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empty Posted 02-01-02- Shining the Light ON: African American History
Colleen Birchett
Colleen Birchett, Ph.D.
The Triumph of the
Spirit in Children's Books

by Dr. Colleen Birchett
Chicago, IL

Most of us do not have mental images of the enslaved ancestors in our family histories. Rarely do family historians get much farther back than emancipation. Even if we try to imagine, our mind's eye might fall upon stereotypes of submissive "happy darkies" or of "demonized" renegades (as Nat Turner has been depicted). These are the only traditional and distorted images that were once available in the popular media. However, things are changing! Scholars such as Drs. Dwight Hopkins, Vincent Harding, Gayraud Wilmore, Molefi Asante, Herbert Aptheker, Albert Raboteau, and others have published books with more accurate images. Moreover, other authors are writing children's books based on this new information.

For older children (ages 9-12), authors have developed story lines that reveal what life was like on slave ships. Julius Lester, in From Slave Ship to Freedom Road, takes older children on an intense journey, with questions for critical thinking. James Berry, in Ajeemah and His Son begins with the capture of Ajeemah and his son Atu in Africa and their trip to Jamaica where Ajeemah demands that the plantation owner treat him as a human being. Others focus primarily on the slavery experience in America.

For older children, Belinda Hurmence, in Slavery Time When I was Chillun, develops twelve short stories for children, based on interviews conducted with people who had been in slavery, but were still living in the 1930s. She also wrote We Lived in a Little Cabin in the Yard, which illustrates what life was like on a Virginia plantation. For young adults (teens), Margaret Walker, in Jubilee, tells the story of Vyry, daughter of an African woman and rapist plantation owner. It chronicles her life through the death of her mother, sale of her "other mother," her first love, births, and lives of her children, all the way through the aftermath of the Civil War. A similar story is told in Julius Lester's book. To Be A Slave.

For younger children (ages 4-8), Doreen Rappaport, in The Dare, presents the true story of John Parker who bought his own freedom and then returned to Kentucky to rescue other slaves and bring them across the Ohio River to freedom. For older children, James Haskins deals with this theme in Get on Board: The Story of the Underground Railroad. In The House of Dies Drear, by Virginia Hamilton, 13 year old Thomas takes the reader through a huge old house with secret tunnels, and discovers a buried treasure that reveals the lives of abolitionists and escaping slaves who kept the Underground Railroad running. For young adults, there is Ann Petry's, Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, Kathryn Lasky's, True North: A Novel of the Underground Railroad, and Dear Friends: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaboratives on the Underground Railroad, by Judith Bentley.

For younger children, Jeannette Winter, in Follow the Drinking Gourd, tells the story of "Peg Leg Joe" who teaches Africans held in bondage a song about the drinking gourd (the Big Dipper), and they follow the son's directions to freedom. For older children, in Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, Virginia Hamilton chronicles the true story of one who, in1854, was put on trial in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. In Two Tickets to Freedom: The True Story of Ellen and William Craft,  fugitive slaves, Florence Freedman presents the true story of two fugitives who escaped by passing for a plantation owner and a male slave. For young adults, The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb is a slave narrative/autobiography of Bibb's escape from Kentucky to Detroit.

For older children, the story of Nat Turner's revolt is presented by Judith Edwards, in Nat Turner's Slave Rebellion in American History and Terry Bisson in Nat Turner: Slave Revolt Leader. For young adults, Stephen Oates deals with Turner's life in The Fires of Jubilee: Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion. Denmark Vesey's revolt is presented in Denmark Vesey: The Buried Story of American's Largest Slave Rebellion and the Man Who Led It and in He Shall Go Out Free by Douglas Egerton.

For younger children, black abolitionists are portrayed in A Picture Book of Sojourner Truth, and A Picture Book of Frederick Douglass, both by David Adler and Sojourner Truth: A Photo-Illustrated Biography by Margo McLoone. For older children, Jean Frits, in Brady, presents a story of Brady, son of a Pennsylvania man who helped slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. Arthur Diamond, in Prince Hall, presents the story of social reformer, Prince Hall. Steven Klots, in Richard Allen presents the biography of the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Sharman Russell presents a biography of Frederick Douglass.

Sue Hotchins has compiled the religious writings of four 19th Century African American women (Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, Julia Foote and Virginia Broughton). A Free Black Girl Before the Civil War by Charlotte Forten illustrates the role that some free African American women played in the fight against slavery and in the education of newly-freed men and women. Black Pioneers: An Untold Story by William Katz documents the contributions of free African-American women of the Old West, from the late 18th century to the middle of the 19th century. In Angelina Grimke: Voice of Abolition, Ellen Todras tells the story of prominent free black women, born in 1805, who left the South and worked in New England for the abolition of slavery and for women's rights.

There simply are no better resources than the following books: Down, Up and Over by Dr. Dwight Hopkins, There is a River, by Vincent Harding, and Gayraud Wilmore's Black Religion and Black Radicalism.

Colleen Birchett is a native of Detroit, Michigan. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a Master of Science in Journalism and a Ph.D. in instructional design. As a staff writer for Urban Ministries, Inc., Dr. Birchett wrote and edited two church school publications, Inteen and Young Adult Today. In addition, she served as curriculum coordinator for the National Christian Education Conference sponsored annually by Urban Ministries. In 1995, she wrote the Bible study applications for the book, Africans Who Shaped Our Faith, by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr. This article originally appeared in the Trinity Trumpet, November 2000 and is used by permission.
©Trinity Trumpet,  All Rights Reserved.

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