February is Black History Month, and I have chosen a wide array of books to highlight the breadth of topics that can come under discussion of this theme.
Recently designated a Newbery Award Honor Book, Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom (Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Michele Wood, Candlewick Press, 2020, 54 pages, $17.99) tells the story of one slave from his childhood to his life of freedom. He literally had a box created that a friend enclosed him in and had himself shipped to Philadelphia where an abolitionist received him. The number six is predominant in the presentation of the book. Beginning with a concrete poem with six words in the shape of the numeral 6, each segment of the story is a six-sentence stanza, representing the six sides of a box. The cruel nature of slavery is evident in both the words and the naive style of art that illuminates the text.
In 1977, Voyager I carried a Golden Record into space, containing pictures, sounds and music. Along with the music of Beethoven, Navajo chants and Chuck Berry, was a recording of “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground.” Gary Golio tells the story in Dark Was the Night: Blind Willie Johnson’s Journey to the Stars (illustrated by E.B. Lewis, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2020, 30 pages, $17.99). Born in a small Texas town, Willie Johnson lost his mama and then his sight when he was young. He earned a living singing on street corners, using his pocket knife on his instrument to create a unique sound that was called slide guitar. Given the chance to make a record, he became more well-known.
“Dark Was the Night” was his signature song, a recording of him playing slide, humming and moaning. It was said to be “a ray of light that touched people deep in their souls.” The text and the illustrations aptly portray the contrast of dark and light throughout the book.
Most North Americans are somewhat familiar with the history of the Underground Railroad. The Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America (Candacy Taylor, Abrams Press, 2020, 369 pages, $35) was a total eye-opener for me. The Green Book was begun in 1936 and survived until 1967. It was a compilation of places where Black travelers could find hotels, restaurants, gas stations, stores, hair salons and other venues where African Americans were welcome. Coinciding with the popularity of automobiles and the burgeoning of travel, it was like a AAA guide for the Black community.
Taylor spent years traveling to the sites listed in the Green Book, documenting their changes and demise. She aptly weaves the history of the civil rights movement into the life of the publication. Taylor is a noted author, photographer and cultural documentarian, and though this is a lengthy book, it reads easily and the subject matter is fascinating and disheartening at the same time.
Though most slaves traveled north when they ran to freedom, a few chose to head to Mexico. South to Freedom: Runaway Slaves to Mexico and the Road to the Civil War (Alice Baumgartner, Basic Books, 2020, 365 pages, $32) follows three threads. The inventions of a method of spinning cotton quickly and the cotton gin made cotton king in the United States. This led to the perceived growing need for slaves to work on plantations and the spread of cotton growing to Louisiana and Texas. The second thread explains why Mexico abolished slavery and refused to return slaves to their masters who had reached their soil. The third part of the book becomes personal, following the lives of some of the slaves and slaveholders.
The importance of the cotton business in the South also underlies the shenanigans described in The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War (Jonathan Daniel Wells, Bold Type Books, 2020, 354 pages, $30). In 1830, when a group of slaves stole a boat and sailed to New York City, the city was actually a small town. During the next 30 years it grew in almost every aspect, and its growth depended on the success of the cotton business. Wall Street, insurers, the port, textile mills — all depended on the flow of cotton, therefore there was not much hope for slaves who ran from their masters to succeed. A cabal of bounty hunters, sheriffs and judges pretty much assured the return of the slaves to the South. Names are named and the interwoven, if often unspoken plotting, is revealed.
World War II was the impetus for many changes in the United States. Standing Up Against Hate: How Black Women in the Army Helped Change the Course of WWII (Mary Cronk Farrell, Abrams, 2019, 196 pages, $17.99) follows one battalion of Black women from the inception of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later to become the Women’s Army Corps) to their posting overseas. It is a history of bravery and persistence, against the many obstacles thrown in their path. Segregation, insults and demeaning actions were overcome and their value to the war effort was made obvious.
Sarah Vaughan was a musical genius, a master of many genres. But her development of the style known as bebop, in jazz singing, led to her being known as the Queen of Bebop (Elaine M. Hayes, HarperCollins, 2017, 419 pages, $27.99). Vaughan did not like being pigeonholed — she just wanted to be recognized as a singer, and this book makes clear why she deserved that recognition. Lively in presentation, it tells Vaughn’s story from birth to death.
The Fierce 44: Black Americans Who Shook Up the World (Staff of The Undefeated, portraits by Robert Ball, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019, 95 pages, $17.99) is a compilation of essays that highlight Black Americans who have made a difference. Why 44? As an homage to the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama. Each essay is a “snapshot biography” of the entrant, faced with a portrait page that includes the reason for being honored.
There are the expected notables from the past, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman; the more recent past, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King Jr., and the present — Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Athletes Michael Jordan and Serena Williams, musicians Aretha Franklin and Duke Ellington, authors Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison, educators Booker T. Washington and Mary McLeod Bethune, entrepreneurs Madam C.J. Walker and Robert Abbott are also represented among the essays.
Using the “I Can Read” format, Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter (Nadia L. Hohn, illustrated by Gustavo Mazali, Harper, 2019, 32 pages, $16.99) presents information about Harriet Tubman in such a way that younger readers can learn about her life and influence. Though a short book, it is packed with information. Back matter includes a timeline, photographs and a map of the route she followed to take other slaves to freedom in Canada.
Janet Collins was the first African American prima ballerina in the Metropolitan Opera House. Brave Ballerina: The Story of Janet Collins (Michelle Meadows, illustrated by Ebony Glenn, Henry Holt, 2019, 32 pages, $17.99) tells her story in verse, from her mother making costumes in exchange for lessons for Janet, to her performing at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1951. She maintained her dignity through many challenges, including refusing to whiten her skin in order to be able to perform. The illustrations are as graceful as the ballerina they portray. This is a lovely book.
James Weldon Johnson was a man of many talents, and his song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became known as “the Black national anthem.” The lyrics of this song are on the endpapers of Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations (Kelly Lyons, illustrated by Keith Mallett, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2019, 30 pages, $17.99). Five generations are depicted in the book, each passing on the song and its importance to the family. It begins with a girl who was a pupil in the school where Johnson was principal and ends with the ringing of the Freedom Bell on the day President Obama opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The last book is not about Black history, but fits in this February column for the celebration of Presidents Day. Hot off the press, Our Country’s Presidents: A Complete Encyclopedia of the U.S. Presidency (Ann Bausum, National Geographic, 2021, 224 pages, $24.99) arrived this week. It is a treasure trove of information that is updated with every new presidency. Presented in chronological order, there is a profile of each president accompanied by a full-page reproduction of the official portrait. Fact boxes, thematic spreads and reference aids are also included. As one would expect from a book produced by the National Geographic, there are numerous excellent photographs throughout.
The new edition includes information on Donald Trump, an essay on choosing a president during a pandemic and a brief entry on Joseph Biden. One can spend hours poring through the pages of this excellent book.
Check the Denton Public Library for these books and more. Our local Barnes & Noble will also have a display of these books and others related to the theme.