November 17, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

Freedom in Congo Square | An Interview with Carole Boston Weatherford

Listen to Carole Boston Weatherford reveal the story behind Freedom in Congo Square, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Carole Boston Weatherford is known for her many award-winning books—both nonfiction and poetry— that combine careful historical research with breathtaking lyricism. Her latest book, Freedom in Congo Square (little bee, 2016; Gr 2-5), imagines the anticipation and exhilaration of a few hours of liberty as experienced by enslaved Africans in early 19th-century New Orleans. In an interview with School Library Journal, Weatherford spoke about her new book, her inspirations, and her love of history, noting, “writing is not just what I do; it’s who I am.”

congo squareSo much is conveyed in so few lines in Freedom in Congo Square: the grueling, unyielding work the enslaved community endured, the attempt of some to escape it, and the liberating thought of an afternoon to oneself. Did the book present itself as a single poem initially?

When my editor Sonali Fry first pitched the project to me by phone, I immediately offered the idea of a poem combining two time-honored picture book tropes—counting and day-of-the-week books.

In your research, were you able to find many first-person accounts about the gatherings that took place in Congo Square? Or early visuals?

Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans (University of Louisiana, 2011), a seminal reference by Freddi Williams Evans, was my main source of information. Evans’s research uncovered several 19th-century primary sources, including drawings and eyewitness accounts that detailed the dancing, drumming, and attire at Congo Square gatherings. I am so grateful to Freddi—also a children’s book author—for writing the foreword to my book.

The rhythm of your poem works brilliantly—reflecting both the measure of the relentless work and the anticipation that builds as Sunday and a few brief hours off arrive. How do you, as a poet, approach rhythm? Is it something that you consciously think about, or does the story find its own rhythm?

First and foremost, I did not want to romanticize slavery or juvenilize the enslaved. I strove to show that although Congo Square gatherings were cause for anticipation and emotional release, that half-day off did not compensate for the evils of slavery. The rhyming countdown to Sunday lends structure and suspense to the relentless toil, and the rhyme tempers the injustices depicted. Thus, Freedom in Congo Square reads like a sophisticated nursery rhyme with a soundtrack of African percussion.

Congo Square was more than a place to sing, dance, and play instruments. Can you talk about some of the other activities that took place there? Are there estimates on how large the weekly gatherings were?

Eyewitnesses reported crowds of 500-600 people divided into as many as 20 different dancing and drumming circles. In addition to keeping African rhythms alive, enslaved and free blacks exchanged news, practiced their religious beliefs, and sold wares that they gathered, grew, hunted, or made.

I’ve read that people came to Congo Square from far and wide to listen to the music and singing and watch the dancing. Were these Americans or international visitors?

New Orleans was a major port and somewhat of an international city at the time. So I am sure some onlookers were international visitors. Tourists threw coins at the dancers. Thus, the dancing and drumming circles became a source of income for the performers. Some travelers wrote about their observations in journals. However, many of these depictions were racist and described the activities as savage or heathen.

Music historians credit the influence of music played at Congo Square to the rise of different musical styles, particularly jazz. Was this a melding of styles from different tribal groups? Or additional groups?

With its multicultural heritage, New Orleans saw the melding not only of African tribal rhythms but also of African, European and Creole musical traditions. In Ken Burns’s documentary film Jazz, Wynton Marsalis referred to the culture as a gumbo. Like the local cuisine, jazz was seasoned by many cultures.

What is Congo Square like today?

Congo Square is now part of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans’s Tremé neighborhood. Congo Square is distinguished by a historical marker, a musical roots sculpture garden, and circular paving stones with water spouts for child’s play. Congo Square was the site of the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. In 2006, Marsalis premiered his composition entitled Congo Square there.

This is not your first collaboration with R. Gregory Christie, and the art here is absolutely stunning. Did you have any input in the selection of an artist? 

Although Freedom in Congo Square is our third collaboration, I had nothing to do with choosing Greg for this project. That said, I am beyond pleased with his art for the book. It reminds me a bit of 20th-century artist Jacob Lawrence, whose narrative series of paintings chronicled the African saga in the Americas.

 

TB-imageListen to Carole Boston Weatherford reveal the story behind Freedom in Congo Square, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

 

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Daryl Grabarek About Daryl Grabarek

Daryl Grabarek dgrabarek@mediasourceinc.com is the editor of School Library Journal's monthly enewsletter, Curriculum Connections, and its online column Touch and Go. Before coming to SLJ, she held librarian positions in private, school, public, and college libraries. Her dream is to manage a collection on a remote island in the South Pacific.

Share
A Day-Long Celebration of Fandom-Beloved Stories and Characters
Join Library Journal and School Library Journal for our inaugural LibraryCon Live! We’re excited to offer this day-long virtual festival for book nerds, librarians, and fans of graphic novels, sci-fi, and fantasy. Network online with other fans and explore our virtual exhibit hall where you’ll hear directly from publishers about their newest books and engage in live chats with featured authors. You’ll also learn from librarians and industry insiders on how to plan and host your own Comic Con-style event.