A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl
Belmont Plantation, Virginia, 1859
(Dear America Series)
by Patricia McKissack
cover image retrieved 9/27/12 fromhttp://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1638371.A_Picture_of_Freedom
McKissack, Pat. A Picture of Freedom: The Diary of Clotee, a Slave Girl. New York: Scholastic Inc, 2011.
Clotee is a twelve-year-old slave, growing up at the only home she’s ever known, Belmont Plantation, shortly before the start of the Civil War. Clotee battles within herself to understand the word freedom. Clotee has secretly learned to read and write, and cannot quite come to terms with the meaning of this seemingly simple word, since it is a concept she has never experienced to give her a frame of reference. Clotee shares excerpts of her life in her journal. When a young tutor comes to Belmont to take over the education of the plantation family’s son William, Clotee forms an alliance with the tutor. She discovers his secret, and uses it to her advantage to devise a scheme that will allow many of the slaves to achieve freedom. A Picture of Freedom details the perilous life of a slave girl who yearns to put her learning to work for her and the other slaves, even if that means placing herself in danger.
Tragic and heartwarming at the same time, A Picture of Freedom grabs the reader’s attention and holds on tight from the first page to the last. An authentic look at the daily life of a slave in Virginia depicts the daily struggles of slaves who were born into slavery in the United States and have no prospects of being released from servitude. Mrs. McKissack constructs this diary with language that would be just how an uneducated slave would write/speak. There is plenty of slang, misspellings, and culturally reflective insight. Even with this influx of slang, the story is easy to follow and identify with. Characters have names that are historically accurate, a combination of English and African words. Clotee, Aunt Tee, Uncle Heb, Hince, Spicy, Rissa, Wook, Rufus…. are all names that are consistent with Clotee’s observation that even though she has never met a “natural born Afric,” her people hold on to what their ancestors remember and pass down. The slaves address their owners as Mas’r Henley and Miz Lilly, showing their place in the societal hierarchy.
The slaves’ lives are told in rich detail. They enjoy feasting on “the last part of the chicken to go over the fence,” biscuits made from a little bit of flour that was hidden back from the Missus, and some fine honey from a hive they discovered down in the orchard. Medical treatment is what Aunt Tee learned from an old Afric woman who used to live on the plantation. The slaves celebrate Sunday meeting time, singing songs about heaven, which they all use as a reference to freedom, since they know the only way they will ever be free is to finally make it to heaven. Slow spirituals reflect their grief at the passing of their own. Rhythmic melodies are performed by “patting the juba” during celebrations, such as a couple jumping the broom, since weddings between slaves were forbidden.
As the only slave character that “has a little bit of learning,” Clotee struggles to keep it a secret, since learning by a slave is justification for a beating by the Master, or even death. Clotee continues her learning during the lesson time of the plantations family’s son, for whom Clotee fans to keep him comfortable. Other slaves, and even the plantation family notice that Clotee speaks more proper English than most slaves, so she desperately attempts to learn, but maintain her old way of appearing uneducated, so as not to give away her secret. An even greater struggle she faces is to reconcile the injustice of slavery with her limited education. As she says, “what good is learning if you can’t use it to help others?” Clotee winds up teaming up with the tutor, whom she discovers is a link on the Underground Railroad. She is finally able to use her learning to guide others out of bondage and into freedom in the North.
A Picture of Freedom is an outstanding book, culturally, historically, and intellectually. The realism of the text transports the reader into this time and way of life. It is an excellent book that I highly recommend to readers of all ages.
Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, April 15, 1997 (Vol. 93, No. 16))
Clotee in Picture of Freedom writes her diary secretly, since "slaves aine s'posed to know how to read and write." Clotee has an extended "family" of people she loves, other slaves who shield each other as best they can from the capricious harshness of plantation life. When a tyrannical overseer and an abolitionist disguised as a tutor come to Belmont Plantation, the stage is set for drama. Children will find Clotee a sympathetic narrator whose insights will take them beyond the stereotypical views of plantation life.
School Library Journal
Clotee helps some of her friends escape to the North, but she herself chooses to stay behind on the plantation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. Clotee is such a vibrant, fully rounded character that it is almost painful to think of her left on the plantation while her friends and fellow slaves go to freedom. McKissack brings Clotee alive through touching and sobering details of slave life, told in such a matter-of-fact way that their often-brutal nature is made abundantly clear. However, this is in no way a depressing book. In fact, it is an inspiring look at a young girl coming of age in terrible circumstances who manages to live life to the fullest.
· Students will write an original diary entry of an event Clotee might have experienced. The diary entry should involve at least one other character from the book, but also introduce a new character that could have been a part of Clotee’s world.
· Students will write an account of an event that Clotee describes in her journal, from the point of view of another character in the story. For example, a student can write from Missy’s point of view about becoming Miz Lilly’s personal attendant, or from Hince’s point of view about travelling with Mas’r Henley and racing his racehorses.
· Students will read a picture book set in the Civil War, such as Pink and Say by Patricia Polacco, or Henry’s Freedom Box by Ellen Levine. Students will create a Venn Diagram or Double Bubble Thinking Map showing the similarities and differences of African Americans depicted in these books, in comparison to the characters in A Picture of Freedom. Compare/contrast organizers can also be completed online, if access permits, at www.bubbl.us
· Students will read Bull Run by Paul Fleischman. This book tells the stories of 16 people associated with the Civil War. Categorize the characters as Northern sympathizers, Southerners, or uncommitted. In which category would the main characters in A Picture of Freedom be?
· Read Civil War poetry from books such as Remember the Bridge by Carole Boston Weatherford; The Brothers’ War: Civil War Voices in Verse by J. Patrick Lewis; or Words for the Hour: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry, edited by Faith Barrett and Cristanne Miller. Identify examples of imagery and lyrical language that create strong visualizations for the reader. Which poems include the experiences or express the voice of African Americans during this time period? How can you tell?
· Students will learn more about the legends and facts of the Underground Railroad by reading Follow the Drinking Gourd by Jeanette Winter; or Moses: When Harriet Tubman Lead Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford. Examine more facts about the Underground railroad at http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/multimedia/interactive/the-underground-railroad/?ar_a=1 . Create an original song or quilt map to guide escaping slaves to freedom.
· Students will learn more about the ways slaves resisted by viewing and discussing http://www.history.com/videos/origins-of-slavery#origins-of-slavery , http://www.history.com/topics/slavery-iv-slave-rebellions/videos#abolition-and-the-underground-railroad and http://www.history.com/topics/slavery-iv-slave-rebellions . Students will create a political cartoon showing what a slave would like to say to his owner.
· Students will identify which states supported the Union, which supported the Confederacy, and which were considered Border States by creating a color-coded map. The map should have a legend, title, and show the location of the capitol city of the Union and the Confederacy. For a bonus, students will also label where Belmont Plantation would have been, using information provided in the text of the novel.
· Students will learn more about the multiple causes of the Civil War by exploring http://americanhistory.about.com/od/civilwarmenu/a/cause_civil_war.htm . Students will write a one-paragraph summary of causes of the Civil War.
· Students will learn more about the effects of the Emancipation Proclamation on former slaves by viewing http://www.history.com/videos/after-the-emancipation Students will write a paragraph about how Emancipation would have affected Clotee.
Best Book Lists
Best Children's Books of the Year, 1998 ; Bank Street College of Education; United States
Children's Catalog, Eighteenth Edition, 2001 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Children's Catalog, Nineteenth Edition, 2006 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Los Angeles' 100 Best Books, 1997 ; IRA Children's Literature and Reading SIG and the Los Angeles Unified School District; United States
Middle And Junior High School Library Catalog, Eighth Edition, 2000 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Middle and Junior High School Library Catalog, Ninth Edition, 2005 ; H.W. Wilson; United States
Notable Children's Trade Books in the Field of the Social Studies, 1997 ; National Council for the Social Studies NCSS; United States
Society of School Librarians International Book Awards, 1997 Honor Language Arts - K-6 Novels United States
Other Books by Patricia McKissack