When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter

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Image Credit: House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), Sonia Rosa/Luciana Justiniani Hees

Women’s History Month is wrapping up and I’m going to officially end it on my blog by sharing the story of this strong black woman.

Esperança Garcia was an enslaved Afro-Brazilian woman, a mother, a wife and a writer. The author opens the book with the hope that the world will know her story and know her strength. Esperança’s family was enslaved by Jesuit priests but when the priests were expelled from Portugal and its colonies, her family was split apart. Under the Jesuits, though enslaved, she learned to read and write. At this time, very few women at all had this skill. Unfortunately, her life with her new owner was worse than with the Jesuits; she and her young children were regularly beaten and mistreated.

Esperança devoured books and knowledge because they gave her joy. But the more she read, the angrier she became about the injustices of slavery. With this passion for change in her heart, she decided she’d write a letter to the governor to tell about her suffering and ask for his help in sending her home to reunite with her family.  She also explained her dismay at not being able to baptize her young daughter. She carried on loving her children and working, toiling and waiting anxiously for a reply…Esperança was the first slave to write a letter of petition in Afro-Brazillian Brazil.

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Image Credit: House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), Sonia Rosa/Luciana Justiniani Hees

The writing of this book is gorgeous. This woman’s story deserves powerful illustrations and luckily, Luciana Justiniani Hees’ art goes above and beyond. I love how she draws Esperança and the slaves with their blue/black/purple skin and strong faces. Esperança’s cornrowed hair and features are beautiful. The colors Hees’ uses are so deeply vibrant and comforting despite the heavy subject matter of the book. My favorite spread is where Esperança rests in the slave quarters, body propped up and head rested on her hand as her children sleep beside her.

I’d never heard of this woman until now and I’m glad to know her. Thank you to Brazilian author and illustrator Sonia Rosa and Luciana Justiniani Hees and Groundwood books for publishing this book in North America. Check out When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter, discuss deeply and share her story. What is Women’s History Month if not an opportunity to learn about (and be reminded of) the strength of women?

 

Recommended for: 2nd Grade and up
Great for: Afro-Brazilian, Brazil, Piauí, Black History, Slavery, Injustice, Black Girl Magic, Family, Community, Cultural Diversity, Diversity, Defiance, Determination, Inner Strength, Resistance, Education, Discussion, Religion, Non-Fiction, Biography
Book Info: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter by Sonia Rosa/Illustrated by Luciana Justiniani Hees, 2015 House of Anansi Press (Groundwood Books), ISBN: 9781554987290

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Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books, Andrea Cheng

I never had the chance to meet Andrea Cheng but I handled her books, I sold them. I was in the same space as them. A Cincinnati author, talented and kind are some of the things people told me about her. Interestingly enough, I’ve been connected to her for quite some time though; I went to school with one of her daughters, Ann. Recently I was able to reconnect with Ann and spend time with two of Andrea’s close writer friends. Here’s what I can say about Andrea Cheng, now that I’ve read her words for myself and can reflect on her people; her voice is strong and she’s left a legacy of goodness.

Etched in Clay is poetry inspired by the historical record of an amazing man named Dave (David Drake). Dave was a skilled potter/poet who happened to be enslaved. Cheng speaks for him but doesn’t say too much. It’s just enough. We follow Dave from his teenage years fresh off the auction block to his life as a free man in his seventies. He’s sold and re-sold several times within the Landrum family to work their pottery works. His first owner, Harvey Drake, notices his talent and teaches him how to create pottery. Drake’s religious wife Sarah gives Dave a powerful tool too, a spelling book from which he learns to read and write. In his long life, he is split apart from the women and children he loves, he struggles with his lack of agency as an enslaved man and he REBELS with words and poetry. Words spill out of his head and onto his pottery. Dave finds a way to assert his worth as a human being through the liberatory act of black creativity.

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Image Credit: Lee & Low Books, Andrea Cheng

Harvey Drake (like most whites at the time) is conscious of the danger in nurturing the intelligence of a slave. He’s comfortable in his power and is protective of the system that keeps his whiteness above blackness. Though Dave knows he can be lashed for knowing how to read (and showing it), he does it anyway. Even signing his name on a pot is dangerous yet he does it…and by doing so, he reflects on his legacy (his pots are made to last) and asserts HIS power. His defiance is through words.

Andrea Cheng doesn’t romanticize or soften slavery; she gives us a glimpse of Dave’s reality. I appreciate her honest characterizations of the slave masters and their disregard for Dave’s (and the other slaves’) humanity. The entire book is full of excellent characterization! A masterful storyteller has the ability to make you bubble and boil with frustration yet eagerly reach to turn the page. I wanted to keep going and see what would happen to Dave, a man who, like my ancestors, was remarkable.

The woodcuts in this book are also done by Andrea Cheng and just like the writing, they are just enough (and so much). They give us a glimpse into Dave’s life with blocky shapes, black and white lines and outlines that suggest more than tell. Not only do I recommend Etched in Clay for casual reading, I think it’s perfect for the classroom. There are so many lessons to take away and to discuss and Dave should be more well known. I hope you’ll pick up this book and enjoy.

 

 

Recommended for: Ages 11 and up
Great for: Inner Strength, Rebellion, Courage, Determination, Defiance, African American, Slavery, History, Pottery, Creativity, Poetry, Relationships, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, History-Inspired, Discussion, Classroom
Book Info: Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet by Andrea Cheng, 2013 Lee & Low Books Inc., ISBN: 9781600604515

Follow the Drinking Gourd

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Image Credit: Dragonfly Books (Random House), Jeanette Winter

This classic from my childhood discusses the importance of allies on the road to freedom. Abolitionists helped fearless slaves free themselves from oppression. Peg Leg Joe, the abolitionist featured in this story, may or may not have been a real person but the Underground Railroad was definitely real.

In Follow the Drinking Gourd, Peg Leg Joe  works at cotton plantations with the sole purpose of teaching slaves his song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, which tells them how to get to freedom. One day, Molly’s husband James is sold to another master and they have only one more night together. Slaves often had their families suddenly torn apart in this way. But that night they hear a quail’s song, the first clue from the song to get moving towards freedom. They decide to make an escape.

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Image Credit: Dragonfly Books (Random House), Jeanette Winter

The family follows the Drinking Gourd (Big Dipper), remembering the lines of Peg Leg Joe’s song for guidance. They hide from hounds and look for signs that they’re heading in the right direction; North. They get help from farmers and finally meet up with Peg Leg Joe who takes them across the Ohio River to their next stop, the house of a white family. They keep moving from house to house and take time to rest and heal and even stay at the place of a free black man. The family finally makes it to Canada, to freedom.

This has always been one of my favorite books about slavery because it presents it in a clear, easy to understand way. Children who have no understanding of slavery will need some explanation as to why the family wants to escape. There are no happy slaves here; we see the family’s hesitation, worry, fear and finally joy and relief. Jeanette Winter’s illustrations are extremely moving; especially the one with James on the auction block, head down and distraught, “Negroes for Sale” below him. I read this book quite often when I was young, so much so that the images are still very familiar to me. Be sure to check it out and discuss! The complete song is included on the last page.

 

Recommended for: 1st grade and up
Great for: Slavery, Underground Railroad, African American, Injustice, Inner Strength, Fearlessness, Determination, Family, Relationships, Allies, Abolitionism, Astronomy, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-Fiction, Discussion
Book Info: Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter, 1992 Dragonfly Books (Random House), ISBN: 9780679819974

Brick by Brick

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Image Credit: Amistad (HarperCollins), Charles R. Smith Jr./Floyd Cooper

This book is a tribute to the slaves who built the White House, a building never meant for their Black Bodies…but yet!

The writing of Brick by Brick is beautiful. Charles R. Smith Jr. plays with the word “hand” by focusing on the slaves’ hands while describing their position as hands, as workers. Slave hands, white hands and free black hands worked together but slave hands did the most of the hard work to build the original White House for John Adams. They hauled stone, laid brick and sawed through logs with blistered, tired, bleeding hands. They suffered while their slave owners took the money earned.

Yet, as oppressed people do, they survived, thrived and learned. As the White House came to completion, slaves were taught new skills to finish the fine interior work of the house. With these new skills, they were able to save money and work towards paying for their freedom. Brick by brick they built the massive structure but they also built a way out of enslavement. I love how Charles R. Smith Jr. works NAMES into the story. We read and speak aloud the names of these amazing people. By including the actual names of slaves who worked on the White House, he brings them to life for us and honors them.

Cooper’s illustrations, as usual, are skilled and moving. He depicts the slaves’ warm dark brown skin, strong hands and raw expression beautifully. For another example of his beautiful work, check out Ruth and the Green BookBrick by Brick‘s words and illustrations create a portrait of the people who built one of the most important buildings in our country. The White House is a symbol of “freedom” yet it was built by the hands of those who were not free. This book is excellent for sparking discussion and is important because it covers a part of history that may not be very well known. Enjoy this book, read the Author’s Note and talk, talk, talk!

 

Recommended for: 2nd grade and up
Great for:  Toil, Pain, African-American, Family, History, Slavery, Injustice, Rhythm, Rhyme, Read-Aloud, White House History, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Discussion
Book Info: Brick by Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr./Illustrated by Floyd Cooper, 2013 Amistad (HarperCollins), ISBN: 9780061920820

Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal

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Image Credit: Carolrhoda Books (Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.), Vaunda Micheaux Nelson/R. Gregory Christie

“Bass shook his head. He hated bloodshed, but Webb might need killing.” OH SNAP.

The story starts in medias res with an action-packed showdown shootout! Reeves has the tough job of being a lawman in Indian Territory. Though Natives were forcibly moved to Indian Territory to live, Whites squatted there illegally. The Territory was ripe with outlaws, gamblers and dangerous people. Reeves was the perfect man to uphold the law; in addition to being clever, well respected and honest, he was a crack shot, tall, broad and strong. He grew up a slave in Texas but escaped after an altercation with his master to Indian Territory. There he lived with tribes and learned their ways and languages until the Civil War when he became free.

Reeves married, had kids and was hired on to be a Deputy Marshal for Indian Territory. Though he couldn’t read, he had an excellent memory and was known for his disguises and clever schemes to track down outlaws. Being a church-going man, he also tried to talk sense into the criminals. Though he was generally respected, he was still a black man with power and many whites weren’t keen on that. When Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Reeves lost his job as Deputy Marshal but became a part of the Muskogee police force. In his entire career, he only killed fourteen men in the line of duty!!!

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Image Credit: Carolrhoda Books (Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.), Vaunda Micheaux Nelson/R. Gregory Christie

One issue I have with this book is the way in which the author addresses the murder of Reeves’ daughter in law. Reeves’ son Benjamin murdered his own wife because she was “untrue” and though sentenced to life, he only had to serve ten years because he was a “model prisoner.” Micheaux Nelson simply retells historical events (focuses on how tough this is for Reeves) but Reeves’ daughter in law has no agency in this story. She’s the victim of horrific violence yet we never learn her name, we don’t see her in the illustrations and there’s no mention of her in the material at the end of the book. This is unfortunate and I hope readers use it as an opportunity for discussion and to learn more about her. [After about 20 minutes of searching the internet, I found two sources that list her name, Cassie Reeves. Here and here on pg. 39.]

R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations bring Reeves and the unpredictability of the Wild West to life. He’s a great illustrator. Micheaux Nelson and Christie also collaborated on the excellent book, The Book Itch. In this book, Christie’s color palette is full of sandy browns, rich greens and dark colors. The first page with outlaw Jim Webb bursting through a window (shards of glass flying) to escape from Reeves on horseback is my favorite.

Be sure to check out Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. He isn’t as well known as he should be and this picture book is an excellent introduction to his remarkable life.

 

P.S. HBO is making a mini-series about Bass Reeves. Click here for more information.

 

Recommended for: 3rd-4th grade and up
Great for: Western, Indian Territory, Native Americans, Oklahoma Tribes, Squatters, Fairness, Law Enforcement, Relationships, Family, Law, Discussion, Deputy U.S. Marshal, Outlaws, African-American, Slavery, Injustice, Respect, Black History Month, Black History Month Children’s Books, Non-fiction, Biography
Book Info: Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson/Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, 2009 Carolrhoda Books (Lerner Publishing Group, Inc.), ISBN: 9780822567646

Freedom in Congo Square

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Image Credit: Little Bee Books (Bonnier Publishing Group), Carole Boston Weatherford/R. Gregory Christie

In this beautiful book, we learn about the slaves of New Orleans who toiled and eagerly anticipated their day of rest because on that day, they headed to Congo Square to let their bodies flow freely and revel in the music and culture of home. Congo Square was their place of freedom, their chance to celebrate who they were and simply enjoy each other’s company. Eventually Jazz would develop out of the music played at this space.

Freedom in Congo Square has an excellent Forward and Author’s Note that I highly recommend reading. Taking time to summarize and teach the history is important because it adds to the experience of the book. Children with knowledge of slavery will easily understand how important a day to rest, a day to celebrate was to slaves. It’s easy to see the joy and relief in their bodies as they dance and sing and drum. Weatherford’s poetic language and description of plantation life during each day of the week builds anticipation for what readers know is coming, that glorious Sunday.

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Image Credit: Little Bee Books (Bonnier Publishing Group), Carole Boston Weatherford/R. Gregory Christie

The rhythm and rhyme of this book is great for reading aloud to children and Weatherford always has the coolest illustrators for her books. Leontyne Price: Voice of a Century is both textually and visually gorgeous. Freedom in Congo Square is no different. Christie’s collaged paintings are inspiring; the slaves have black, beautiful skin highlighted with blue-gray and long, limber bodies. Their long limbs are bent over in the cotton field BUT are also outstretched in jubilation at Congo Square. I love the bright, joyful colors of his paints and the cover of the book is striking with its use of yellow and black.

This is an excellent book that tells the story of an important safe and creative space for enslaved people during Slavery. What a great new release for 2016! If your family takes a trip down to New Orleans, why not add Congo Square to your list of places to visit?

 

Recommended for: 1st-2nd Grade and Up
Great for: History, Slavery, Celebration, Determination, Music, Music History, New Orleans, Community, Family, We Need Diverse Books, Diversity, Cultural Diversity, Oppression, Spirituality, Discussion, Days of the Week, Rhyme, Rhythm, Read Aloud, Jazz, African American, Africa
Book Info: Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford/Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie, 2016 Little Bee Books (Bonnier Publishing Group), ISBN: 9781499801033

The Black Snowman

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Image Credit: Blue Ribbon (Scholastic Inc.), Phil Mendez/Carole Byard

Merry Christmas!

This is quite a unique story and it’s been on my bookshelf since I was a little girl. Inspired by Frosty the Snowman, this retelling is Afrocentric, inspiring and reminds readers of the importance of love, family and having pride in oneself!

The Black Snowman is a story of a young black boy named Jacob who’s very sad and bitter. It’s almost Christmas and his mother is poor. He equates being black with being poor and comes to believe that all black things are bad; black magic, black people, black everything! We learn of a magic kente cloth from Africa that once belonged to a powerful storyteller. Hundreds of years later, sold like the Africans it once belonged to, the kente is but a rag and is lost…or is it?

On the city streets, Jacob and his brother Peewee make a snowman out of the black snow. Peewee finds the kente in a trash bin and drapes The Black Snowman with the beautiful rag and he comes to life! He tries to teach Jacob the majesty of Blackness. When Jacob is ready to listen, he also teaches him of the wonders and greatness of Africa; encouraging him to realize he descends from great people. The Black Snowman helps save Jacob and his brother Peewee in more ways than one. Jacob finally realizes how lucky he really is to have his mother and brother’s love and finds courage and pride within himself.

Carole Byard’s art is dynamic and colorful. She depicts the dark, cold streets of the inner city at wintertime in a wonderful way. The bright colors of the kente shine through the gray skies and blustery snow. My favorite page is the one with Jacob, Peewee and their mom smiling in the kitchen, embraced in a tight hug.

This unique story about family, poverty, Christmas, and pride in oneself and heritage has so many applications for discussion in the classroom and at home. I hope you’ll seek out The Black Snowman to read and enjoy.

**This book seems to be out of print! Boo…so check your local library and used bookseller!

Recommended for: All ages
Great for: Pride, Siblings, Social Issues, Poverty, Struggle With Identity, We Need Diverse Books, Diversity, Inner Strength, Discussion, Love, Family, Fantasy, Community, Christmas, Afrocentrism, Africa, Slavery, African-American
Book Info: The Black Snowman by Phil Mendez/Illustrated by Carole Byard, 1989 Blue Ribbon (Scholastic Inc.), ISBN: 9780590448734

The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch

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Image Credit: Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Chris Barton/Don Tate

John Roy Lynch. A child of slavery and reborn during Reconstruction, he is a true example of hard work and determination. This biography gives us a glimpse into his amazing life during a very important but overlooked part of American history, Reconstruction.

John was a half Irish boy born into slavery. Soon the Civil War came and though slaves were eventually emancipated, John wasn’t really free until he set off on his own as a teen. He took several jobs in Natchez, Mississippi; just being able to make his own way, as a free man, was liberating! He taught himself to read and write and started to speak out in local politics on the issue of Blacks and voting. Before he knew it, he was Justice of the Peace and would eventually be elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. He became the Speaker of the House and would rise on to the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington D.C. He did all this in just ten years time from being a slave and would live his life striving for equal rights.

John Roy Lynch accomplished quite a great deal but he was frustrated with the slow speed of progress for people of color. Though Blacks were legally liberated, Whites started to push back against the progress Free Blacks were making in American society though processes like voting to make changes, owning property, and gaining government positions. Some of this push back was done with violence. The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is an important historical biography that not only tells us the story of a great man but also reminds us of the importance of Reconstruction.

The illustrations for this book are great! Don Tate brings John’s life to life though soft ink and gouache paintings. From his early days in the cotton field, to my favorite spread of John Roy Lynch standing in front of the flag with determination in his eyes, his life is honored though skillful illustration. Here’s to making your own amazing age and living with purpose!

 

Recommended for: 3rd Grade and up
Great for: Non-Fiction, Biography, Leader, Role-Model, Determination, Government, Slavery, Reconstruction, Community, Family, We Need Diverse Books, Diversity, Discussion, History, Social Issues, African-American
Book Info: The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch by Chris Barton/Illustrated by Don Tate, 2015 Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, ISBN: 9780802853790