Title: Freedom Over Me
Author: Ashley Bryan
Illustrator: Ashley Bryan
Audience: Gr. 4-6
Summary: In an author’s note at the end of this book, author/illustrator Ashley Bryan describes a document he owns which lists the appraised value of the possessions of a plantation family in 1828. Alongside the hogs, cotton, and cows are the names of eleven human beings. Bryan has painted portraits of each of these eleven slaves as he imagines them and in free verse imagines a story for each one of them about their hard work on the Fairchild plantation and about their dreams of their homelands and of freedom.
Literary elements at work in the story: Freedom Over Me is a collection of fictional autobiographies of real men, women, and children who lived in the American South during the time of slavery. The first two-page spread of each entry pairs a first-person narrative with a striking portrait of the slave, layering the painting on top of a collage of newspaper clippings and documents about slavery from the time. The slaves’ stories of their former lives and of their jobs and relationships on the Fairchild plantation are set quite literally against a backdrop of the history of slavery in the United States. The pen, ink, and watercolor portraits are dramatic and stark, and starker still are the simple captions, “$300 Stephen, age 32” or “$100 Mulvina age 60.” On a second two-page spread each slave then tells of the power of memory and hope to keep freedom alive.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? The whole point of this story has to do with the gifts that can be found among the most marginalized in society. Within this seemingly powerless demographic of enslaved people, there is great strength. Men and women alike bring their unique talents to the monetary economy of the plantation and to the love economy of the community.
Theological Conversation Partners: This is a collection of powerful psalms from a people in exile, and it would be an interesting conversation partner for older elementary and middle school children during a study of the Exodus or the Babylonian captivity. Each of these slaves harks back to a time when he or she was free and gains strength from these memories, just as the Israelites called upon the names of their patriarchs to remind themselves of who they were and whose they were. Another overriding theme in Freedom Over Me is the strength to be found in our essential God-given nature, represented in this book as the slaves’ birth names. Peggy, who narrates the first entry, says, “[They] stripped [us] of everything, our language, our customs, they even took away our names.” But in the dream sections of each autobiographical entry, the slaves hark back to their African names and remember that they are still God’s beloved ones: “Mariama, Gift of God,” “Serwaa, Jewel,” “Osere, Artist,” and “Adero, Life Giver,” to name only a few. In religious terms, our baptismal names remind us of our connection to God and to God’s presence with us, no matter how far away life may try to remove us from the Source of our strength. Finally, this book lifts up the importance of story as a way of comforting and empowering us in difficult times. These slaves tell stories of Africa to one another and particularly to the children of the plantation, so that they will remember that they are a part of a much older narrative of freedom. Whether the stories come in the form of songs, in instructions about healing plants, or in the color and pattern of woven baskets, these strong people echo the injunction from Deuteronomy to tell the stories of their people at all times and in all places. (11:1-21)
Faith Talk Questions:
- What does it mean to be a slave?
- The Israelites were once slaves in Egypt. How are the slaves in this book like the Israelites?
- Why do you think that Peggy remembers that her parents named her “Mariama,” which means “Gift of God”? Do you know what your name means?
- Why do you think that these people dream of and sing about freedom? What would they be able to do if they were no longer slaves?
- Why do you think that Athelia says that she teaches little Dora the stories and songs of Africa?
- Why do we teach you the stories from the Bible?
- Why do you think that Mulvina sings “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” to the other slaves?
This review was written by regular contributor Beth Lyon-Suhring, Director of Christian Education at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Suffolk, VA.
Freedom Over Me by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.