Free at last? History tells us that at the end of the Civil War, slaves throughout the United States were liberated by the Emancipation Proclamation. Many books gloss over the period of time directly following this landmark event, but during those years, a dark and critical era in the development of America was unfolding. In truth, for many African Americans, the time of newly found "freedom" following the war was desperately bleak, as families became separated, children were stolen, segregation programs were put into place, and lynchings became rampant.
In her new book, Free At Last! Stories and Songs of Emancipation, author Doreen Rappaport explores this tenuous and crucial period, the years between emancipation and the start of the civil rights movement. The second title in a trilogy intended to trace the experience of black Americans from the kidnappings in Africa to the start of voting rights in the United States, Free At Last! is the follow-up to the much-praised volume No More! Stories and Songs of Slave Resistance.
Rappaport, a former music teacher in one of the Freedom Schools of the 1960s, has long been interested in history and its effects on individuals and groups, especially children. "History is as exciting as fiction," she says, "and it can open a child's eyes to the drama in their own lives as well as the lives of their ancestors." As the daughter of first generation Jewish-Americans, Rappaport says she understands the struggles that many new Americans experienced in this country. Her parents one, a singer; the other, a music arranger were both profoundly influenced by the culture and music coming out of Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. Much of her childhood was spent in highly artistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious social circles a far cry from the segregated communities of the South. Perhaps because of her own diverse background, Rappaport has always had a certain knack for helping children learn how they fit into history and into the world in general. "History doesn't happen overnight," she says. "It is a progression of descent and conflict, of people resisting and making a difference. Kids need to see for themselves that others have come before them, and that they can make a difference, too." According to Rappaport, facts don't always provide a deep understanding of history, which is one reason she chose to write Free At Last! as a series of true accounts, a group of vignettes and songs that portray the struggles and the bravery of black Americans. Rappaport spent years researching actual songs, poems, memoirs, letters, court testimonies and other documents in order to put together her new book. As a result, she has succeeded in interweaving unique, individual African-American voices into her text. We sing along with a church choir proclaiming freedom through a gospel hymn. We share the horror of a black family as the Ku Klux Klan attempts to lynch a community leader. We share Langston Hughes' pride through his poem, "I, Too, Sing America." We bask in the cultural beauty of Harlem in the 1920s. And we cheer when Jackie Robinson scores the first African-American home run in major league baseball. Through her heart-wrenching and heartwarming depictions, Rappaport displays her profound understanding of the era, demonstrating the progression of black achievement in an easy-to-understand, eye-opening manner. Her text is not the only element that makes this book so unforgettable. Shane W. Evans' astounding illustrations bring the stories and songs in the volume to life. Charged with the difficult task of depicting a dark time in American history, Evans has created illustrations that capture all the dignity and integrity of the African-American people.
Released just in time for Black History Month, Free At Last!, a work of profound understanding, perception and pride, will surely capture the interest and the soul of any young reader who peruses its pages. Heidi Henneman writes from New York City.