by Carole Boston Weatherford; illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
little bee books, 2016
Picture book, nonfiction, narrative, diversity, African American
Interest level: 1st grade and up
Reading level: 1.9
5 out of 5 stars
This book does everything right! Carole Boston Weatherford tells the story of Congo Square in New Orleans, and conveys a vital piece of African American history that highlights the culture and dreams that slavery was not able to snuff out.
The book starts with a foreword by Freddi Williams Evans, a historian and Congo Square expert. While you can jump right into the story, you really should not ignore this foreword. Evans tells us that Congo Square was the one place where both enslaved and free people of African heritage were able to gather on Sunday afternoons in New Orleans. They worked the other days of the week toiling in the fields and houses, but law set aside Sunday as work-free and for worship. In Congo Square, people danced and musicians played instruments that they knew from their homelands. It was the mix of these styles of music that led to the birth of jazz, and New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz.
Weatherford starts the story by contrasting the backbreaking work performed by slaves with the hope they held inside as they counted down the days to Congo Square — “Monday’s, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop. Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.” Weatherford conveys the horrors of slavery in a way that is appropriate for children, “The dreaded lash, too much to bear. Four more days to Congo Square.”
The illustrations by R. Gregory Christie are perfectly rendered to match the story as it develops. During Monday through Saturday, the colors are less vibrant and the figures of the slaves are stiff, shown either standing ramrod straight or bent stiffly at the waist. On Sunday, in Congo Square, the colors are vibrant and the figures flow and sway reflecting a freedom that is only possible in Congo Square.
Other smaller details add to the overall excellence of Freedom in Congo Square. I absolutely love the thick, quality paper that the publisher used. For me, it added to the joy of reading the book, and signifies the importance of the work. The author has included a glossary and Author’s Note in the back that adds further dimension to the story. The foreword teaches readers about the history of African Americans in New Orleans and sets the stage for Weatherford and Christie to bring in the emotions of the slaves in the main story.
Freedom in Congo Square is the perfect blend of celebrating moments of joy while not ignoring the work and oppression forced upon the African American slaves. While targeted to readers age 5 through 9, this book can be shared with students of all ages who are studying the history of slavery in America. It would also be great if music teachers would use this book to introduce a study of jazz history.
Google Maps provides a view of present-day Congo Square. You can explore the virtual Congo Square by clicking on this link: https://goo.gl/maps/q91HXaMZxNK2
Congo Square sculpture
Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans. A plaque reads: “During the late 17th century and well into the 18th centuries. slaves gathered at Congo Square on Sundays and sang, danced, and drummed in authentic West Aftrican style. This rich legacy of African celebration is the foundation of New Orleans’ unique musical traditions, including Jazz.” Sculpture by Adewale S. Adenle, dedicated April, 2010. Photo October 9, 2014 (by Kent Kanouse).
Watch a recent celebration of heritage, music, dance, and freedom in Congo Square
The Congo Square Preservation Society hosts Sundays at Congo Square where “the sound of drums still echo and call for people to gather and connect to their ancestral memory, invent new creative expressions and organize African-American artists and communities.” (Congo Square Preservation Society website: http://www.congosquarepreservationsociety.org/who-we-are/4587517887