by Sam Juliano
The scourge of slavery as revealed in an existing document discovered by nonagenarian author-illustrator Ashley Bryan poses that African-Americans working on the Fairchilds estate in the 1820’s and beyond were property of the white slave-holders who even claimed immediate ownership of newly born children of slave parents. Bryan’s wrenching look at eleven slaves owned by Cado and Mary Fairchilds on a South Carolina plantation, Freedom Over Me, gives voice to those who share a dream of freedom. Each invariably relates in the first-person narratives told on two full pages alongside a detailed profile drawing and another tapestry showing them with others in a canvas illustrating their dreams coming true, common stories of their abduction and loss of individual rights and of how their special talents were exploited, both in terms of the revenue they generated going to the estate owner and some of them being farmed out if they were too good at what they did. Bryan has taken human “statistics” and fleshed them out, giving them identities, personalities, a stream of aching inner thoughts, and in some instances a secret resolve to achieve literacy, long banned by the slave-owners because it would intensity their desire to win independence. In short Bryan gives his slaves a humanity that eluded their real-life counterparts. All of the slaves in this group were abducted from their African villages, sometimes leaving behind parents or family members who were killed in the raid, and this inner anger drives all to keep the candle burning for freedom, as they render scene-specific aspirations for the time they are release, though sadly that time will never come in their own lives.
After browning parchments of slave auctions and legal documents that bind slaves to the orders within are replicated in collage on the end paper and free space opposite the title page Bryan commits one page with a short summary of Mary Fairchilds, the wife of the slave owner who has passed away. She speaks of her husband as if he treated the slaves with kindness and respect, apprenticing them to learn carpentry, sewing, pottering, basketry and ironwork, and even loaned then out to neighboring estates as if that was some kind of boost to their self esteem, when in reality it had the opposite effect. She boasts that the slave earnings came back to her estate, thereby increasing its value. She announces she will return to England where “I may live without fear, surrounded by my own good British people.” A For Sale poster featuring all eleven participants of Bryan’s drama lists the age of each and the amount they are sold for in yet another example of dehumanization this most heinous of all human institutions fostered.
Peggy the cook is first to bare her soul, and she attests to working night and day all week to serve up fancy meals for the Fairfchilds and plain dishes for the slaves. As she has mastered her culinary skills, Mrs. Fairchilds orders her to cook for friends. She is “rewarded” by being granted permission to wander the estate gardens and the woods where she learns about plants for cures including sarsaparilla and chamomile roots. Peggy’s walk in the woods brings back the terrifying night her father was killed and she and her mothers were sent on a nightmarish boat trip across the Atlantic. After she was later separated from the mother she never saw her again. She dreams of herself as herb doctor and is pictured in an idyllic pose with the slave child Dora and the boy John in a well-furnished kitchen. This tapestry is in complete contradiction of the one of her profile as one withered from hard work, though Bryan’s art there is powerfully rendered. The carpenter Stephen is another whose exceeding talents persuaded the Fairchilds to send him on to other estates. He’s in love with the seamstress Jane, and he build a special shed for her. Jane and Stephen secretly taught each other how to read, helped by a hidden Bible. Stephen’s hopes are pictorially rendered in an Xanadu like tapestry, where his expertise has produced a free-roaming paradise. The seamstress Jane, who loves Stephen and has even talked with him about running away vows that one day she will live together with he and young John. Jane has “value” as she is going for $300, mainly because she is prime at 28 years old. Bryan’s portrait of her is weathered, but in her festive aspirations canvas she has “grown in artistry through the clothes she creates.” Perhaps most significantly of all, in assessing her resolve in tandem with her propensity she opines: I weave these thoughts into dreamcloths of Freedom.
There can be nothing as shameful and repugnant to the white overlords as young John’s first admission on his page of thoughts: When I was eight years old I was given as a birthday gift to Mrs. Fairchilds. The fact that he never knew his parents of course is common in this realm of unspeakable atrocities. John is taught to read and his own inspiration emanates from the exclamatory titular phrase: Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom over me! Bryan’s depiction of this then sixteen-year old worth a comparatively scant $100 is as a much older male with the swirling facial lines that confirm hard work in the fields. His mind in the dream section is to one day draw loving portraits exhibiting the strength and beauty of the Negro people, and the corresponding celebratory panel is one of streaming bright colors. The laundress Athelia, 42 but looking like 70 in Bryan’s raw portrait of her face talks about how much the young girl Dora means to her while by innuendo damning her masters: As slaves, we do what our owners expect and demand of us. As human beings, our real lives are our precious secret.” She takes solace in the songs of her ancestors, and her dream panel showcases tribal masks and art that evokes the exquisite stain glass windows of a church.
Charlotte, age 30, who molds cups, bowls and animals from clay is worth $400 when teamed with the little 8 year old Dora, her daughter. She talks secretly of escape with the child and with her husband Bacus, the metal works wizard, and what Bryan envisions for their lofty one-day freedom is unbridled bliss, one by the heavens above in sun yellow approval. Bacus’s plea is registered by way of a resounding beat of the anvil, and emblazoned on the trenchant canvas are the words Freedom, Justice, Respect. Qush, whose stock has diminished with age (he is 60 here and the going rate is $100) still dreams of becoming a musician – Biblical stories and melodies based on them were his favorites- standing abreast of his beloved Mulvina in a musical bonanza that evokes Gospel. Bryan’s ebullient multi-colored tapestry is truly magnificent. Mulvina’s story is on the same wave length as she equates free-spirited song as freedom’s calling card, and the beloved American Gospel spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” is one she hankers to teach to her students. Bryan’s colored ribbons created a ravishing and deeply moving image. Finally 36 year old Betty, a florist dreams of freedom and the chance to immerse herself botanically. That final horn of plenty canvas brings the earth and the enslaved people together, posing in fact that Mother Earth is far more lasting that human injustices.
Bryan’s no-holds-barred cover depicting all eleven of the slaves who spoke in this invigorating testament bonded together by chains and their spirit. Their individual substantiation throughout this shattering work is a cry against injustice and inhumanity, and a permanent record of the most shameful period in the history of our nation. Freedom Over Me is a very strong contender for this year’s Newbery Medal (as well it should be) but Ashley Bryan’s sublime and powerful art should have the Caldecott committee just as attentive in their own deliberations. When both components are brought together, this is about as truly great a book as any released this year.
Note: This is the fifty-fourth 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 from the days before that date.