Who gives voice to the voiceless? What are your credentials when you do so? When I was a teen I used to go into antique stores and buy old family photographs from the turn of the century. It still seems odd to me that this is allowed. I’d find the people who looked the most interesting, like they had a story to tell, and I’d take them home with me. Then I’d write something about their story, though mostly I just liked to look at them. There is a strange comfort in looking at the faces of the fashionable dead. A little twinge of momento mori mixed with the knowledge that you yourself are young (possibly) and alive (probably). It’s easy to hypothesize about a life when you can see that person’s face and watch them in their middle class Sunday best. It is far more difficult when you have no face, a hint of a name, and/or maybe just an age. Add to this the idea that the people in question lived through a man made hell-on-earth. When author/illustrator/artist Ashley Bryan acquired a collection of slave-related documents from the 1820s to the 1860s he had in his hands a wealth of untold stories. And when he chose to give these people, swallowed by history, lives and dignity and peace, he did so as only he could. With the light and laughter and beauty that only he could find in the depths of uncommon pain. Freedom Over Me is a work of bravery and sense. A way of dealing with the unimaginable, allowing kids an understanding that there is a brain, heart, and soul behind every body, alive or dead, in human history.
The date on the Fairchilds Appraisement is July 5, 1828. On it you will find a list of goods to be sold. Cows, hogs, cotton . . . and people. Eleven people, if we’re going to be precise (and we are). Most have names. One does not. Just names on a piece of paper almost 200-years-old. So Ashley Bryan, he takes those names and those people, and for the first time in centuries we get to meet them. Here is Athelia, a laundress who once carried the name Adero. On one page we hear about her life. On the next, her dreams. She remembers the village she grew up in, the stories, and the songs. And she is not alone in this. As we meet each person and learn what they do, we get a glimpse into their dreams. We hear their hopes. We wonder about their lives. We see them draw strength from one another. And in the end? The sale page sits there. The final words: “Administered to the best of our Judgment.”
I have often said, and I say it to this day, that if there were ever a Church of Ashley Bryan, every last person who has ever met him or heard him speak would be a member. There are only a few people on this great green Earth that radiant actual uncut goodness right through their very pores. Mr. Bryan is one of those few, so when I asked at the beginning of this review what the credentials are for giving voice to the voiceless, check off that box. There are other reasons to trust him, though. A project of this sort requires a certain level of respect for the deceased. To attain that, and this may seem obvious, the author has to care. Read enough books written for kids and you get a very clear sense of those books written by folks who do not care vs. folks that do. Even then, caring’s not really enough. The writing needs to be up to speed and the art needs to be on board. And for this particular project, Ashley Bryan had a stiffer task at hand. Okay. You’ve given them full names and backgrounds and histories. What else do they need? Bryan gives these people something intangible. He gives them dreams. It’s right there in the subtitle, actually: “Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life.”
And so the book is a work of fiction. There is no amount of research that could discover Bacus or Peggy or Dora’s true tales. So when we say that Bryan is giving these people their lives back, we acknowledge that the lives he’s giving them aren’t the exact lives they led. And so we know that each person is a representative above and beyond the names on that page. Hence the occupations. Betty is every gardener. Stephen every architect. Dora every child that was born to a state of slavery and labored under it, perhaps their whole lives. And there is very little backmatter included in this book. Bryan shows the primary documents alongside a transcription of the sales. There is also an Author’s Note. Beyond that, you bring to the book what you already know about slavery, making this a title for a slightly older child readership. Bryan isn’t going to spend these pages telling you every daily injustice of slavery. Kids walk in with that knowledge already in place. What they need now is some humanity.
Has Mr. Bryan ever done anything with slavery before? I was curious. I’ve watched Mr. Bryan’s books over the years and they are always interesting. He’s done spirituals as cut paper masterpieces. He’s originated folktales as lively and quick as their inspirational forbears. He makes puppets out of found objects that carry with them a feeling not just of dignity, but pride. But has he ever directly done a book that references slavery? So I examined his entire repertoire, from the moment he illustrated Black Boy by Richard Wright to Susan Cooper’s Jethro and the Jumbie to Ashley Bryan’s African Folktales, Uh-Huh and beyond. His interest in Africa and song and poetry knows no bounds, but never has he engaged so directly with slavery itself.
Could this have been done as anything but poetry? Or would you even call each written section poetry? I would, but I’ll be interested to see where libraries decide to shelve the book. Do you classify it as poetry or in the history section under slavery? Maybe, for all that it seems to be the size and shape of a picture book, you’d put it in your fiction collection. Wherever you put it, I am reminded, as I read this book, of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! where every lord and peasant gets a monologue from their point of view. Freedom Over Me bears more than a passing similarity to Good Masters. In both cases we have short monologues any kid could read aloud in class or on their own. They are informed by research, and their scant number of words speak to a time we’ll never really know or understand fully. And how easy it would be to turn this book into a stage play. I can see it so easily. Imagine if you turned the Author’s Note into the first monologue and Ashley Bryan his own character (behold the 10-year-old dressed up as him, mustache and all). Since the title of the book comes from the spiritual “Oh, Freedom!” you could either have the kids sing it or play it in the background. And for the ending? A kid playing the lawyer or possibly Mrs. Fairchilds or even Ashley comes out and reads the statement at the end with each person and their price and the kids step forward holding some object that defines them (clothing sewn, books read, paintings, etc.). It’s almost too easy.
The style of the art was also interesting to me. Pen, ink, and watercolors are all Mr. Bryan (who is ninety-two years of age, as of this review) needs to render his people alive. I’ve see him indulge in a range of artistic mediums over the years. In this book, he begins with an image of the estate, an image of the slaves on that estate, and then portraits and renderings of each person, at rest or active in some way. “Peggy” is one of the first women featured, and for her portrait Ashley gives her face whorls and lines, not dissimilar to those you’d find in wood. This technique is repeated, to varying degrees, with the rest of the people in the book. First the portrait. Then an image of what they do in their daily lives or dreams. The degree of detail in each of these portraits changes a bit. Peggy, for example, is one of the most striking. The colors of her skin, and the care and attention with which each line in her face is painted, make it clear why she was selected to be first. I would have loved the other portraits to contain this level of detail, but the artist is not as consistent in this regard. Charlotte and Dora, for example, are practically line-less, a conscious choice, but a kind of pity since Peggy’s portrait sets you up to think that they’ll all look as richly detailed and textured as she.
Those old photographs I once collected may well be the only record those people left of themselves on this earth, aside from a name in a family tree and perhaps on a headstone somewhere. So much time has passed since July 5, 1828 that it is impossible to say whether or not the names on Ashley’s acquired Appraisement are remembered by their descendants. Do families still talk about Jane or Qush? Is this piece of paper the only part of them that remains in the world? It may not have been the lives they led, but Ashley Bryan does everything within his own personal capacity to keep these names and these people alive, if just for a little longer. Along the way he makes it clear to kids that slaves weren’t simply an unfortunate mass of bodies. They were architects and artists and musicians. They were good and bad and human just like the rest of us. Terry Pratchett once wrote that sin is when people treat other people as objects. Ashley treats people as people. And times being what they are, here in the 21st century I’d say that’s a pretty valuable lesson to be teaching our kids today.
On shelves September 13th.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- My Seneca Village by Marilyn Nelson
- I Lay My Stitches Down: Poems of American Slavery by Cynthia Grady, ill. Michele Wood
- Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Poems from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz, ill. Robert Byrd
Professional Reviews: A star from Kirkus
Misc: Interested in the other books Mr. Bryan has written or illustrated over the course of his illustrious career? See the full list on his website here.