By Elizabeth Wroten
Picture Book Review: Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford
On 03, Sep 2016 | In Review | By Elizabeth Wroten
From Goodreads: This poetic, nonfiction story about a little-known piece of African American history captures a human’s capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances and demonstrates how New Orleans’ Congo Square was truly freedom’s heart.
I really love that there is a lot of context provided despite the simple text of the actual story. An informative foreword by Freddie Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert, sets the stage explaining what Congo Square is and why it was/is significant. Her final paragraph ties the past to the present noting that although slavery was abolished people still gather in the square on Sundays to share music, dance, and performance. The text of the story if followed by an Author’s Note that reemphasizes some of the history from the foreword and adds some broader historical context.
Maybe unsurprisingly Freedom brought to mind Weatherford’s The Sound That Jazz Makes. The simple rhymed text that belies the deep history and pain of slavery and the role it played in shaping our country. Both are texts that could easily and confidently be shared with young children (I’ll be reading this to my five year old daughter). They don’t exactly flinch in presenting what happened, but they don’t go into gory detail. They both also share something good that came out of so much bad, here the culture of jazz, public performance, and melding of cultures and in Sound actual jazz music.
The illustrations are reminiscent of early American art, but they also brought to mind Benny Andrews with the long legs and arms and thin bodies. I was particularly drawn to the illustration of Saturday night where the slaves sleep in house-shaped buildings lying and stacked in a way that is reminiscent of slave ships. It was interesting how Christie used color palette and line to change the mood of the book as they slaves approached and celebrated Sunday. The colors don’t change significantly, but there is more color with little splashes breaking up the background expanses. The people during the week are bent at right angles or create clean, upright lines, but as soon as Sunday arrives they curve their bodies and arms, stretching up and out, taking up more space on the page. You also see little joyful details on their clothing like fur tails that wave while dancing, necklaces that swing, and instruments. Simply changing the lines really gives the impression of the freedom of the title.
I wish I had read this before I had gone to New Orleans years ago. I would have loved to pay more attention to Congo Square. I highly recommend this for school libraries to help flesh out their historical collections. For parents, I think this could be a good entree into talking about slavery and its history in our country. New Orleans had an interesting relationship with slavery and with the US since it was also a French and Spanish colony before being purchased, but it isn’t a part of the South that is explicitly studied in schools (at least not out here on the West Coast). I think having books like this show that the South was not monolithic in its history and invites children to look more deeply at an area that is rich in culture.