Freedom in Congo Square

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Freedom in Congo Square Book Poster Image
Slaves' lives, jazz roots shown in stunning nonfiction book.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Shows the realities of the slaves' hard lives on the plantation, as well as the joyous release on Sundays in Congo Square. A foreword and author's note give more historical facts, context. A glossary defines some of the sophisticated language used in the verse, such "commune" and "ardent," as well as farm terms such as "prune" and "slop" and instruments such as the the "banza," a gourd instrument that's the ancestor of the banjo. 

Positive Messages

After a week of hard work, Sunday is a day of rest when you can feel free and have fun with your your people. Singing religious songs (such as spirituals) can make you feel better ("Spirituals rose from the despair"). Singing and dancing can make you feel as if you have no cares.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Shows the dignity of work among the enslaved. Shows slaves dancing, rejoicing, and playing instruments in Congo Square while some well-dressed white people observe. Both the foreword and afterword make the connection between the music of Congo Square and modern jazz, giving credit to the slaves whose music provided the roots of this genre of music. 

Violence & Scariness

There's no violence shown, but there's an image of a white man on horseback with a weapon and three dogs, apparently going after (unseen) runaway slaves ("Run away, run away. Some slaves dared./Two more days to Congo Square"). Another scene shows an overseer holding a whip as slaves work in the field ("The dreaded lash, too much to bear./Four more days to Congo Square"). A reference to the slaves' despair ("Spirituals rose from the despair./Three more days to Congo Square").

Language

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Freedom in Congo Square by Carole Boston Weatherford and illustrated by R. Gregory Christie earned both a 2017 Caldecott Honor and a Coretta Scott King (Illustrator) Book Award Honor. It's an exuberant historical picture book that celebrates the place where, starting in 1817, enslaved and free people in New Orleans could get together to dance, sing, and play music -- including with African songs and instruments -- on Sundays. The story is told in spare rhyming verse and folk art-style paintings that contrast the hard, exhausting workweek on the plantation with the joyful gathering on the one day of rest. It's an engaging, accessible intro to the subject of slavery and the roots of America's one indigenous music genre: jazz. The poetry is lyrical yet doesn't sugarcoat the harsh realities of slaves' lives. There's no violence shown, but there's an image of a white man on horseback with a weapon and three dogs, apparently going after (unseen) runaway slaves ("Run away, run away. Some slaves dared./Two more days to Congo Square"). Another scene shows an overseer with a whip as slaves work in the field ("The dreaded lash, too much to bear./Four more days to Congo Square"). A foreword and author's note give more historical facts and context and describe Congo Square, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today. 

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What's the story?

FREEDOM IN CONGO SQUARE shows how, day by day, starting with Monday, plantation slaves work hard feeding animals, plowing fields, making beds, baking bread, cleaning clothes, scrubbing floors, picking crops, doing chores, and living for Sunday, when they'll be allowed to go to New Orleans' Congo Square. There, they're allowed to commune with other enslaved and free people, speak their African languages, sing African songs, and play African music on African drums and other instruments. It's the one day they can gather, celebrate, and feel a taste of freedom: "They rejoiced as if they had no cares;/half day, half free in Congo Square./This piece of earth was a world apart./Congo Square was freedom's heart."

Is it any good?

This lyrically beautifully illustrated picture book contrasts the harsh realities of slaves' plantation lives in the 1800s with the joyful release of Sunday gatherings in a square in New Orleans. Freedom in Congo Square captures the hard work, constraint, and bent backs of the slaves six days a week as well as the celebratory, elongated figures of people singing and dancing and feeling carefree as they celebrate their culture on Sundays in a legally designated free zone.

Illustrator R. George Christie's folk art-style paintings in a palette of mostly orange and ochre are warm and inviting. Kids will be drawn in by the art and come away having learned some significant history, including the link between those Sundays and the development of New Orleans jazz.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the slaves' lives are pictured in Freedom in Congo Square. Why did the slaves look forward to going to Congo Square on Sundays?

  • What does it mean to be free? Why did the slaves feel free when they were dancing in Congo Square?

  • What did you learn about the roots of jazz music from Freedom in Congo Square? Look up some New Orleans music online or ask your parents to play a jazz recording for you. Think about how that music grew out of the enslaved Africans' music.

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