Dillon, Leo & Dillon, Diane (illus.)
New York: Schwartz & Wade Books, 2011. $18.99,
ISBN 9780375843846 / 0375843841.
Note: A lyrical story-in-verse that details the experiences of an African boy who was kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Never Forgotten tells the story of Dinga, a blacksmith in 18th-century West Africa who first lo0ses his wife in childbirth and then the son he has raised himself to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To tell this story, Patricia McKissack, an award-winning author of many children's books, weaves together elements from Caribbean folklore and African spiritual practices. Along the way, readers come to know Dinga's son, Musafa, as a boy who grows tall and strong under the protection and nurturance of his father and the Mother Elements Earth, Fire, Water, and Wind. In their care, Musafa develops a kind and courageous spirit, and a sense of adventure that sees him running freely through the tall grasses. After Musafa mysteriously disappears one day, the Mother Elements search for Musafa at Dinga's behest, and come to know that he was captured by slave raiders, but has survived the Middle Passage and been sold into slavery in South Carolina. Several years later, Wind gathers enough strength to transform into a hurricane large enough to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and we see Musafa working as an enslaved apprentice blacksmith in Charleston. Dinga is overjoyed to know that his son is still alive, and celebrates " the son who was taken, / But never forgotten. "
Throughout the story, McKissack explores the emotional impact of the slave trade on those left behind on the African continent the ways in which Africans yearned for and mourned loved ones lost to violence. It is precisely this sort of question that is so difficult to answer in non-fiction histories, and it makes this story especially welcome. McKissack writes in prose poetry, and at times the ebb and flow of her lines make us feel more intensely the emotional impact of the story's elements. The beautifully rendered illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon help intensify these feelings, as we see, for example, the simultaneous anguish and joy on the faces of those in Dinga's community when they learn Musafa is still alive. While the book's length, layout, and rich illustrations suggest a younger audience, its language and themes make the book appropriate for slightly older readers as wellthose who might otherwise have graduated to chapter books.
Teachers interested in African history might want to use the story as a jumping off point to discuss the historical context surrounding its plot. The book grounds its readers historically at the outset: in 1725 in "Old Mali in the Sahel, West Africa. " The story closes with an epilogue in present-day Mali, West Africa. It is thus confusing that Dinga is introduced as a Mende blacksmith, a group that speaks a Mande language related to those spoken in the heartland of the former Mali Empire, but is located in present-day Sierra Leone, further south than the furthest reaches of the Mali Empire at its height in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The trans-Atlantic slave trade lies at the heart of this story. Current estimates put the number of slaves departed into Africa's external trades at 18 million between 1400 and 1900, which includes the trades across the Atlantic Ocean, Sahara desert, and Indian Ocean. "Beware," the story begins. " Of pale men riding in large seabirds/ With great white wings...Who steal upriver/ Through the Great Forest mists/ And into the Savannah Lands in search of slaves. " By 1712, the Bamana-controlled state at Segu had consolidated power in part of the territory that was the Mali Empire, and the Mali Empire had declined to the point that it is no longer recognized by that name. Segu was a warrior state, and slave raiding and slave trading were central to the regional economy. Though some of these slaves ended up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the early 18th Century, it is likely that none of that activity would have been directly controlled by Europeans that far into the interior of the African continent.
It is also important to note, and often overlooked, that roughly the same number of people were enslaved within Africa itself as fell prey to the external slave trades. The society that is the subject of McKissack's story was likely one in which the presence of people of lower status with some level of un-freedom though who were not necessarily chattel slaves as in the Americas was very much a part of everyday life. Though the presence of un-free people in these societies does not mitigate the emotional impact that loosing a loved one to the violence of slavery could have brought, it does present the opportunity to think more explicitly about how the tenor of those emotional reactions might vary across time and space.
Published in Africa Access Review (January 29, 2012)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
|Rating: R / A
|Grade: P / E
Reviewed by: Kristin Lehner, George Mason University
Subject: West Africa / Picture Books / Slavery / Genealogy / Mali / Slavery