Freedom’s a-Callin Me (2012) by Ntozake Shange (illustrated by Rod Brown) is an imagining of the lives and stories of men and women who participated in the Underground Railroad. Each page contains a different poem, which chronicles one potential portion of a slave’s journey northward. Shange and Brown don’t pull punches in this children’s book — they show slaves being whipped after a failed escape attempt, they discuss the death of a slave on the journey, and the way that trackers shot at slaves who were approaching the Mason-Dixon line.
This is a much more honest version of the occurrences on the Underground Railroad — instead of the sterilized versions I remember from elementary school. Shange depicts the runaway slaves as freedom-seekers. She shows them cold, and worried about talking to the wrong white person. She discusses that a price was also put on the head of abolitionists, and financiers of the Underground Railroad. For the most part, I can’t think of another children’s book (that I read as a child) that talks about any of these things. Perhaps this is the part of the country in which I was raised (the South). Perhaps it was the age of the text books (at least one of which, in the 1990s, still referred to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression”). Perhaps it was just that my teachers wanted to protect us from depictions that might be considered too graphic.
Whatever the reason, I’m glad I read this book now, and I plan to share it with children in my life. The illustrations (oil on canvas) are beautiful. Shange’s poems are honest and use language accessible to children. She uses dialect, and keeps the poems short (less than one page). The book, and the things detailed in the book, provide a rich basis for discussion about the history of our country. It provides a rich basis for talking about the ways people are still oppressed, and what we can do about it. It provides a history of the Underground Railroad that depicts the very real risks and dangers associated with slaves seeking freedom and supporting freedom-seekers.