History Comes Alive in a Picture Book: Freedom in Congo Square

BookendsLynn: One of the many things I love about picture books is that they make learning new things so enjoyable. A case in point is Carole Boston Weatherford’s magnificent Freedom in Congo Square (2016)—not only did I learn something truly significant, I learned it in way I won’t ever forget. Searing couplets and R. Gregory Christie’s evocative illustrations tell the remarkable history of Congo Square, the Code Noir, and the effect one half-day of freedom had on the enslaved people of New Orleans. Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston WeatherfordThe law of the land (the Code Noir) mandated Sunday as a day of rest, even for slaves. One afternoon a week, slaves and free people alike gathered in a designated area called Congo Square to meet, talk, worship, play forbidden African music, and breathe freely, if only for a brief time.

Weatherford’s stark, simple poetry counts down the slaves’ brutal weekdays as they look forward to their Sunday-afternoon respite.

Wednesdays, there were beds to make,
silver to shine, and bread to bake.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear,
Four more days to Congo Square.

Both historian Freddi Williams Evans’ forward and Weatherford’s author’s note flesh out the history and the impact of this remarkable law. But it is the poetry and illustrations that drive the story deep into the reader’s hearts and minds.

Cindy: With the spare words echoing and the colors, stark angles, and graceful curves still dancing in my head, I closed this powerful book and needed to learn more. The Congo Square Preservation Society is a good resource. Evans also has information on her website and has written a book for adults called Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (2011). Weatherford’s publisher, Little Bee, offers a teacher’s guide for Freedom in Congo Square to aid in classroom discussion of this book. I’ll be adding this title to my nonfiction picture-book collection to support the research and video project unit for my seventh-grade students. After looking at photos and reading some of the history, I eventually found myself at the font of all twenty-first-century knowledge, YouTube, so I could hear the drums and see the dancing going on today in Congo Square. I know where I want to be the next time I’m in New Orleans on a Sunday afternoon.



About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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