by Sam Juliano
When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008 the nation was set on an uncharted course. The commander-in-chief was the first African-American to hold the highest office, and of course the first to be parented by an African. Obama had a white mother, making his the first mixed race chief executive. For those marveling at his ability to overcome the long odds, and achieve what many considered a political miracle, they need to go back in the history books to find something far more transcendent. John Roy Lynch, who lived into his ninety-second year was reared as a slave -he, like Obama was of mixed race with his father of Irish decent and his mother a black slave. The father was an overseer who died prematurely of illness, leaving behind his wife and two sons including John, but more importantly the plan he had devised to insure their freedom. He left his possessions to a close friend, one who ended up balking on his benefactor’s intentions. The wife Catherine, John and his younger brother remained slaves. This lamentable turn of events seemed fated, and it resulted in a baptism under fire for the boy. His extended his period of domestic incarceration, though the time brought him to a resonant understanding of the system of degradation that eventually led to the Civil War.
The aptly titled The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate tells a story of a person who is not only able to deal with and survive the oppression of an era that left his kind with zero opportunity for advancement, but how he took full advantage of some long-shot opportunities to climb the political ladder to an eventual election to the United States House of Representatives, only ten years after his tenure as a teenage slave. Lynch’s plight and redemption can be seen as a Cinderella story, but its ramifications helped ignite a freedom spark during the dark days of reconstruction, a time for the barbarous mistreatment of blacks by southern Klu Klux Klan members and those who never took kindly to to the destruction wrecked on them by the hated northerners. Southern whites took out their hatred on blacks, who in Mississippi were given titles like”apprentice” and “vagrant” to keep them in bondage. Vengeful whites were able to make good on their hate agenda where it counted most – on the grass roots level. Barton asserts in the narrative that “sometimes hate-filled whites dealt out penalties far worse than what the laws called for” including murder. Not until the freedom marches of the early 60’s did the southern blacks gain a measure of acceptance, but of course even then locals took the law into their own hands, extending their prejudice to unwanted visitors. In the 1988 film Mississippi Burning three young civil rights workers -two blacks and one white- travel to the state to assist in the voting registration of minorities, but are murdered in Jessup County by a sheriff-led detail at night after they are pulled over.
Yet throughout The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch Barton and Tate effectively resist overdosing on the horrors of reconstruction, opting for a more child friendly approach that stresses quiet perseverance on the part of the protagonist. The family dynamic prior to the father’s death would seem to indicate that he was playing by the house rules:
His (Lynch’s) father lacked the power to change the law – he was just an overseer, a hired hand. Besides, while he may have loved ‘these’ slaves, he most likely took the whip to others.
Yet, according to the law he could “buy” his own family and then let them live as if they were free. Of course fate ruled against them, and John’s new master Mr. Davis assigned him to fan his wife as well as serve her water and shoo flies from the table. Barton suggests that “she must have thought he would be grateful for the privilege.” Mrs. Davis went on to misrepresent the scripture during Sunday school, so that slaves would maintain obedience to her and her husband. After John gives an honest answer to a question about her sister’s honesty, he is banished to hard labor in the cotton fields. The Civil War finally intrudes and Barton points to the irony:
Mr. Davis and others in gray uniforms fought for ‘their’ freedom to deny Roy ‘his’ freedom.
Lincoln’s historic decree was an official pardon for the slaves, but many owners would not let go. According to the author the “amazing age” began with a transaction that earned Lynch a boat ride back to Natchez. He engaged in a number of jobs: waiter, cook and pantryman on board the Union transport steamer the Altamont. It was on that boat where Lynch learned of Lincoln’s assassination. Lured by promises of freedom on many fronts, Lynch decided to stay in his home town as the Altamont headed back north. At the age of seventeen he became a photographer, and later ran the shop. Lynch was educated as he looked through his window through the windows of the next door school where the instructor vigorously educated her younger charges. Lynch learns how to write letters at night school and eventually adapts a forceful style, while predicting changes ahead for the best. Lynch joined the town’s Republican club, began buying land; blacks were given the right to vote in 1867, though John Roy was still too young.
At twenty-one Lynch got his big break when the U.S. government-appointed governor General Ames named him the Justice of the Peace, a position that allowed him to settle disputes between servants and employers, and wield some power in the perception of how blacks should and could be treated by whites. Shortly thereafter Lynch won election to the Mississippi House of Representatives at a time when whites were attempting to threaten blacks who legally cast ballots at the polls. With lightening speed Lynch went further than any of his kind getting elected to Speaker of the House at age 24 and then incredibly to the Mississippi House of Representatives, a position that included taking up residence in Washington, D.C. More white-instigated violence and intimidation followed, but Lynch held his ground, offering a memorable speech on the floor of Congress:
When every man, woman, and child can feel and know that his, her, and their rights are fully protected by the strong arm of a generous and grateful Republic, then we can all truthfully say that this beautiful land of ours, over which the Star Spangled Banner so triumphantly waves, is in truth and in fact, the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
John Roy never stopped believing that laws would eventually bring about justice, even if many whites worked to damage the progress made during the twelve years of reconstruction. The author reveals in a historical note that the incidence of southern blacks being elected to office decreased drastically, with only six assuming office between 1878 and 1901, and none from 1902 to 1972 as a result of rigged legislation and violence. The comparatively short window of time when a teenage slave could advance to a position in Congress before social advances were turned in the reverse direction can be compared to the pre-code era in American cinema, which was a short six year or so span in the late 20’s and early 30’s when creative talents were allowed to flourish. This progressive period abruptly ended in 1934, when the restrictive Hays Code forced directors to adhere to a moral standard, even at the expense of artistry and open-mindedness. Of course the period of African-American subservience and white condescension has persisted in many aspects of our daily life, making that short time of social enlightenment a painful reminder to us all of just how far we regressed in our struggle to reform. In his pleasingly innocuous way Barton’s measured language stresses the right words and phrases to bring intimacy to the sweeping changes that impacted American society for many decades.
The illustrator Don Tate brings this vital story of a terrible time in our history with a restrained palette and and less urgent tone. He is after all illustrating a story about someone who rises above the system – an inspiring figure in our history and the prime example of a time when former slaves could look ahead with a sturdy degree of optimism. Tate doesn’t go for the textured austerity of Floyd Cooper, rightly opting for airy and brighter colors. The inner pain sustained by John Roy is conveyed in his facial expressions, seen at his father’s deathbed, fanning the awful Mrs. Davis, watching in tearful countenance while she sings fraudulently to achieve blind devotion and by working himself to the bone in the cotton fields. But the overall pictorial scheme is to accentuate a happy time or a period when Americans had the chance to destroy the racial divide. Yet Tate doesn’t shy away from showing an imminent hanging, whippings and a KKK raid that results in fires and death. His unsettling images are provocative to be sure, but for some it is equally disturbing to see a black man frightened to his core as he deposits a paper ballot at a polling places while whites stand threateningly near him, one holding a wooden club. Any thought that the book might be avoiding some of the horror of that time need only look at the stunning forest scene, where Tate paints images that for many will recall the lynchings in Walter Von Tilberg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident. But the book is predominantly bright and cheery, in spite of the deaths, war and oppression that were part of this turbulent era.
Tate treats his human subject with dignity and hope. The complete portrait of Lynch in front of the American flag is a tour de force, fully earned and befitting his election to Congress. Wearing a light green suit with bow-tie Lynch is a picture of poise and satisfaction, one who is a living embodiment of human progress. Tate employs mixed media, ink and gauache on watercolor paper throughout and the results produce bold and vivid drawings, colorful but not overly so, and a real feel for the southern milieu with the cotton fields, plantation houses, Mississippi river barges and steamboats, and a sharp eye for clothing. The silhouettes are hauntingly crafted, and cream colored base announces the setting. Tate’s art is uniform and cumulative, never drawing undue attention to itself, yet when you finish the book you know you were just in the hands of a master. The dust jacket and inside cover display the same tapestry and it is wholly sublime, not to mention the expression on Lynch projects Barton’s theme perfectly.
The chemistry between author and illustrator in The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch is extraordinary. While the book could well be considered odds-on for Sibert recognition, Tate has well-earned a sturdy shot at the Caldecott. His work creeps up on you, much as great art invariably does.
Note: This is the twenty-first review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 11th scheduled awards date. The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be. The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.