Carole Boston Weatherford's Freedom in Congo Square
illustrated by R. Gregory Christie
Book review by Anita Lock
Mondays, there were hogs to slop,
mules to train, and logs to chop.
Slavery was no ways fair,
Six more days to Congo Square.
Carole Boston Weatherford and R. Gregory Christie open this "little-known story" on Congo Square with a glimpse into what a week looked like to New Orleans black slaves back in the 1800s.
(Maybe not so little known now! The book won the award or honor from Coretta Scott King, Caldecott, Charlotte Zolotow and the N.Y. Times Best Illustrated Books of the year.)
Weatherford's poetry keeps to tight couplets and captures slaves' backbreaking day-to-day tasks, the "dreaded lash" of the taskmasters' whips, and the slaves' heightened anticipation for Sunday.
A moment without work was rare.
Five more days to Congo Square.
We are drawn immediately to Weatherford's lilting yet heartbreaking text. Page after page zeroes in on the grueling and often time demeaning work expected of slaves. The first half of the book reflects a different picture than the second half.
As Weatherford's verses provide the daily routines as well as a countdown to Sunday, we observe the somber movements of the slaves. Christie's stick-figure-ish renditions portray stiff limbs and saddened faces. We also notice muted hues, which depicts slaves' relentless toil amid "an unjust system."
Once the New Orleans slaves congregate at Congo Square, the images quickly shift to brilliantly colored scenes filled with figures dancing and leaping. We notice all bodily stiffness is no longer present with the inclusion of rounded limbs, especially arms outstretched that are indicative of flying—a sure symbol of freedom.
Located within Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans is an open space used today for many racial-friendly community events.
We may think that this area has always been like that, but the truth is that it hasn't. A city law back in 1817 designated the area for "slaves' Sunday gatherings" an unusual situation since in most states "slaves were not allowed to assemble without white supervision."
African music was not only banned, but "slaves were forbidden to own African drums."
Slaves had off one afternoon,
when the law allowed them to commune.
They flocked to New Orleans' Congo Square,
Sundays, slaves and free met there.
A place where local whites and out-of-town visitors gathered, Congo Square becomes known for its lively African music and dance.
Women in gauze, silk, and percale,
men in fringe and furry tails
shook tambourines and shouted chants
as rhythms fueled by spirited dance.
While experiencing their momentary freedom, New Orleans slaves also take advantage of the opportunity to come together in tribes, speak their native tongues, and share the latest community news. This momentary respite is a time of rejoicing.
This piece of earth was a world apart,
Congo Square was freedom's heart.
History has proven time and time again that beauty has come out of turmoil. That said, after slavery was abolished in 1865, music at Congo Square evolves into jazz, which today is a staple of New Orleans' music scene.
Freedom in Congo Square is a powerfully poignant story that "expresses a human's capacity to find hope and joy in difficult circumstances."
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