For this Winner Wednesday post, I chose the book Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie. The book was published in 2016 by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group. This book was a 2017 Caldecott Honor Book and a 2017 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Award Honor Book.
The book shares the story of Congo Square, an open park space in New Orleans where enslaved and free Africans would gather on Sundays for afternoons full of dancing and music that originated from the peoples’ home countries of West and Central West Africa.
It is not hard to determine who this book was honored with not one, but two different illustration medals. The illustrations convey both the beauty and vivacity of the gatherings at Congo Square, as well as the harsh and painful experiences of the slaves on plantations. In a rhythmic, rhyming style, the book walks us through the experience of the slaves on every day of the week. Monday through Saturday all describe the difficult lives of slaves, including the hard work they were forced to do, the constant fear they lived in of their masters, and the despair they felt about their situation.
Yet everyday speaks to Congo Square, indicating that it was the one place of solace and escape. As Sunday arrives and both enslaved and free Africans make their way to Congo Square, the pictures convey a more joyous tone with the people standing tall and dancing, contrasting the earlier images like the one seen above. The sudden freedom and joy that erupts from the pages is overwhelming and exciting.
In Congo Square, enslaved and free Africans were able to come together to recognize and celebrate their heritage with music and dance. It is very clear throughout the book that Sunday afternoon is the only time they are free to do this. Despite having everything taken from them, Congo Square becomes a place that African slaves can reclaim some of what they have lost, even if only temporarily, by embracing traditions from their homes.
What I found most compelling about this book was its honesty. I was initially worried that the picturesque illustrations would glorify or soften the harsh realities of slavery for the young readers. However, the book is very clear about some of the horrors that slaves experienced, such as living in crowded houses, being whipped, and being chased by dogs when trying to escape. By acknowledging these experiences, Weatherford and Christie set the groundwork for many important conversations to have with young readers about the dark but true history of our nation.
Speaking of history lessons, I had never heard of Congo Square before I read this book. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about a small pocket of Louisiana history. Congo Square is not something I had ever encountered in all the textbook readings I have done about slavery in my many history courses, displaying shows the power of picture books like this one. They can expose us to little known, but meaningful stories of history that get lost in the details of textbooks. Slavery is, as it should be, taught as a time of brutal and horrible oppression. But this book provides a story of hope amidst the darkness. A story of how enslaved Africans refused to let everything be taken from them.