Matthew Henson was born to sharecropper parents in 1866. As a young boy, he heard a speech by Frederick Douglass, and was inspired by his words to dream of great accomplishments.
When he was 13, Henson signed on as a cabin boy on a ship, sailing to five continents. When the captain died, however, Henson at first could not find another ship on which he could be treated as an equal. But a chance meeting with naval officer Robert Peary, who was determined to be the first man on the North Pole, changed Henson’s life. Henson joined Peary, and together they made seven trips to the Arctic region. Moreover, as the author reports, “Twice on the polar ice cap, Henson saved Peary’s life.” Then, on April 6, 1909, Peary and Henson finally stood together at the Pole, making history.
Weatherford uses poetic first-person narrative in the voice of Henson to tell us how hard Henson worked to overcome discrimination, prove himself, and earn Peary’s trust. As Weatherford has Henson declare:
“I did not sail to the tropics [with Peary] just to launder shirts and cook meals. I meant to prove myself as an explorer.”
He befriended the Eskimos, and learned their skills for survival on the ice. Between voyages, Henson became a railroad porter and explored the U.S. For their trips to the Arctic, Henson built sledges, trained dog handlers, and enlisted Eskimo guides, and went ahead on his own to guide them north. Peary declared he could not make it to the Pole without Henson. Eventually, six of them made it, “one black, one white, four Eskimos….” A camera took their picture, and they planted the American flag.
Controversy followed however. Other explorers claimed to have beaten them to the Pole. Some dismissed the claims of a black man. Peary himself later downplayed Henson’s role, and Peary and Henson parted ways. But before this happened, Henson published his memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole (1912), which included a foreword and praise by Peary.
In all, Matthew Henson accompanied Robert Peary on voyages and expeditions for a period of nearly 23 years. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, traded with Inuit and learned their language, and was known as Peary’s right-hand man during this time. In 1937 Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City, the first African American to be accepted. In 1948 he was made an “honorary member,” a distinction for only 20 people annually.
Prolific illustrator Eric Velasquez uses full-bleed spreads made from textured watercolors in soft pastels. The pictures effectively convey the alien sweep of the Arctic terrain as well as Henson’s grit and determination.
Evaluation: This book introduces readers to yet another instance of an accomplished black person who played a major role behind the scenes of the better-known story of white accomplishment.
Published by Walker & Company, 2008