Remembering the sacrifices and successes of African Americans—from unexpected champions of civil rights to talented performers who dreamed big—is one of the most inspiring ways to celebrate Black History Month. If we keep teaching our children well, racism just may someday be a thing of the past.
AN OAK'S GREAT GIFT
“Hearts drumming, / eyes darting, / knees trembling.” Susan VanHecke’s reverent free verse describes the trepidation felt by Frank, James and Shepard, three slaves working in a Confederate camp in Virginia, as they risk their lives. The men secretly slip out and sail across the harbor to a Union fort on May 23, 1861. If they had attempted this just a few days earlier, they would have been returned according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But Virginia has recently seceded from the United States, and the Union general declares the men “contraband” and “keeps” them as “enemy property.”
Soon the three former slaves are joined by hundreds more. Based on actual events and accompanied by dramatic illustrations, this poetic picture book follows the runaways as they build a community, which they call Slabtown, in the ruined city of Hampton, once torched by Confederates. At the heart of this community grows a mighty oak, where missionaries illegally teach slave children to read, and a boy recites President Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation, a promise of freedom to come.
A concluding author’s note provides more information on the Emancipation Oak, now designated one of the 10 Great Trees of the World by the National Geographic Society, and the daring escape of the three slaves. With appeal for younger and older readers alike, Under the Freedom Tree is both a beautiful tribute to a lasting symbol of freedom and a powerful reminder that one brave action can change the course of history.
A TRIBUTE TO A MEMORABLE VOICE
In Josephine, Patricia Hruby Powell writes with great reverence and a vigor fitting to the life of the illustrious performer Josephine Baker. This handsomely designed tribute to Josephine’s life is refreshingly uncluttered in every way: Powell’s free-verse text doesn’t waste any words, and Christian Robinson’s minimalist acrylic illustrations communicate the very essence of Josephine’s vivacious spirit.
Powell takes readers from Josephine’s poor childhood to her death, and in between she chronicles the major events of her life—her struggles with racial discrimination, her rise to the top, her legendary performances and her efforts to spy for the Allies against the Nazis during WWII. Powell repeatedly uses the powerful metaphor of Josephine as a volcano, often using all caps to emphasize Josephine’s larger-than-life talent. “Deep-trapped steam FLASHED and WHISTLED,” she writes about her signature dance moves. “Josephine was on fire. CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT.” Other sparkling metaphors nail Josephine’s stamina and describe her body as “a prizefighter, like a kangaroo, with rhythm in her hips, like a cat ready to strike, a volcano about to burst.”
The book plays effectively with font size and type to accentuate the major themes of her life. After Josephine gets yet another rejection early in her career, based on her skin color, Powell asks in large, cursive type, “Wasn’t there any place in the world where color didn’t matter?” Quotes from Josephine are also dramatically placed, and Powell chooses those that communicate Josephine’s inner fire: “I improvised, crazy with music. Even my teeth and eyes burned with fever.”
With grace, simple shapes and lots of style and movement, this book perfectly captures Josephine, with a varied and vibrant color palette that complements her dynamic personality. Josephine is an extraordinary tribute to an American legend.
In The Port Chicago 50, Steve Sheinkin, author of the Newbery Honor book Bomb, tells the harrowing story of the fight for the lives and rights of 50 black sailors.
On July 17, 1944, more than 300 sailors were killed and almost 400 were injured when several thousand tons of explosives aboard two ships detonated at the Port Chicago naval base in California. When the surviving sailors went back to work, they refused to obey orders to load munitions again. They were too scared to do such a dangerous job without the proper training. It was also worrisome that no white sailors were ordered to load munitions at Port Chicago. Charged with mutiny and facing the death penalty after their continued refusal, the sailors became unsung heroes in the heated battle for racial equality.
Painstakingly researched through recorded interviews, The Port Chicago 50 vividly recounts the fear and anxiety surrounding the explosion. From 17-year-old sailors to respected, 23-year-old informal leader Joseph Smalls, Sheinkin provides powerful first-hand accounts of these events. Long, complicated court transcripts and documents are presented as edge-of-your-seat drama.
Sheinkin does an admirable job describing for young readers the profound impact these sailors had on civil rights and the integration of the Navy. This is a fascinating read on an important event in U.S. history.
FINDING HER FREEDOM
In 1848, 15-year-old Willow lives on a plantation so far north in Maryland that the Mason-Dixon Line lies just beyond her mother’s grave. Although she barely remembers her mother, Willow desperately needs her advice. Papa is planning to marry Willow off to a man on the neighboring plantation, a very different place from the “gentle” plantation life she has known. The owner of Willow’s plantation has even taught her to read—but no one knows that Willow has gone on to teach herself to write. One morning, Willow catches sight of two black men riding horses into free Pennsylvania. If they are fugitive slaves, then just seeing them is dangerous. As it turns out, one of the men is 17-year-old Cato, a free man, who changes everything Willow has grown to believe about her future.
In a highly credible fashion, Willow grapples with her choices—she is as afraid of the path of freedom as she is of the certain horrors of continued enslavement. Perhaps most important to Willow, however, are the secrets she learns about the fate of her own mother, a beautiful and educated African woman.
Author Tonya Cherie Hegamin slides period details into Willow’s simple, insightful narrative, creating a fluid reading experience only slightly interrupted by the occasional shift to Cato’s third-person narration. Willow is a well-researched historical novel that features a unique aspect of American slavery.