The capacity for individuals to endure is never known until it is tested. When we imagine a specific situation in which it's hard to believe anyone can survive but know millions did in historically-verified horrific conditions is cause for heartbreak and supreme admiration. To read about the Middle Passage is to see humans at their very worst and to see greatness in others.
On September 13, 2016 a title was released which has garnered five starred reviews in School Library Journal, Booklist, Kirkus, The Horn Book and Publishers Weekly. It is a finalist for the Kirkus Prize. Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life by Ashley Bryan, esteemed author and illustrator, is a stunning work based upon a single original document, the Fairchilds Appraisement of the Estate dated July 5, 1828.
Mrs. Mary Fairchilds
I mourn the passing of
my husband, Cado Fairchilds.
He managed our estate alone.
Eleven Negro slaves,
they carried out the work
that made our estate prosper.
He never hired an overseer.
This is a portion of the initial poem in this collection introducing readers to the widow of the estate owner. It is followed by twenty poems, also in free verse, acquainting us with the slaves. For each of these people we are given their name and their value as seen on the appraisement. Mr. Bryan has added what he believes to be their age based upon the words woman, girl, man and boy.
Of the eleven there are people ranging in age from sixty-two to eight. There are six women, one girl and four men, of these men one is sixteen. With the exception of the child, for each of them a poem describes their position, their work on the estate, and a second piece allows us to see into their hearts through their dreams.
The first slave poem is titled Peggy. She is the Fairchilds' cook working at the Big House. She toils as long and hard as those people in the fields, preparing special foods for the Fairchilds, their friends and much plainer meals for the slaves. As their cook she is allowed to freely walk on the estate and nearby woods, learning the value of plants local to the area. On these walks memories of her homeland, Africa, come to her. Thoughts of the day she and her mother were captured and her father killed, the auction when she last saw her mother and the name given to her are vivi in her mind. She does find strength in knowing she honors her family with her acquired skills.
In the second poem, Peggy dreams, she tells us of the naming day celebration when her parents gave her the name Mariama, Gift of God. We learn of her room attached to the shed behind the Big House but we also learn of her determination to remain a vital part of the lives of the other slaves on the estate. She teaches the slave child Dora all she can about the healing power of the plants. To be able to pass on the knowledge she has acquired to another is a source of great happiness. To heal another member of her "family" fills her heart more than the words of the Fairchilds and their guests about her cooking skills.
The praise, however,
that touches my heart
is to hear the slaves
call me Herb Doctor.
We become familiar with Stephen the carpenter, his gift for working with tools, his love for Jane and John and their secret. Jane is the estate seamstress who returns her love to Stephen and John. John tells us how when he was eight years old he was a birthday gift to Mrs. Fairchilds. He excels at artwork. Athelia is the laundress who believes in her African traditions of passing on knowledge
by example and voice.
Charlotte, a basket maker, and Bacus, the blacksmith, are married in their hearts by "jumping the broom." Their daughter is Dora. The two parents weave and hammer their past and present into their work, teaching their daughter and talking of freedom. With each page turn as readers we become more connected to the lives, the personalities, hopes and dreams, of eleven individuals. They were and are people. People.
Each poem, written for us in first person, by the masterful Ashley Bryan takes us to that place, that time and into the lives of those slaves. It's as if their spirits guided his every word giving us small journal entries into their lives. (He writes about his process in an author's note.) But oh, make no mistake, in the two poems written by Bryan for each person, he gives us a whole picture. They are as real as if they are living and breathing today.
He uses the pronoun "I" repeatedly to bring us closer to these people. He has them speak about the outrage they feel at having new names given to them, the supreme sadness at the loss of family members, the hope of escaping to freedom, the fear of being sold but what shines the brightest is their resilience, their pride in their African homeland, traditions and in their work and skills. There is so much love in these pages. Here is another partial passage from Jane dreams.
At the estate,
weaving became my salvation.
Working with cloths
became the song
of my hands.
I have grown in artistry
through the clothes I create.
The praise I receive,
I offer as a tribute
to my ancestors.
Stephen and I
treat the young slave John
as our son.
We never lose hope
that we will one day
I weave these thoughts
Rendered in pen, ink and watercolor, plus collaged photoreproductions of historical deeds, all the illustrations beginning with the matching dust jacket and book case speak to the moving portraits contained in this book. The raised portions on the jacket of the links and Ashley Bryan's name symbolize his connection to these people. Each element of the design on the front is there for a specific purpose. To the left on the back is a picture of The Fairchilds Estate 1828. The opening and closing endpapers are enlarged reproductions of a document. These are followed by document reproductions on the title page, smaller and more complete.
The document and other publications are used as a background for the portrait of each slave to the left of each initial poem. Heavy black lines define their features. The technique Mr. Bryan uses is reminiscent of stained-glassed windows. To the right of the following poem we see them at work; surrounded by an environment they have made their own. These pictures are framed in what I like to call flames of hope.
The vibrant colors in the dream illustrations speak to the individual personalities of the people; they swirl and flow with life. The facial and body features, their eyes, mouths and hands, connect to others and that which they love. Each one is simply beautiful.
One of my favorite illustrations of many is of Peggy inside her kitchen. Behind her on the left is a shelf filled with ingredients, then moving right, a window looking outside and finally hooks from which hang plants to be used in her professions. Working at the table with her kneading and forming loaves of bread is Dora. Resting his hand on her is John, a bandage around his head from the healing poultice she placed there.
I know these free verse poems are works of fiction written and illustrated by Ashley Bryan in Freedom over me: Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life. Before I wrote a single word of this post though, after several readings of the book, I was compelled to know more. What I found in my research and what I listened to and read about Ashley Bryan's process prompted me to place this book here. It is based on a primary resource Mr. Bryan has in his possession. I believe it will inspire discussions and further searching by all readers. I am very moved by this book, brought to tears more than once.
To discover more about Ashley Bryan and his work please follow the link attached to his name to access The Ashley Bryan Center established in 2013. At the publisher's website you can view multiple interior images. At TeachingBooks.net Ashley Bryan has recorded a message about this title. There are several video interviews of Ashley Bryan at Reading Rockets.
Please visit Kid Lit Frenzy hosted by educator Alyson Beecher to see the other selections by bloggers participating in the 2016 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge.