This is the MOST Powerful picture book about the history of African slavery in the United States, that I know of. I don’t think I have seen another picture book with illustrations that are so riveting. I was captivated by Rod Brown’s paintings from the moment I saw them – beyond words. Julius Lester’s text in this book is beautiful, powerful and provoking. I used this book every year that I taught US History about the African slave trade and it reaches people in a way that a textbook cannot. The text and paintings work intricatingly and passionately together to make history come to life. 

Lester had written about slavery before and said this, “When presented with Rod Brown’s paintings. I was jolted into the realization that perhaps I had not done with writing about what it was like to be a slave. His work was a visceral response to slavery that eschewed photographic realism for a raw power that gave flesh to soul.”

From the book  (emphasis as in the book),

They took the sick and the dead and dropped them into the sea like empty wine barrels. But wine barrels did not have beating hearts, crying eyes, and screaming mouths.

I think often of those ancestors of mine whose names I do not know, whose names I will never know, those ancestors who saw people thrown in the sea like promises casually made and easily broken. . . .Millions were taken. No one knows how many millions died.

The Lester asks the reader to imagine what it would be like to be an African aboard a slave ship

Voice One: The darkness blacker than any night. Where was my father? my mother? Did they where I was? Why didn’t they come and get me? Did the ever know what happened to me?

Voice Two: Our bodies did what they had to do where we lay. Urine and excrement fell on me from above, and mine onto those below. The smell was as thick as hatred.

Voice Three: I was shackled by my wrists and ankles to a man on my right and one on my left. I could not stand. I could not turn over. I will never understand what I did to deserve this.

For me one of the most thought provoking, is when Lester asks the reader both black and white to consider what it would be like to be the perpetrator – the one doing the hurting. It’s easy to imagine what it is would be like to be the victim, to be torn from your family, but what about the person doing the hurting. He asks this,

We may think we would never whip someone until their flesh cried blood. But what if you would not be punished for doing it? What if your peers approved and deemed you honorable and good for beating someone? What then?

Such a powerful book, but is not picture book for young children. The recommended age group is 9-12 and I used it with 13-14 year olds – quite effectively and the book is also excellent for teaching literary devices for those English teachers out there. I have not yet read this to my barely turned 5 year old. I did think about showing it to her, but decided it was too much for her at this age. I would definitely follow the age recommendation on this one.

Julius Lester’s blog at A Commonplace Book and website

Rod Brown’s Art Collection – you can see several of his art pieces including some for this book!!!! Go check it out.