by Sam Juliano
Picture this. Every Sunday afternoon in a maximum security prison inmates are allowed four hours to mill around in the compound’s yard. Their relatives and friends are allowed to visit and remain for the duration of the time window, and are even permitted to bring food, musical instruments and books after close scrutiny at the entrance gate. The prison’s warden has always been known as more progressive than some of his colleagues, and at least with this regulation he has helped to foster some measure of contentment among his otherwise worked-to-the-bone population, who endure six days of hard work, dawn to dusk before they are allowed to unwind. Most of the prisoners are driven by the knowledge that if they comply with the stringent regulations and uphold their responsibilities they will have earned four monthly dates of vivacious immersion. Indeed, this is what drives them, and sustains their productivity. A few prisoners attempt escape of course, but without exception they are either killed or recaptured. Those who slack off while slamming sledgehammers on hard rocks or working in a hot kitchen or mess hall are whipped. Happy anticipation kept hopelessness at bay, and there wasn’t a prisoner in the cell block who didn’t conduct a private count as the days till Sunday expired. Alas, when someone wishes for time to pass by they are greeted with long and arduous days. Conversely when one is enjoying themselves, the whistle blows before you even remember what happened. This despairing scenario is at the heart of a magisterial picture book that brings together lyrically compelling poetry with lilting folk art attuned to setting, psychology and continual movement. Freedom in Congo Square, which released at the very beginning of 2016 is a miracle of craftsmanship, a book that disturbs, ravishes and inspires at the same time it shoots an arrow through the heart.
Of course this wholly extraordinary work isn’t about prison life, and crushing rocks isn’t on the daily work menu, but it might as well have been. It is about the worst institution of inhumanity ever sponsored in this nation, a scourge that could never be erased even if we eliminated war and poverty for all-time. The slaves depicted in the book are circa 1817, and are part of a weekly ritual that makes allowance for one day of freedom, when those under the psychological duress caused by ongoing captivity can for a brief respite engage in the same kind of free-spirited activity their erstwhile oppressors are able to do at any time. To be sure they are joined by hundreds of free blacks, which serves to underscore their own continuing detention. One might recall “The After Hours,” a first-season episode of The Twilight Zone where mannequins are allowed to roam around once every few months to engage with real-life people. The example is admittedly extreme but it serves to accentuate the psychology of captivity and how segregation served to crush a person’s self-identification. Like Rod Serling’s fantasy characters the slaves in Freedom in Congo Square build their entire week around that one shining moment. And every other day leading up to the one when the restrictions are waived is treated in terms of its numerical proximity to Sunday. If you will, these slaves live their lives for one day. For the other six they function as ordered.
The book exhibits two masters at the top of their game. The author, the renowned Carole Boston Weatherford, has inspired some of her illustrators to create some of their greatest work. Just one year ago her stirring prose in Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, Spirit of the Civil Rights Movement helped to coax dazzling art from Ekua Holmes that was awarded a Caldecott Honor. Several years before Weatherford penned the words that led the way for another Caldecott honor, that time for artist extraordinaire Kadir Nelson. This year her illustrative partner, G. Gregory Christie has arguably eclipsed the previous Weatherford collaborators with the kind of lustrous, stylistic art that almost seems like it was created to win prizes. But there is so much more at play here and Christie has brought a scintillating energy to his focused, elongated figures, who in tandem find a reason for hope. For starters it would be hard to argue that there is a more sublime, buoyant or frame-worthy front cover in 2016. Colorful letters and yellow pavement slate squares are raised from the page bringing in the ability to feel in this sensory equation. A silhouetted figure clad in chalky pastel brown and a luminous white top represents indomitable spirit. The black background is the omnipresence of slavery. A fascinating forward by Freddi Williams Evans historically sets the stage for the rhyming couplets and electrifying art that define the implications of a New Orleans law that was enacted to allow slaves from Louisiana to converge for musical camaraderie, as Evans states “by clapping, singing and shaking gourd rattles.”
Weatherford begins her compelling countdown that recalls the dramatic hook of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. The first salvo in a recurring pattern, which acknowledges the crushing injustices is followed by the slowly encroaching Sunday:
Mondays, there were hogs to slop, mules to train, and logs to chop / Slavery was no ways fair. Six more days to Congo Square.
A man with a yellow hat tends the fields in the next double page canvas, as cows graze and Weatherford stresses that almost every waking moment is occupied by work. Still to these ceaseless laborers they are one day closer to their weekend pardon. On Wednesday the attention pivots to the house where daily domestic chores performed by the women in the kitchen serves as a harrowing lead-in to the fields where men and women must face the lash if they move too slowly. Christie’s stylish minimalism forces the reader to become a spectator to this debasing practice. But though this picture is stark, spare and unremittingly bleak there is still an undaunted commitment to teamwork. Friday reveals the fate of those who would risk an escape attempt.
The cotton picking canvas -epic and picturesque- conveys the feeling of arduous field labor under an arid sun -Christie smears in scorching orange to accentuate that. The people seen horizontally in the crowded homes are silhouettes, and the couplet suggests that even during the night hours some vital matters must be attended to. The plantation tapestry with the weeping willows and the pink ribbon leading up to the house is framed by a black gate and fence. The white slave owners welcoming their female guests will always provoke images from books by William Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Solomon Northrup among a host of others, but this stereotypical, mournful canvas is nonetheless one of Christie’s most atmospherically captivating. Of course for those who have read through Freedom in Congo Square more than once it is quite easy to conclude that the final five spreads in the book that begin with Slaves had off one afternoon, when the law allowed them to commune, are propulsive – a convergence of swirling color, unbridled merriment and swinging adornments. The spread that features African musical instruments and masks is pop art bliss, and the circular presentation of the couplet –
Grouped by nation, language, tribe, they drummed ancestral roots alive. / They played triangles, gourds and bells, banzas, flutes, fiddles, and shells.
–further projects the irrepressible spirit expressed in this all out assault on the senses, one fueled by shouting chants and tambourines. The final canvas is the ultimate expression of exuberance, showcasing the slaves’ natural propensity for dance in its most naked incarnation. As Weatherford mentions in her afterward, the African rhythms that emanated from the Congo Square gatherings served as the foundation for jazz, America’s sole original art form. The space that once was Congo Square is now a section of Louis Armstrong Park in the Mardi Gras city.
Freedom in Congo Square is a sterling example of how under the most unconscionable circumstances people can rise up from the ashes of indignation and oppression and embrace the humanity they were born with, turning incarceration into boundless creativity. You can beat the man, you can strip him of his worldly possessions and self-esteem, but the spirit can never be extinguished. Weatherford and Christie have gifted the book community a soulful masterpiece.
Note: This is the forty-third entry in the ongoing 2016 Caldecott Medal Contender series. The series does not purport to predict what the committee will choose, rather it attempts to gauge what the writer feels should be in the running. In most instances the books that are featured in the series have been touted as contenders in various online round-ups, but for the ones that are not, the inclusions are a humble plea to the committee for consideration. It is anticipated the series will include in the neighborhood of around 50 titles; the order which they are being presented in is arbitrary, as every book in this series is a contender. Some of my top favorites of the lot will be done near the end. The awards will be announced on January 23rd, hence the reviews will continue till two days before that date.