The Old African
Pinkney, Jerry (illus.)
The Old African.
New York: Dial/Penguin, 2005. $19.99,
Note: An elderly slave uses the power of his mind to ease the suffering of his fellow slaves and eventually lead them back to Africa. Based on an actual incident from black history. (CABA Honor)
The Old African, Julius Lester's latest addition to the field of middle grade fiction and picture books is a dark but compelling extension of his lifelong work to expose young readers to the complex world of American slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. In this nearly eighty page picture book, most probably intended for the 9-12 year old market, Lester and the artist Jerry Pinkney tell the story an old man enslaved in America whose powers allow him to intercept the pains of those enslaved around him. The narrative takes us back to the experience "the old African" had before he was brought to America - to the time when he was captured and sold by African slave raiders to a European slave ship crossing the Atlantic for America. The book reveals the resilience of the African American community and exposes the tragic crime of the Atlantic slave trade in hideous detail.
It goes without saying that a book by Julius Lester represents the height of historical accuracy, but it is worth noting, as there are so many poorly researched and misguiding narratives of slavery on the market for children today. From his reaction to his first sightings of the ocean to his experience of tight packing on the ship and his eventual treatment on an American plantation, Lester's Old African channels the voices of the 18th and 19th century slave narrators, such as Olaudah Equiano's, to describe an experience that both resonates with the stories of those who lived to tell about it but also adds a unique new perspective through this fictional exploration. Lester's lyrical language is matched with Pinkney's vivid paintings depicting some of the most gruesome aspects of the slave trade, including the attack on African villages and the conditions in which people had to live on the slave ships. The images, like Lester's narrative, reflect Pinkney's own scholarly research into the historical representations of the slave trade. As such, some of the images seem quite familiar, but Pinkney's genius is that he replicates some aspects of earlier paintings of slave ships, but his revisions reveal an emotional depth in the African figures which previously had been ignored and erased from the historical record. Pinkney restores humanity to these people through his images and allows their suffering to speak on the page.
There are a few historical and cultural irregularities which stand out for the reader familiar with the cultures represented here. For instance, the African characters in the book are named without regard to the origin of their names, creating a situation in which the community depicted exhibits an improbable multi-cultural make-up. References such as the one to Mwene Puto also seems incongruous with the geographical situation of the text. Still, despite these inconsistencies, the overall image Lester draws of life in West Africa, the middle passage, and slavery in America still speak to his attention to detail and commitment to historical accuracy. Another concern for readers of this book might be that the subject matter of this book, and in particular the images, seem to be a bit mature for a picture book audience. However, the images contribute such a disturbing realism to the text that it might actually be the most responsible way in which to explore these difficult themes with young readers. The language of the text is mature and subjects such as suicide are practically taken for granted as a reasonable response to the Middle Passage. As a result, for younger audiences, this might be a book to read together with a parent or teacher, as further discussion seems quite necessary. Though the nature of the book's subject matter is often painful, the book's conclusion ends with an inspiring (though possibly a bit saccharine) escape, in a reversal of the Middle Passage which brings Lester's characters back to a welcoming reception in Africa. On account of its historical accuracy, beautiful language, and expressive art, Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney's The Old African is highly recommended.
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||Grade: E / M
Reviewed by: Laura Murphy (email@example.com), Harvard University, African and African American Studies
Subject: Slavery / Diaspora / CABA Honor / Black author