Wednesday, January 04, 2017

This Little Light of Mine: Lift Your Light A Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop, Slave-Explorer by Heather Henson.

The past is like a cave sometimes. Dim and dusty and full of twisting ways.

Not an easy path to follow. Don't worry, though. I know a few things about leading folks around inside the dark.

I am called the Guide.

As a slave, forbidden to learn to read or write, young Stephen Bishop was given a formidable task by his master, to go deep into the the world's most extensive cave system, Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, and map it as far as it was passable.

It was a daunting task for any man or woman, and yet young Stephen, still a boy, did it. He became the foremost authority on the cave, discovering eyeless fish and albino crawfish who never knew the light and crossing the infamous "Bottomless Pit" to the other side. Alone, carrying a small lantern and crawling through passages where others could not go, he came to know the extensive depths of Mammoth. He became the renowned Guide who led thousands of people from all over the world through the dark, earning praise from the rich, learned, and famous, as well as many thousands of tourists who came to learn and follow him into this wondrous terra incognita.

I learned by sight, and one day I held the candle up to write my own name.

And perhaps Stephen's proudest achievement was learning from those who "wrote" their names in candle smoke on the walls how to read for himself, until at last he wrote his own name proudly, indelibly, on those rocky walls. Little is known of Stephen beyond his work in the cave from 1838 through 1857, but modern visitors can still read his name, Stephen Bishop, and that of his wife Charlotte, testimony to the "intelligence and eloquence" that visitors used to describe Stephen's dignity and vast knowledge of his subterranean world.

Heather Henson's Lift Your Light a Little Higher: The Story of Stephen Bishop: Slave-Explorer (Athenuem Books, 2016), brings the voice of the Stephen Bishop to life, an unschooled slave who made himself a learned man and left his mark on human history, venturing further under the planet than future astronauts soared above it. Poignant collaged, deep-toned watercolor illustrations by the four-time Caldecott artist Brian Collier provide the evocative experience of trusting yourself to venture so far from the light with this amazing man. In a natural readaloud for Black History Month, author Henson adds an appendix with author's note that fills out what little we know of Bishop's own life and a brief bibliography. Says Kirkus Reviews, A story that recovers an important piece of African-American history inextricably tied to the history of Mammoth Cave, a national monument visited by two million people each year."

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