Whether you’re in school or at work, “TGIF” is a familiar refrain. Carole Boston Weatherford’s evocative and moving new book, Freedom in Congo Square, is about people who work for the weekend, too—but in a context that’s far less lighthearted, set during a shameful and important period of American history.
Through finely crafted phrases and vivid, painterly illustrations, the book tells how slaves living in 1800s New Orleans worked toward a precious half day of temporary freedom, on Sundays at Congo Square: “It was a market and a gathering ground / where African music could resound. / Beneath the sun and open air, / the crowd abuzz with news to share.”
In a call from her North Carolina home, Weatherford tells BookPage that, although the people in her book were looking forward to a time of fun and fellowship, “I wanted to share a realistic depiction of slavery, that showed clearly that slavery was an injustice. Yes, Congo Square was a great place, but it was all they had. Didn’t they deserve so much more, for toiling like that all week, than a half day off?”
Freedom in Congo Square’s rhyming, rhythmic poetry builds as the pages turn, with couplets about the unending, wide-ranging work the slaves performed each day (“Tuesdays, there were cows to feed, / fields to plow, and rows to seed.”) and the cruelty of their masters (“The dreaded lash, too much to bear. / Four more days to Congo Square.”).
Illustrator R. Gregory Christie’s paintings help readers feel the slaves’ suffering, exhaustion and determined hopefulness. At first, the pages’ backgrounds are brown and green, echoing the fields where the enslaved work. Then, more colors seep in: pink, blue, yellow, purple. When Sunday arrives, the words leap from their previous placement at the top or bottom of the page and swirl throughout, joining an array of blots and brushstrokes, a sea of masks, musical instruments and exuberant dancing figures.
When she began writing Freedom in Congo Square, Weatherford says, “I challenged myself to mix picture-book tropes: the counting book and the day-of-the-week book. This gave the poem its structure and form, which the subject matter needed—particularly for kids, so they could digest it. I used that to propel the story. . . . It may be a pretty scene, but it shows you it’s not fair, tells you it’s not fair, then shows you how slaves had this release for half a day on Sunday.”
During that half day, people met up with friends and family, traded goods and played music. In fact, Congo Square is considered the birthplace of jazz. “I love jazz,” Weatherford says. “That’s another reason I was drawn to the subject matter.”
An appreciation for art in all forms was instilled in the author as a child. “My mother took me to the symphony, museums. . . . She really had an appreciation for art and for history.” Weatherford’s mother even asked her father, a high-school printing teacher, to print Weatherford’s early poems. Those typeset quotes, Weatherford’s “little motivational or moralistic poems,” meant that, “at a very early age—and before desktop computers—I saw my work in print.” But she didn’t yet yearn to be a writer. “It never dawned on me that the people who were writing the books I was reading were making money, or even alive,” she says. “I never saw any of them, and authors weren’t celebrities then like they are now.”
But after graduating from American University, Weatherford had a poem published in a city magazine. “When I saw that poem in print, I thought, that’s what I want to do! I came out of the closet as a poet, I always say.”
The next phase of her writerly career began after she married, became a mother of two and pursued her MFA. “I was taking my own kids to the library, and there were so many more multicultural books for them than there had been for me as a child. I was still writing adult poetry, plus things on the side to entertain my kids. I thought, maybe I can try to write for children, and before I got out of my MFA program, I’d sold two manuscripts.”
Her first children’s book, Juneteenth Jamboree, was published in 1995, and she’s written 46 more books since then. She’s also earned numerous awards, including a Caldecott Honor, Coretta Scott King Award Honor and the NAACP Image Award. And she’s a tenured professor at Fayetteville State University.
“I work on multiple projects, have multiple jobs and work on multiple manuscripts,” Weatherford says. “It is who I am, not what I do.” She adds, “When I teach, I learn things as well. When I’m being stimulated intellectually, there’s no telling where it’s going to go.”
Certainly, in Freedom in Congo Square, poetry, art and history combine to create a jumping-off point for readers to learn and think about our country’s past and present. An introduction by a Congo Square expert, plus a glossary and author’s note at book’s end, provide food for further thought.
“I do that in all my books,” Weatherford says. “I try to have that author’s note that says this is based on real-life events. I want kids to know, because they can’t fathom that these kinds of injustices existed in the USA. We have to continually tell them this happened in the past. It wasn’t a video game, a TV series, a movie with a prequel or sequel. It happened.”
She adds, “It was important to me with this particular project that, in portraying the world of slavery, it was not romantic in any way. [The book] is for children, but it’s not candy-coated . . . and really, even sugar was a luxury for slaves. It’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, and I hope that I did it justice.”
This article was originally published in the February 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.