Bryan, A. (2016). Freedom Over Me. New York, NY: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books.
Based on actual appraisal records from slaves in the 1820s, Bryan crafts a work of poetry based on each slave. Work assignments as well as inner dreams and memories are explored to bring a sense of humanity to these individuals listed only as property and given a price tag. Culture, history, and expression are explored in each slave’s story.
Each poem appears simplistic on the surface. It takes the reader through what daily life looked like for slaves, their daily chores, and their deepest dreams of freedom. Looking deeper, however, one clearly sees how intimate each work is. As we learn in Qush’s dreams, we are seeing their means of survival. Their acts of creation are not just a physical act of work they take pride in, they are “moments of joy. An outlet seized for survival, something of our own.” This theme really gets to the root of creation not simply as an act of expression but as a continuance of culture, memory, and survival. By creating something, be it a song, a building, a basket, or a drawing, they are finding a means to ensure their culture survives, finding a safe space within so that they might continue to hope for their own survival and freedom, and ensuring part of them lives on, no matter what happens.
Using free verse, Bryan creates a sense of freedom and focus on simplicity and word choice. Her use of repetition also focuses, not only on word choice but on the repetitive nature of life as a slave. This is most obvious in Mulvina’s dreams: “I’ve walked a long trail, a long trail of years flushed with tears. Tears of remembrance.” We see the repetition, and the beating down of the spirit she has endured expressed beautifully in this poem.
From School Library Journal: “Using real documents from an estate appraisal dated July 5, 1828, Bryan has created beautiful portrait paintings for 11 people who were named and priced as property on the Fairchildses’ estate (the documents are reproduced fully in the endpapers and in segments throughout the work). Relying on narrative poetry to explore each figure’s inner and outer life, Bryan gives voice to their history, their longing for freedom, and their skills as artisans, cooks, musicians, carpenters, etc. Each person has two visual portraits, with each accompanied by a poem (on the opposite page). Collaged historical documents of slave auctions fill the negative space of the first portrait frame. The second portrait depicts that person in a private dream, often a dream for safety, family, community, or the freedom to create.”
Use as an introduction to a lesson on slavery. Include other children’s books such as Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill, Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson, Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine, and The Glory Field by Walter Dean Myers.
Use as an introduction to using free verse to tell one’s own story, and have students write a poem for their own dreams.
Use as an introduction to humanizing history. Have students write similar poetry based on historical figures.