Six days a week, slaves labor from sunup to sundown and beyond, but on Sunday afternoons, they gather with free blacks at Congo Square outside New Orleans, free from oppression. Includes foreword about Congo Square by Freddi Williams Evans, glossary, and historical notes.
The book begins with a Foreword by a historian about Congo Square (which is now located within Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans).
Then the author uses rhyming couplets on double-page spreads to take us through the days of the week to show some of the work done by slaves, and how much they looked forward to Sundays. Midweek, for example:
“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.”
Come Sunday, both the author and illustrator convey the joy of that one day:
“They rejoiced as if they had no cares;
half day, half free in Congo Square.
This piece of earth was a world apart.
Congo Square was freedom’s heart.”
The book ends with a glossary and an Author’s Note.
R. Gregory Christie is the perfect illustrator for a book that focuses so much on movement, whether showing the work done by slaves during the week, or dancing and singing on Sundays. He uses folk art-style paintings and a bright palette well-represented by Pan-African colors. His figures look more rigid and angled during the work week, but they stretch and leap and flow in Congo Square.
Both the author and the illustrator have garnered many awards.
Evaluation: This book has much to recommend it: the story will teach children some of the many things slaves were required to do. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the harshness of slavery with the joy expressed on (half)days of freedom certainly illustrates - both in words and pictures, how absurd was the outrageous canard that slaves were “happy.” Finally, the way Christie changes the lines and colors of his art can show children how important and effective images are in affecting perception.
This is a good read-aloud book; one that rhymes too. It humanizes history through an engaging narrative and vivid images. Readers can also learn about historical events like the Louisiana Purchase, the Code Noir, slavery, and the development of jazz as an American art form.
Today, as then, music occurs, and the spirit is lead to a feeling of freedom, away from everyday grind, and as the music flows the spirit is soon to follow. In New Orleans, after 1817, slaves could only gather in one place on their one day a week, and that place was in an open field known as Congo Square. There, the slaves could play African music, dance, play, and sing.
Each day was as grueling as the next, but the spirit of ancestry and camaraderie helped to make the other six days somewhat bearable.
Freedom in Congo Square is indeed worthy of all the many awards of recognition, including the following:
2017 Caldecott Honor
2017 Coretta Scott King Honor
2017 Charlotte Zolotow Award
A 2016 New York Times Best Illustrated Book