It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?: Poetry about American slavery.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading is hosted by Jen and Kellee at Teach Mentor Texts

Nonfiction Monday is hosted by Books 4 Learning

We have just begun our unit on slavery – probably the hardest unit to teach all year.  I am always on the lookout for picture books about the slave life experience to share with my kids, books that will move them and cause them to think through written words as well as illustrations.  In I Lay My Stitches Down:Poems of American Slavery, the poet and librarian Cynthia Grady uses the slave life experience to create haunting poems which bear witness to many aspects of a slave’s life.  Each poem is followed by research and information about specific points – the underground railroad, the history of Negro spirituals, and the influence of various African customs, for instance. 
Each poem stands on its own, but taken together they  create a powerful experience.  Told from many different perspectives, this is the story of slavery in America – the house slave terrified because she had broken dishes, the young witness to a whipping, a mother grieving for the daughter sold away to another plantation.  Grady’s eloquence gives an authentic voice to each participant. Here is
“Tree of Life”:

Left tied to this tree, a patchwork of cuts
on fire across my back, I r’member
Preacher John, who come on moonless nights.  He
a dark man.  A free man. After preachin’,
he say, “I’ma sit with you. Lean against
you, like the lashing tree that takes in your
cries, drinks your tears. I’ma hear your song that
stirs the soul like sap rising at winter’s
end. Righteous melody that takes root where
you weep.  Then sings you through blossoms of joy.”

As a quilter, Grady brings a very specific vision to both the form as well as the content of her poetry.  “The poems are written in unrhymed verse, ten lines of ten syllables,” she writes in her introduction, “to mimic the square shape of a quilt block.  To reflect the three layers of a quilt, I’ve engaged three references in each poem: a biblical or spiritual reference, a musical reference, and a sewing or fiber arts reference in addition to the imagery the poem calls for.  In this way I have tried to mirror not only the structure of a quilt but also the artistry and the symbolism that quilts express for their makers.”

Michelle Wood’s gorgeous illustrations use richly textured quilting motifs and vibrant colors to add depth and meaning to the poems.  Their beauty and vibrancy is a reminder of how, amidst deprivation, humiliation and hopelessness, slaves struggled to create music, family life and something to bring joy – however transient that may be. 

I Lay My Stitches Down is an important addition to my classroom library.


4 thoughts on “It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?: Poetry about American slavery.

  1. I looked it up & put it on my wish list, Tara. What a beautiful poem you shared & the book & its illustrations look wonderful too. I assume you have many pieces of literature on your list, but I will share a link to a short story that you may find good for your students. It is such an example of how brief & tight a story can be and still so powerful. It is by Alice Walker & can be found here: Hope you enjoy it.

  2. It's either the Holocaust or slavery that I avoid reading, if I can even help it. They are heavy reads, even for children's books. However, books are books, and I will always be drawn to them no matter what. Your wonderful review just made me want to find a copy in our library and read it. This also sounds like a book that would go hand in hand with Margarita Engle's lyrical book The Poet Slave of Cuba. I highly recommend it if you haven't read it yet. Thank you for sharing this book, Tara! 🙂

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