By: Jacqueline Briggs Martin
Freedom in Congo Square
written by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
published by Little Bee Books
The embossed cover of this book with its bright colors set against a black background, repeating circles of “stones,” high kick and outreached arms of the Black dancer, insist that readers pick it up and see what’s inside. And what’s inside is a story of self-expression in the midst of oppression.
A Foreword by historian Freddi Williams Evans tells us that under the Code Noir [which was adopted in the 18th century when the Spanish governed] in New Orleans “Sundays were holy days. They were to be work-free and set aside for worship. …On Sunday afternoons, people of African heritage,,. both enslaved and free, came together to enjoy themselves.” They met at various places in the city until a law was passed that made Congo Square the only legal meeting place.
As I’ve thought about this book I’ve wondered how Weatherford arrived at the idea of telling this story in couplets. Slavery was a horrible institution and even one afternoon a week off makes it no less horrible. I wonder if that horror is easier to bear (for young readers) if it’s presented in couplets. Maybe the repeated rhythm carries us along, tells us we will get through these hard parts. I remember Marilyn Nelson saying that she had to use an intricate, demanding form to tell the story of Emmett Till; otherwise the horror would have been too much for her.
However Carole Boston Weatherford made the decision, the couplets work. They give us some specificity—“crops to pick, trees to prune…the dreaded lash”—but the story is not overwhelmed by details. She has created a complex scene of a people who suffer, except for one afternoon a week when they are allowed to express themselves. And we rejoice with them as they make the music of their homelands and their ancestors.
R. Gregory Christie’s paintings are a perfect match for the subject matter. The palette is earthy with colors that I associate with African textiles. For the most part we see the slaves during the week from a distance. We can make out the repeated pattern of bent bodies of the field workers and the straight body of the overseer, but we don’t see details or facial expressions. In Congo Square we get closer and see people dancing in exuberance. In one spread the lines of text circle in and out amongst the dancing people.
What separated New Orleans from the British colonies was the more laid-back attitude of the French and Spanish in terms of treatment of slaves. The Catholics in New Orleans followed the old Code Noir (Black Code), which was a much less harsh overall set of guidelines than what the Protestant British followed. Additionally, the Catholics, even the Spanish, usually did not concern themselves with the “African” aspects of slave life and culture that their slaves kept. The British planters demanded their slaves take up Christianity (and the slaves did so, at least in outward forms), and African-based music, song and dance were not permitted. These trends continued after the American Revolution by the original states. When New Orleans (along with the rest of Louisiana) became part of the U.S., it took time for American ways to merge with the Continental philosophy. [http://gonola.com/2012/07/02/nola-history-congo-square-and-the-roots-of-new-orleans-music.html]
This is a book with no upper age limits. I’m not sure about lower age limits. The flap copy says for ages 4-8 but I think it might be rough going for kids younger than second or third grade. But after that, anyone can be moved by the text and the wonderful paintings. I can imagine lively discussions about this book with middle and high school students.
Art, history, and poetry—in one book. A great accomplishment.