Freedom in Congo Square: An Illustrated Ode to Finding Dignity Amid Oppression and the Soul-Preserving Function of Joy
By Maria Popova
“Everything can be taken from a man,” Viktor Frankl wrote, “but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” This hard-earned wisdom on the human search for meaning, gleaned from Frankl’s physical and spiritual survival in a Nazi concentration camp, reverberates throughout history — even amid the most oppressive of circumstances, people have found ways to claim their humanity in glimmers of this most indelible liberty.
During the 18th century, when Louisiana was first a French colony and then a Spanish one, local rite in New Orleans granted African slaves Sundays off. They would congregate in parks and squares and backyards to sing and dance, taking respite from the trying labor that filled every single hour between sunrise and sunset six days of the week. In 1817, a new law designated Congo Square — an open space now part of New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong Park — as the only place allowed for these festivities. Every Sunday, hundreds of slaves and free blacks gathered there, fusing their varied traditions of music and dance. Local whites and tourists joined in. A variety of traditional instruments from all over Africa — drums, marimbas, tambourines, banzas, and many more — played alongside violins and guitars. This unusual fusion became essential DNA for the birth of jazz.
In Freedom in Congo Square (public library), poet Carole Boston Weatherford and artist R. Gregory Christie tell the story of this oasis of hope in the dark, narrated with rhythmic musicality and illustrated with beguiling vibrancy evocative of African folk art.
Thursdays, there were clothes to clean,
floors to scrub, and babes to wean.
Spirituals rose from the despair,
Three more days to Congo Square.
Unlike so many of our revisionist retellings of history, which sugar-coat the irremediable bitterness of injustice in the service of illusory redemption, this marvelous book takes care not to romanticize oppression. Page after page, Monday through Saturday, the tyrannical toil of slavery unfolds. But that’s precisely what renders Sunday’s contrasting oasis of freedom not an artificially sweetened fiction but a reality demonstrating the essential, soul-preserving function of jubilation even in the grimmest of circumstances.
Some of the grimmest realities of slavery are conveyed only obliquely, as little doors set ajar only for the most inquisitive of readers and the most conscientiously courageous of parents, to be entered only when the time is ripe for comprehending the inexcusable — why, for instance, is the little boy embracing his dark-skinned mother so significantly lighter-skinned?
Complement Freedom in Congo Square with Langston Hughes’s little-known children’s primer on jazz, then revisit James Baldwin and Margaret Mead’s extraordinary conversation about the abiding aftermath of slavery.
Published March 30, 2016