Here’s an antidote to recent months of outcry over pictures books featuring smiling slaves. In “Freedom in Congo Square,” author Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrator R. Gregory Christie show us the humanity of slaves in the American South without ignoring or accepting the inhumanity of how their white owners treated them.
This nonfiction book – written in verse – takes up the topic of Congo Square, an open field in New Orleans where slaves and free blacks gathered to play music, dance and share news on Sunday afternoons in the 1800s. A Louisiana law at the time set Sunday aside as a day of rest, even for slaves, Weatherford explains in her author’s note. By spotlighting this little-known piece of history, she and Christie present a picture of the joy and hope people can find amidst harrowing circumstances.
That’s something Emily Jenkins and Sophie Blackall said they were trying to do in “A Fine Dessert,” which drew controversy last fall. In one part of the book, an enslaved mother and daughter hide in a closet to lick the bowl after serving blackberry fool to their masters. The difference between that scene and “Freedom in Congo Square” is that the context and open acknowledgment of injustice is not absent in the latter.
It’s there from the very first spread:
“Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop.
Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo square.”
In the pages that follow, we see slaves working on each day of the week – shining silver, pruning trees, plucking hens – along with other details that create a full picture of their lives, such as singing spirituals or daring to run away.
Each day, with a poetic rhythm evocative of African drums, the countdown to Congo Square continues.
Finally, Sunday arrives.
And here’s another way the book differs from “A Fine Dessert”: the freedom slaves find, albeit temporary, is a full-on celebration. Not a stolen moment in a closet.
Across several spreads, Christie’s brilliantly colored paint-and-chalk illustrations show slaves and free blacks meeting with raised and outstretched arms, playing instruments that keep their cultural traditions alive, and dancing with unbeaten spirit.
Weatherford does a great job explaining how and why this book works when she describes her writing choices in this interview on School Library Journal:
First and foremost, I did not want to romanticize slavery or juvenilize the enslaved. I strove to show that although Congo Square gatherings were cause for anticipation and emotional release, that half-day off did not compensate for the evils of slavery. The rhyming countdown to Sunday lends structure and suspense to the relentless toil, and the rhyme tempers the injustices depicted.
You can also listen to her talk about and read “Freedom in Congo Square” here.