonies were settled in the 1600s until the end of the Civil War in 1865, millions of black people were bought and sold like goods.
Where did the slaves come from? Where did they live when they were brought to this country? What kind of work did they do? With compassion and respect for the enslaved, this book answers questions children might have about this dismal era in American history.

Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinkney (published September, 1998)


Synopsis: (from publisher) Throughout his life Banneker was troubled that all blacks were not free. And so, in 1791, he wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who had signed the Declaration of Independence. Banneker attacked the institution of slavery and dared to call Jefferson a hypocrite for owning slaves. Jefferson responded. This is the story of Benjamin Banneker--his science, his politics, his morals, and his extraordinary correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. Illustrated in full-page scratchboard and oil paintings by Caldecott Honor artist Brian Pinkney.

Synopsis: (from Booklist) Ages 7-9. Born to free black parents in 1731, Benjamin Banneker grew up on their Maryland tobacco farm. He, too, became a farmer until, in his late fifties, he taught himself astronomy and wrote his own almanac, the first by an African American. He sent a copy of the almanac to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter taking Jefferson to task for slaveholding. Excerpts from his letter and Jefferson's reply appear in the book. Since the eighteenth-century language requires some interpretation, the author summarizes the general meaning of each quoted passage. The book's conclusion ("But his almanacs and the letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson showed everybody that all men are indeed created equal") is a rather flabby ending to an otherwise well-thought-out text. The artwork, subtle shades of oil paints over scratchboard pictures, is handsome as well as distinctive. Varied in composition and tone, the illustrations include landscapes, portraits, and scenes from Banneker's life. Sweeping lines and repeated contours give the illustrations a feeling of energy and life. A most attractive introduction to Banneker.

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Patricia C. McKissack (published  October, 1994)


Synopsis: (from publisher) In a poignant, heartwarming book rich in historical detail and careful research, two Coretta Scott King Award-winning authors movingly describe Christmas on a pre-Civil War plantation from two starkly different points of view--the big house and the slave quarters. Magnificent full-color illustrations, along with recipes, poems, songs, journal excerpts, and more add depth and authenticity to this extraordinary book.

Synopsis: (From Publisher's Weekly) On a Virginia plantation in 1859, the slaves work hard to get the Big House ready for Christmas, and to prepare their own Quarters for the "Big Times" also. As they describe the goings-on during the weeks before Christmas as well as the actual rituals of the day, the McKissacks carefully and convincingly delineate the discrepancies between the two milieux-from the physical settings to the people's differing appreciations of the holiday's riches. The contrast is startling and stirring. This is a book of significant dimension and importance, and could be read at any time of year. The authors also add riddles, rhymes, recipes and copious notes. Rendered in acrylic on board, Thompson's remarkably realistic paintings are charged with emotion and masterfully tie together the book's diverse contents. Ages 8-13.

1 comment:

multicolouredsmartypants.com said...

A very important subject.I think one of the things that resonates with me is the fact that many people of the time used the bible to justify slavery. This is something I think all 21st century Christians should be aware of. Our children need to grow up knowing how to ask questions.

Such an interesting subject matter that I had to comment, but I'd better go as we are moving into our new house today/tomorrow and I am expecting removals men in under an hour and a half!