Carole Boston Weatherford

For over a year now we have been bound to our homes. Change of scene comes from screens, or books. Meet­ing new peo­ple comes through read­ing. So this month we are going to say thanks to a writer who has spent many years and many beau­ti­ful words intro­duc­ing us to peo­ple we did not know — but should know — Car­ole Boston Weatherford.

Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford has been writ­ing since she was in first grade. Her father taught print­ing and was able to pub­lish those ear­ly sto­ries. Weath­er­ford has writ­ten dozens of pic­ture books for young read­ers — and all read­ers. We can­not be exhaus­tive here, but we can intro­duce you to this won­der­ful writer.

Voice of Freedom Fannie Lou HamerOne of my all-time favorite pic­ture book biogra­phies is Weatherford’s Voice of Free­dom Fan­nie Lou Hamer (2105; illus­trat­ed by Ekua Holmes). Hamer was a hero of the Civ­il Rights move­ment in the 1960s. In 1963, on her way home from a train­ing ses­sion she ordered break­fast at a whites-only lunch counter (seg­re­ga­tion had been out­lawed by then).  She and the oth­ers were tak­en to jail. Hamer was bru­tal­ly beat­en and wait­ed three days for a doc­tor. She nev­er whol­ly recov­ered from the beat­ing, suf­fered kid­ney dam­age, weak­ened eye­sight, and a per­ma­nent limp. But she did not quit. In 1964 she went to Atlantic City to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion and argued that the Mis­sis­sip­pi Demo­c­ra­t­ic Free­dom Party’s del­e­ga­tion should be seat­ed at the con­ven­tion because the reg­u­lar Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s Mis­sis­sip­pi del­e­ga­tion did not rep­re­sent Black peo­ple. Fan­nie Lou Hamer con­tin­ued to work in the trench­es — reg­is­tered vot­ers, marched with Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. in Alaba­ma and Mis­sis­sip­pi. In her life­time she also start­ed Free­dom Farm, a pig bank, and a Head Start pro­gram, and helped oth­ers get gov­ern­ment hous­ing loans, sued to inte­grate the pub­lic schools in Sun­flower Coun­ty — and won.  Weath­er­ford stud­ied Hamer’s life so assid­u­ous­ly that she could write in Hamer’s voice. She has Fan­nie Lou Hamer tell us her own sto­ry and inter­spers­es the book’s text with quotes from Hamer’s speech­es. The blend­ing is seam­less. This book won a Calde­cott Honor.

Moses When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to FreedomMoses: When Har­ri­et Tub­man Led Her Peo­ple to Free­dom (2006; illus­trat­ed by Kadir Nel­son) is a hymn of praise to this coura­geous icon of his­to­ry. Weath­er­ford begins with Har­ri­et talk­ing to God and hear­ing God’s answer in the song of a whip-poor-will. She has decid­ed she can no longer bear slav­ery and will run away. “God whis­pers back in the breeze. ‘I will see you through child.’”  The book gives us detail s of the har­row­ing jour­ney north: Har­ri­et spends a week in a hole in the ground, takes off her shoes and walks in a stream to elude blood­hounds, almost gives up sev­er­al times, but hears the voice of her God, and con­tin­ues. She is tak­en the last step of the jour­ney by a cou­ple with a wag­on. In Philadel­phia she learns the routes of the Under­ground Rail­road and goes back south to res­cue her fam­i­ly and many oth­er slaves. Kadir Nelson’s pow­er­ful illus­tra­tions add to the imme­di­a­cy of the book and we feel the fear, the cold, damp pota­to hole where Har­ri­et hides out. Har­ri­et Tubman’s whole life can­not be cov­ered in one pic­ture book, but this one book gives the read­er a full sense of her courage, her abil­i­ty to endure hard­ship, her spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and her rela­tion­ship with God.

Box: Henry Brown Mails Himself to FreedomIn 2020, Weatherford’s Box Hen­ry Brown Mails Him­self to Free­dom was pub­lished. Illus­trat­ed by Michele Wood, it tells the sto­ry of Hen­ry Brown who, after his wife and chil­dren were sold to an own­er way south, decid­ed to mail him­self to free­dom. He climbed into a wood­en box. A friend nailed the box shut and post­ed it to Philadelphia.

Weath­er­ford tells the sto­ry in six-line poems (because box­es have six sides) which fea­ture Hen­ry Brown telling his own sto­ry.  The sto­ry begins with his life as a child of slaves, thus a slave him­self.  “Treks to mar­ket take my broth­er and me past plan­ta­tions, /Where we encounter oth­er blacks — some shoe­less, coat­less, /Nearly skin and bone in burlap shirts and thread­bare pants. /We share our bread and meat with them. In the slave quar­ter, / They recount the sav­age beat­ing that many of them got/For hav­ing been bap­tized just the night before.”

In Rich­mond, Hen­ry Brown tells us of “…slave pens, whip­ping posts, auc­tion hous­es. / Store­fronts, tobac­co fac­to­ries, and grist­mills — all busy.” We also learn of Nat Turner’s Rebel­lion and the bar­bar­ic pun­ish­ment he received for dar­ing to rise up.

Hen­ry meets Nan­cy. Her mas­ter promis­es “nev­er ever” to sell her. And they jump the broom. But Nancy’s mas­ter goes back on his word. “She and my chil­dren change hands like sea­sons, /Each mas­ter worse than the last. /The last one, Mr. Cot­trell, agrees/To keep my fam­i­ly if I feed them, house them, and pay him./Small price, I figure. /”

illus­tra­tion copy­right © Michele Wood, from Box: Hen­ry Brown Mails Him­self to Free­dom,
writ­ten by Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford, pub­lished by Can­dlewick Press, 2020

But even­tu­al­ly Mr. Cot­trell fails to help. “…Nancy’s mas­ter snatches/My fam­i­ly and pens them up for sale. /Robbed of all that mat­ters, I beg my master’s help. /But he gives me not one cent/Of my hard-earned wages that he’s pocketed./He says, I dare not med­dle.” Brown sees his fam­i­ly in chains and walks four miles with them, hold­ing the hand of his wife.

Brown is bereft, has noth­ing left to lose. He pays a car­pen­ter to build a wood­en box: “Two feet deep, three feet wide, and two and a half feet long./ I drill three holes in the box. For air.” He burns his hand with acid to give him­self an excuse for tak­ing days off from work. When the box is nailed shut it’s tak­en to a train depot and loaded into a bag­gage car. After many hours, and many hours upside down, the box arrives in Philadel­phia. But no one comes to pick it up. Final­ly the box is loaded on to a wagon.

Some­one raps on the lid. Is all right with­in? / All right, I reply. They pry open the lid, / And I step out a free man. I burst into song.”

Brown has no resources to find and buy his lost fam­i­ly. He tours around New Eng­land but is wor­ried about the Fugi­tive Slave law and goes to England.

Even­tu­al­ly Brown remar­ries and has a daugh­ter. He returns to the Unit­ed States and trav­els giv­ing per­for­mances. “After all, my escape was my finest illusion.”

The work of Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford presents read­ers with a detailed and painful tapes­try of the his­to­ry of Black peo­ple in the Unit­ed States from hor­rors of slav­ery to the soul-destroy­ing prac­tices caused by racial bias endured by artists like Lena Horne. (She doesn’t only write about African Amer­i­cans. She’s also done a biog­ra­phy of Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe.) But there is love, too, in her books, and strength and resilience. These are books to be pored over, to be cel­e­brat­ed for their beau­ti­ful lan­guage, to be shared, hon­ored, and remembered.

Some oth­er books by Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford (in chrono­log­i­cal order by pub­li­ca­tion date):

The Sound that Jazz Makes, with Eric Velasquez (illus­tra­tor), Walk­er Books, 2001

Sidewalk Chalk Poems of the CitySide­walk Chalk: Poems of the City, with Dim­itrea Tokun­bo (illus­tra­tor), Word­song, 2001

Remem­ber the Bridge: Poems of a Peo­ple, Philomel Books, 2002

Jazz Baby, with Lau­ra Free­man (illus­tra­tor), Lee & Low Books, 2002

Free­dom on the Menu: The Greens­boro Sit-Ins, with Jerome Lagar­rigue (illus­tra­tor), Dial Books for Young Read­ers, 2005

Dear Mr. Rosen­wald, with R. Gre­go­ry Christie (illus­tra­tor), Scholas­tic Press, 2006

Jesse Owens: Fastest Man Alive, with Eric Velasquez (illus­tra­tor), Walk­er Books, 2006

Before John Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane, with Sean Qualls (illus­tra­tor), Hen­ry Holt, 2007

Birm­ing­ham, 1963, Word­song, 2007

I, Matthew Hen­son, with Eric Velasquez (illus­tra­tor), Walk­er Books, 2007

Becoming Billie HolidayBecom­ing Bil­lie Hol­i­day, with Floyd Coop­er (illus­tra­tor), Word­song, 2008

Rac­ing Against the Odds: Wen­dell Scott, African Amer­i­can Stock Car Cham­pi­on, Mar­shall Cavendish Chil­dren’s Books, 2009

Gor­don Parks: How the Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Cap­tured Black and White Amer­i­ca, with Jamey Christoph, Whit­man, Albert & Com­pa­ny, 2015

Free­dom in Con­go Square, with R. Gre­go­ry Christie, lit­tle bee books, 2016

In Your Hands, with Bri­an Pinkney, Atheneum Books for Young Read­ers, 2017

You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Air­men, with Jef­frey Boston Weath­er­ford, Atheneum Books for Young Read­ers, 2017

How Sweet the SoundHow Sweet the Sound: The Sto­ry of Amaz­ing Grace, with Frank Mor­ri­son, Atheneum Books for Young Read­ers, 2018

Be a King: Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr.’s Dream and You, with James E. Ran­some, Blooms­bury USA (Chil­dren) 2018

The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pil­lars of Hip-Hop, with Frank Mor­ri­son, lit­tle bee books, 2018

Schomberg: The Man Who Built a Library, with Eric Velasquez, Can­dlewick Press, 2019

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David LaRochelle
David LaRochelle
3 years ago

What a pow­er­ful col­lec­tion of books!

3 years ago

Thank you for this pro­file. I am a fan of Car­ole Boston Weath­er­ford, but I did not know she had this many books! So much to explore!