review: My Name is Not Friday

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title: My Name is Not Friday
author: Jon Walter
date: Scholastic, 2016
main character: Samuel “Friday”
YA Historical Fiction

My Name is not Friday is British author Jon Walter’s sophomore novel. The beginning is slow moving and a bit disorienting. It feels odd in that we’re in one of the most racially charged eras in American history yet we never learn anyone’s racial identity until the protaganist is referred to as a ‘nigger’ at a slave auction thirty nine pages into the story. I have not seen the British version of this book, it is possible some things were changed as the book was translated into American English.

We soon find that young Samuel has been removed from the orphanage where he grew up and is being enslaved, leaving behind his younger brother, Joshua; his only remaining family member. Samuel feels responsible for his mischievous sibling (his brother’s keeper?) and wants to get back to protect him. Instead, he’s held in bondage on the Allen farm.

I still cannot figure out why Samuel (look up Samuel in the Old Testament), who is renamed Friday (nod to Robinson Crusoe) doesn’t make everyone know that he is free. He enters into bondage fearlessly. Why?

It seems that Samuel falls easily into the role of one who is enslaved, keeping his eyes downcast, not engaging with the whites around him. His life in the orphanage seemed good, not great but good. Perhaps life there as a free boy was not much better than being enslaved. Was there just no good place for a black boy to be in the American south in 1880? Perhaps he was subjugated all his life. Several scenes indicate that Friday does not know how to carry out routine duties of an enslaved person and has no idea how to be a slave. Rather than wonder why he doesn’t know, it’s assumed he’s lazy. However, many see Friday as someone quite special, almost chosen. This is part of the strong moral and Christian undertone in the book.

Friday’s actual owner is Gerald Allen, a young white boy not much older than Friday. Mrs. Allen, Gerald’s mother, manages the estate while her husband is off to fight for the Confederacy and  she seems unsure most of the time. Having been influence by a father who is compassionate toward those he has enslaved, Gerald wants to be Friday’s friend although his mother wants him to grow up and treat Friday as someone who is enslaved.

I’ve read several reviews of My Name is Not Friday that refer to the story as being brutal. Please rid yourself of the notion of smiling slaves. Please. My friends, this is a story of enslavement, a story where one group of humans forces domination over another based upon their skin color. Walter understands this and does not shy away from the inhumanity of this institution. He communicates the humanity of the enslaved as well as of the enslaver and the most honest way he can do this is by creating opportunities to show the inconsistencies of this system, the exact inhumanity of enslavement.

Remember, Gerald actually owns all the enslaved people on this property. At one point, he’s bullied into whipping an enslaved person, Hubbard. He doesn’t want to whip this man whom he’s known all his life and Friday calls him on it.

“Why’d you do It, Gerald? Why didn’t you stop it?”

Gerald stamps down, lifts another spade of earth up out of the grave, and throws it farther than he needs to. “Hubbard deserved what he got. He was caught fair and square and we didn’t have no choice but to whip him. My daddy would have done the same thing. I’m sure he would. Maybe he wouldn’t have done it himself, but he would have made sure someone did it.”

“You could have refused!”

“They’d have done it anyway!” He stops his digging and stares at me, exasperated. “There are folks who think that darkies ain’t good enough to be free. Now, I ain’t one of ‘em, but that’s who you got to convince-and you can’t do that when they’ve brought in a runaway and everyone’s howling for blood.”

The entitlement! Gerald throws the earth farther than he needs to; a wasteful action, a waste of the soil. Digging in the dirt.

Gerald rationalizes that because of his actions, Hubbard deserves to be whipped and it’s Hubbard’s own fault and besides you can’t convince some people otherwise, at least not when they’re angry. And, his daddy? He wouldn’t have whipped Hubbard, he wouldn’t soil his own hands like that. No. He’d get someone else to do it. These enslaved people are Gerald’s property but everything tells him he has no choice to make. It’s 1864ish and the war is almost over but the south has become a slave society. Not even whites have the freedom to act outside the guidelines. Yea, that’s brutal.

Walter does have a few problems with the story. With so much richness brought to the character of Friday/Samuel, he’s still poorly developed. At many points, Samuel seems to be a moral compass, a child with a mission. Yet, he never seems to develop in any cognitive, emotional or spiritual perspective. With all that Friday faces over a protracted period of time, he seems to remain the same child from start to finish. And, too often racial identity is omitted.

Then, there’s the ending. The third segment of the book is written in a completely different tone and even at a different pace than the previous portion and this makes the conclusion difficult to accept.

Walter admits that he didn’t set out to write a story about enslavement, but this is where the character’s voice let him. I like that he didn’t hold his character an arm’s length away as too many whites do when writing enslaved blacks. Rather, he embraces him and writes him with care. I like that his portrayal of enslavement is complex and multilayered and that Walter did his research. This isn’t a perfect book, but it is a good one.

book review: Freedom in Congo Square

IMG_1359title: Freedom in Congo Square
author: Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrator: R. Gregory Christie
date: Little Bee Books/Bonnier Publishing, 2016
picture book

 

Freedom in Congo Square is all about Sunday.

From Monday through Saturday, life without work is rare. The enslaved men and women labor in straight lines.

Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie tell of the work, the fear and the underlying thought of one day in freedom in Congo Square. Here, the enslavement transcend into free movements, curvaceous, rhythmical movements.

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“It was a market and a gathering ground where African Music could resound.”

Freddi Williams Evans, historian and Congo Square expert has written a forward to the book that squarely explains and sets the stage for the book. Readers know Congo Square is a real place with a long history that began when enslaved Africans gathered there on Sunday, the holy day, to attend church, sell food, dance and listen to music. Here, where enslaved people could gather with family and friends on this one day they owned. yes indeed, slaves smiled.

They knew from where they came.

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The simple telling, the undercurrent of hope, message of resistance and the bold, imaginative artwork give way to a narrative that is quite appropriate for any age child

book review: My Name is Henry Bibb

FC9781553378136title: My Name is Henry Bibb: A story of slavery and freedom
by: Afua Cooper
date: Kids Can Press, 2009
main character: Henry Bibb
middle grade biography

 

 

The light hurt my eyes so I kept them closed. I was drowsy, lulled by my mother’s cooing and the warmth of her body. Then I heard her say, “Listen, little one I have a story to tell you.” I suddenly grew alert. “You are as beautiful as the sun.” Then she began, in a sad but sweet voice.”

My Name is Henry Bibb is a biography of Henry Bibb, a black man who escaped slavery in Kentucky and found freedom in Canada. By devoting his live to the freedom of others, he has a become a significant figure in Afro Canadian history. Bibb authored his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave in 1849.

Afua Cooper’s biography begins with Bibb’s birth and takes us up to his escape to Canada. Her epilogue describes Bibb’s later years but nowhere does she cite her sources. Bibbs was the subject of her dissertation. Cooper is recognized for her poetry and her skill to say more with fewer words is made evident in this book.

Cooper never relates that Bibb is the son of Kentucky state senator James Bibb, she lets this be Henry’s story. His mother planted the seed of freedom early when she spoke of Africans walking on water, telling Henry that so much more was within him. Through the character Shadrach, readers find that escape can be mental or physical. Henry performed many acts of resistance but he could not continue to survive under the conditions imposed upon him.

By not straying from the daily beatings and struggles  that Henry faced, Cooper leads the reader to understand that running away from his enslavement was the only option for him. Only freedom will bring him the peace he needs.

Cooper’s writing allows readers to begin to understand the complexities of enslavement and how black men and women, particularly Henry Bibb, fought against it.

Guest Post: Enslavement of Native Peoples

The following post is contributed to my series on enslavement from Debbie Reese. Debbie is  tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She is an advocate for diversity in children’s literate and has been blogging for almost ten years at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Here, she discusses the earliest enslavement in the United States.

reeseI’m pleased to contribute this blog post to Edi Campbell. For the month of February, she focused her blog posts on books about slavery. My contribution is a look at the enslavement of Native peoples.

My guess is that a good many of you read “enslavement of Native peoples” and did a double take. You did that with good reason. The enslavement of Native peoples is a part of history that is not taught in school. Some of you might be squinting your eyes and thinking back to something you read… You might then say “Oh, yeah, Squanto! Wasn’t there something about him being kidnapped and sold into slavery?”

The answer to that question is yes. That is why he knew English and could talk to the pilgrims in 1620 when the Mayflower landed. Four years earlier, he was one of over 20 men who were kidnapped by Thomas Hunt (he was captain of one of the ships in John Smith’s expedition) and taken to Malaga, Spain where they were sold.  He managed to get back, but the reason he knew English is usually not included in children’s books about him or about the First Thanksgiving. He was one of thousands of Native peoples who were enslaved.

In recent years, there’s been an increase in attention to Indigenous enslavement. Here’s a few examples.

Allan Gallay, in his 2003 book, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1620-1717, wrote that from 1670 to 1720, more Indigenous people were shipped out of Charleston South Carolina, than Africans who were imported to be enslaved.

In 2014, Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, was published. In it, he writes that 600,000 Native people were taken aboard ships to Europe, to be sold into slavery.

In her 2015 book, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and Slavery, Margaret Ellen Newell writes about the absence of this history, saying that we know more about the relatively few Euro-American captives among the Indians than we do about the thousands of Native Americans who served European masters in New England. She’s talking about white women like Miriam Willard in Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, and Mary Jemison in Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison.

Let’s hope that people who write for children and young adults are reading about the enslavement of Native peoples, and that we’ll see books for children that bring this dark history out of the shadows. Let’s also hope that people who write stories about that “First Thanksgiving” give us more information about Squanto, too.

Follow Debbie on Twitter @debreese

Professional Development: Enslavement

An excellent way for educators to learn about enslavement is to participate in an NEH Summer Institute, Workshop or Landmark Workshop. The selection varies from year to year but the programs I’ve participated in have been excellent learning opportunities. Those listed below are related to enslavement, a complete list can be found here.

Abolitionism and the Underground Railroad

Deadline:March 1, 2016
Dates: July 10-29 (3 weeks)
Project Director(s):
Visiting Faculty: David Blight, Ed Baptist, Stacey Robertson, Judith Wellman
Location: Hamilton, New York
For more information:ghodges@colgate.edu (315) 228-7517 http://Colgate.edu/abolitionism/hodges.

 

Courting Liberty: Slavery and Equality Under the Constitution

Deadline: March 1, 2016
Dates: July 10-23, 2016 (2 weeks)
Project Director(s): Robert Baker and Chara Bohan
Visiting Faculty: Paul Finkelman, Jon Hale, Diana Hess, Peter Hoffer, and Stephen Middleton
Location: Atlanta, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina
For more information: rwebb7@student.gsu.edu (770) 598-1545 http://sites.gsu.edu/nehcourtingliberty.

Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations

Deadline: March 1, 2016
Dates: July 10-15 or July 17-22, 2016
Project Director(s): Robert Stephens and Mary Ellen Junda
Visiting Faculty: Cornelia Bailey, Emory Shaw Campbell, Erskine Clarke, Leroy Campbell, Ron Daise, Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters, Georgia Sea Island Singers, Victoria Smalls, Mary Moran, Wilson Moran, Peter Wood, Karen Wortham
Location: Savannah, GA
For more information: robert.stephens@uconn.edu (860) 486-5760 http://gullahvoices.uconn.edu.

The Legacy of the Civil War: Changing Memories over Time

Deadline: March 1, 2016
Dates: June 26-July 1 or July 10-15, 2016
Project Director(s): Melanie Buffington
Visiting Faculty: Stephanie Arduini, Josie Butler, Juilee Decker, Paul DiPasquale, Gary Gallagher, Vaughn Garland, Kelly Hancock, Sean Kane, Twyla Kitts, John T. Kneebone, Evan Liddiard, Jr., Cassandra Newby-Alexander, Bill Obrochta, Christopher Oliver, Gabriel A. Reich, Patrick Schroeder, Kay Wright Lewis
Location: Richmond, VA
For more information: legacyofcw@vcu.edu (804) 828-3805 http://legacyofthecivilwar.org.

Thomas Jefferson and Community Life at Monticello and the University of Virginia

Deadline: March 1, 2016
Dates: July 17-23 or July 24-30, 2016
Project Director(s): Lisa Reilly
Visiting Faculty: Christa Dierksheide, Bill Ferster, Edward Gaynor, Gardiner Hallock, Emilie Johnson, J. Jefferson Looney, Maurie McInnis, Louis Nelson, Fraser Neiman, Peter Onuf, Lucia Stanton, Henry Wiencek
Location: Charlottesville, VA
For more information: rla@virginia.edu (434) 982-5205 http://thomasjeffersonandcommunitylife.com/.

 

review: When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter

Title:  When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter
Author: Sona Rosa
Illustrator: Luciana Justiniani Hees
Date: Groundwood Books; 2015
picture book; nonfiction

Author Sonia Rose and illustrator Luciana Justiniani Hees created this non-fiction picture book to commemorate the life of Esperanca Garcia, the first enslaved Afro Brasilian to write a letter of petition for her freedom. The date of the writing of this letter, 6 September, has become Black Consciousness Day in Piauí state. The original letter was uncovered in 1979 and is now in a museum in Lisbon, Portugal. (Brasil was a Portuguese colony.)

Esperança’s story is a testament to the power of writing and the strength of hope.

openinEsperança wasn’t treated “so badly” by the priests who first owned her and who taught her to read and write but circumstances arose that caused her to be sold. While her children stayed with her, her husband did not.  “Others who came with me to the captain’s house are also being badly treated. The captain seems to have a stone in place of a heart.” Esperança detailed her existence to the governor of the state of Piauí to ask that the beatings end, that her daughter be baptized and that she could live with her husband again. A portion of the original letter is in the book.

This book is an important addition to children’s literature for several reasons. Most important, it makes young people aware of the African diaspora by introducing them to enslaved Africans in Brasil. (More Africans were taken to Brazil than to any other country in the Americans during the Transatlantic Slave Trade.) Older readers can be made aware of the complexities of enslavement. When non Europeans were first enslaved, it was justified by saying they weren’t Christian,, another way of rationalizing that they were not equal to Europeans. (Somewhat related information can be found here.) We read that Esperança wants to receive the sacraments and to have her daughter baptized. Was her marriage also viewed as a saccrament? We see variations on inhumanity as enslavement locates in other cultures.

day.  night

Hees’ artwork connects Esperança to this land and to this place. The striking use of colors, from pages fill with pinks, then greens and then blues and purple remind us of the passage of time.

hairMorning came softly, a timid sun graced the sky. Birds were
singing in the trees. It was time for
Esperança Garcia to get up. She rose from another sleepless night. She slowly fixed her hair and wiped away the tears that kept falling, even as she struggled to hold them back. Today was another day of waiting for the answer to her letter.

 

This story is uncomplicated, delivering a powerful messages of hope and resistance.

So many images of looking back remind me of ‘sankofa’.

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We don’t know if she ever receives a response, but we know the tremendous courage that was enacted when Esperanca Garcia wrote that letter.  First published in Brasil in 2012, When the Slave Esperança Garcia Wrote a Letter made its English debut in late 2015. Sonia Rosa is a teacher who specializes in reading, culture and African history. She’s written over 35 books. Luciana Justiniani Hees is a Brazilian illustrator who illustrates using African and Afro-Brasilian themes.

 

RECALLED

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This evening the widespread response to the publication of A Birthday Cake for George Washington has led to its recall by Scholastic. The book itself was released on 5 January in the shadow of a similar controversy about A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious TreatAndrea Davis Pinkney, the editor of Birthday Cake released a statement a day after the release to pre-empt controversy.

I wrote a review of Birthday Cake and four days ago it appeared on the Teaching for Change Facebook page. The post went viral within hours. Debbie Reese of American Indians in Children’s Literature, Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, Mikki Kendall, and many others spread the word on social media using the hashtag ‪#‎slaverywithasmile. More critiques were published over the next two days by Zellie ImaniColleen MondorCharles Pulliam-MooreLeslie Butler MacFadyen, and many others. Atena Danner started a protest petition. Both Scholastic and the book’s author released statements attempting to justify the content of the book, but the outrage did not subside. Just four days after Teaching for Change posted my review, Scholastic released a statement saying:

(January 17, 2016) Scholastic is announcing today that we are stopping the distribution of the book entitled A Birthday Cake for George Washington, by Ramin Ganeshram and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton, and will accept all returns. While we have great respect for the integrity and scholarship of the author, illustrator, and editor, we believe that, without more historical on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of slaves and therefore should be withdrawn. [Full statement here.]

#SlaveryWithASmile, never trended on Twitter, but it amassed a huge conversation regarding the faults within this book. The Inquisitir, The Root, The Atlanta Black Star and Yahoo News were among those to cover the developing story and to carry it beyond the children’s literature community. No doubt there were emails and phone calls of which I’m unaware. I commented to someone on Twitter that we’ve become a community hundreds of years deep and hundreds of arms wide.

I’m overwhelmed to learn that Scholastic has opted to cease distribution of this book while admitting that they’ve misrepresented enslavement. While this victory is empowering, the fight itself is disheartening because the battle against the portrayal of ‘happy slaves’, of people who were less that human and who were being well cared for is a hundred years old. The need for accuracy, not for sweetening, with regards to the enslavement of Blacks in America is critical to this country. This era in American history has shaped our national identity and until we get it right, we will continue to be encumbered with racism.

And, our children. Our children’s minds cannot be pawns in our collective memory. We cannot, will not let institutions that want to control the messages that are delivered to our children continue to erode their futures. Indeed, as Ramin Ganeshram stated, “We in children’s publishing are now at a critical tipping point in discussions about race and history.”

As pleased as I am with this outcome, my sleeves are still pushed up. I am glad to see a growing awareness of the tremendous need for more diversity in children’s books. Here in 2015, of the 3,000 books published for children ages 8 and above, only 32 were identified by author Zetta Elliott and myself to be written by African American authors. The Publisher’s Weekly Annual Salary Survey continues to reflect that with regards to diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity the publishing industry does not change. To see the diversity in the the next faces hired in publishing is as important as seeing the next books with Native American, Latina/o, Asian American, African American, disabled or LGBTQIAP authors. He who controls the pen controls the story.

It’s late in the day. It’s late in the fight. But this round, this round in this fight seems sadly to be just getting started.

Deborah Menkart and her colleagues at Teaching for Change have been monumental in this effort, as have the names mentioned above. You can find us on Twitter. We’re #DiversityJedi