Friday, May 15, 2020

At What Price? Freedom Over Me by Ashley Bryan

In 1828 a landowner named Cado Fairchild died, leaving his estate solely to his wife, Mary Fairchild. Part of that estate were the eleven slaves he had owned.

These slaves had nothing of their own except their slave names--and the valuable abilities they had acquired in their lives. While he lived, Fairchild earned extra money by renting out his craftsmen and craftswomen to his neighbors--doing carpentry, sewing, pottery-making, butchery, ironworking, and cooking. Left alone by his death, his wife Mary admitted to being fearful.

"Living here without my husband would be impossible for me without our Negro slaves, but... I would not feel secure."

Mary Fairchild spoke of returning to England, but she never did. Instead, she survived as a widow, thanks to the work of her "brown people." A careful manager, her husband left in his will a ledger of the given names, ages, and worth of those servants, giving them a sort of identity for future historians. One, sixty-two year-old Qush was worth $100, while young Stephen and Jane were each priced at $300, and thirty-year-old Charlotte and her eight-year-old daughter Dora were together worth $400.

Peggy, the cook, had a special value to Mrs. Fairchild:
"I learned about plants, cures, and remedies. Mrs. Fairchild praises my cooking. She invites friends to show off my skills.

Afterward, I sneak leftover food for the slaves."

In Freedom Over Me: Eleven Slaves, Their Lives and Dreams Brought to Life by Ashley Bryan (Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor Books) (Atheneum Books), the author shows both the humiliation of being a slave with a price by his name and the true value of the skilled labor of those slaves who survived that time. The author focuses on their coping skills as they married and raised children, taught each other what they shared and what they remembered of their own origins and their real names, and secretly taught each other how to read. Reading the description of these enslaved people, young readers will see them as individuals and may well hope that little Dora survived to see emancipation come to her at last in 1865.

Author-illustrator Ashley Bryan was awarded Newbery Honor Award and a Coretta Scott King Author and Illustrator Award for this book. In its starred review, Booklist says, "Clean and spare, the verse brings the characters to life, while in the radiant artwork, their spirits soar. Rooted in history, this powerful, imaginative book honors those who endured slavery in America."

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