In Louisiana, slaves had a day off from work on Sundays. In New Orleans, after 1817, they could only gather in one place on this day, an open field known as Congo Square. There, the slaves could play African music, dance, play, and sing. As the author says in an Afterword, “For a few hours every Sunday, Congo Square gave slaves a taste of freedom.”
The book begins with a Foreword by a historian about Congo Square (which is now located within Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans).
Then the author uses rhyming couplets on double-page spreads to take us through the days of the week to show some of the work done by slaves, and how much they looked forward to Sundays. Midweek, for example:
“Wednesdays, there were beds to make,
silver to shine, and bread to bake.
The dreaded lash, too much to bear.
Four more days to Congo Square.”
Come Sunday, both the author and illustrator convey the joy of that one day:
“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.”
The book ends with a glossary and an Author’s Note.
R. Gregory Christie is the perfect illustrator for a book that focuses so much on movement, whether showing the work done by slaves during the week, or dancing and singing on Sundays. He uses folk art-style paintings and a bright palette well-represented by Pan-African colors. His figures look more rigid and angled during the work week, but they stretch and leap and flow in Congo Square.
Both the author and the illustrator have garnered many awards.
Evaluation: This book has much to recommend it: the story will teach children some of the many things slaves were required to do. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the harshness of slavery with the joy expressed on (half) days of freedom certainly illustrates – both in words and pictures, how absurd was the outrageous canard that slaves were “happy.” Finally, the way Christie changes the lines and colors of his art can show children how important and effective images are in affecting perception.
Published by Little Bee Books, an imprint of Bonnier Publishing Group, 2016