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.
One 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 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.
In 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. /”
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 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 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 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