Freedom over me; Eleven slaves, their lives and dreams brought to life

Written & Illustrated by: Ashley Bryan

For ages: 10-12 years (grades 4-6)

Language: English

Topics Covered: POC-Centric Narratives, Enslavement, Enslaved People, Historical Figures, Historical Events, Poetry, Historic Narratives, Narratives of Enslavement. 

Summary: This book is comprised of poems telling the stories of 11 enslaved people.  Records of these individuals were found in a historical document owned by the author himself, who developed free verse poetry and personal details of the people who were merely listed with their price on a document.

In Athelia’s poem, the last stanza reads “As slaves, we do what our owners expect and demand of us. As human beings, our real lives are our precious secret.” Bryan brings to life the harsh realities of enslaved life in a way that humanizes and reveals the multi-faceted nature of these enslaved peoples.  After a poem that corresponds with each of the people: Peggy, John, Athelia, Betty, Qush, Jane, Stephen, Mulvina, Bacus, Charlotte & Dora;  another poem tells of their dreams.  While their real jobs and dreams are unaccounted for in written historical documents, they are probably not far off from the dreams of many of the millions of enslaved peoples throughout the history of the United States.  America is a country that was founded with and built on the backs of enslaved people.

These poems are beautiful, and have even more beautiful illustrations paired with them. Bryan does a fantastic job memorializing these 11 people that history all but forgot.  We particularly love the colorful illustration of Bacus’ dreams, showing him blacksmithing and singing a song of freedom.

Reflection Questions:

  • Why do you think that personal details of these and other enslaved people weren’t recorded?
  • How can we memorialize the lives lost through enslavement, if we don’t know so many of the people who were enslaved?
  • What other questions do you have about the process of creating poetry based on just a few simple details?
  • Why do you think Ashley Bryan felt the need to not only write these stories, but also make a book about them?
  • How is this helping our current day viewpoint about the lives of enslaved peoples?

About the Author & Illustrator:

ashleyAshley Bryan doesn’t speak his stories, he sings them, fingers snapping, feet tapping, his voice articulating. His entire body is immersed in the tale. Born in 1923, Ashley was raised in the Bronx, NY. At seventeen, he entered the tuition-free Cooper Union School of Art and Engineering, having been denied entry elsewhere because of his race. Encouraged by supportive high school teachers, Ashley was told, “Apply to Cooper Union; they do not see you there.” Admission was based solely on a student’s exam portfolio. Drafted out of art school into the segregated US army at age nineteen, Ashley preserved his humanity throughout World War II by drawing, stowing supplies in his gas mask when necessary. After the war, Ashley completed his Cooper Union degree, studied philosophy and literature at Columbia University on the GI Bill, and then went to Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, seeking to understand why humans choose war. In 1950, renowned cellist, Pablo Casals, agreed to break the vow of silence he had taken after Franco came to power in his native Spain. Ashley was permitted to draw Casals and his fellow musicians during rehearsals in Prades, France, where Casals was in exile. Through the power of Casals’ music sessions, something “broke free” for Ashley: “I found the rhythm in my hand.” Ashley returned to the United States, teaching art at several schools and universities, retiring in the 1980s to Maine’s Cranberry Isles as professor emeritus of Dartmouth College.

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