February 21, 2017
Freedom in Congo Square
by Carole Boston Weatherford
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Little Bee Books
Before Louisiana became a part of the United States, it was a French colony and then a Spanish colony. The Catholic Church mandated that Sundays be a day of rest for everyone, free and slave alike.
Weatherford has created a spare text that tells of the realities of slave life — feeding livestock, chopping firewood, plow, planting and tending to household chores as well. But every day holds a bit of hope as they are able to visit Congo Square on Sunday afternoons.
In New Orlean’s Congo Square, enslaved and free blacks would gather on Sunday afternoons. In addition to sharing the news, often speaking their own languages, they also played music on bells, fiddles, flutes, and more. They danced and they chanted.
Congo Square also gave these people a chance to buy and sell. Some sold herbs they had grown or wild foods they had gathered. Others sold items they had made.
This text doesn’t downplay the agony of slavery, making it clear that Congo Square gave them only a small taste of the freedom they were missing. But it was a taste that they would not have when New Orleans and the Louisiana Territory became a part of the United States.
In other parts of the US, and in Congo Square once it was part of the US, slaves were not allowed to gather together without white supervision. African music was against the law.
Christie’s brightly colored artwork is as full of life as the text. The colors sing and the bold lines suggest movement.
Given the brevity of the text, this book would be good as a read aloud even with short attention spans. The Author’s Note and a foreword give a wealth of additional information.
At a glance this book appears simple but it tells a meaningful story that may take some time for readers to absorb. It is no wonder that in 2017 the American Library Association named it a Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King Honor and also gave it the Charlotte Zolotow Award.