________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 1 . . . . September 4, 2009

cover

My Name is Henry Bibb: A Story of Slavery and Freedom.

Afua Cooper.
Toronto, ON: Kid Can Press, 2009.
160 pp., hardcover, $16.95.
ISBN 978-1-55337-813-6.

Subject Headings:
Bibb, Henry, b1815-Juvenile fiction.
Abolitionists-United States-Biography-Juvenile fiction.
Slaves-United States-Biography-Juvenile fiction.
African Americans-Biography-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Philip Bravo.

**** /4

excerpt:

What would happen when Harriet came of age? When she turned twenty-one she would be able to do what she wished with my mother and her children. It burned my heart that we were mere things to be tossed about at the whim of our owner. Harriet's power of life and death over us fed my desire to escape.

Something else came to my attention that Christmas week. When Shadrach picked me up, the judge gave him my earnings to give to my master. The thought of working for wages and not being entitled to them made me angry. The money I earned should have been given to my mother…

In the cart beside Shadrach, I was sullen and quiet. "What happened, Henry? You always have a lot to say," he said, trying to cheer me up.

"You give my wages to Massa."

"Yep"…

"You know what Massa does with your wages, Henry?"

"Buy things?" I said vaguely."

Your wages go to take care of Miss Harriet."

"What do you mean?"

"Miss Harriet is your owner, right?"

"Yes."

"Well, since the day you started working, ol'Massa use your earnings to buy her boots, shoes, socks, ribbons, bows, dresses, and the like. Whatever money you make belongs to her. Her father dotes on her and buys pretty things from the earnings of her slaves."

I was struck dumb by Shadrach's word.

 

Slavery's corrosive impact on even the most quotidian aspects of life and a child's growing awareness of his situation is the subject of Afua Cooper's first novel for children. My Name is Henry Bibb: A Story of Slavery and Freedom is a coming of age story about a boy in Kentucky during the early 19th century. This first person narrative chronicles Henry's gradual realization that he must "fly away" to freedom. Although this book is a work of historical fiction, it is based on Afua Cooper's research and Henry Bibb's autobiography which was also the topic of her PhD dissertation. *

     In 1814, Henry Bibb was a born a slave in Kentucky. Mildred Jackson was his mother, and Henry's father, James Bibb, was Mildred's and Henry's owner and, therefore, master. Although, as Henry Bibb put it, he inherited his father's "complexion and name," James Bibb never treated Henry as his son, nor a person, but rather as an object to be sold or leased. As Henry matures, his life is punctuated by vicious beatings, heart wrenching separations from his family, and the endless indignities of his everyday life. Yet, Henry's relationships with his family and friends sustain his resolve to survive. Eventually, these relationships help to develop his gradual understanding that, despite the risks to himself and his family, "flying away" to freedom is desirable. The story ends with Henry's description of his first attempt to flee Kentucky.

     An epilogue, written in third person, describes the rest of Henry's adult life. Though Henry is betrayed and moved from Kentucky to Texas, he finally achieves freedom in 1841. Unfortunately, this achievement was at the cost of losing Malinda and Mary Frances. Afterward, Henry devotes his life in Canada and United-States to supporting the movement to end slavery. Tirelessly, Henry promotes the abolitionist or anti-slavery movement with speaking tours, his autobiography, establishing debating, literary and antislavery groups, schools, and a newspaper in Ontario.

     The novel is a fascinating introduction to the topic of slavery in North America. Afua Cooper's vivid description of Henry's everyday life, its moments of joy, as well as the suffering and the brutal contradictions engendered by slavery, should provoke discussion and reflection. The book's fast paced narrative, clear language and fascinating topic should also appeal to even the most recalcitrant reader. Hopefully, this is first of many more books about Henry Bibb and the African experience in North America by Afua Cooper.

     *Afua Cooper's PhD thesis is worth reading as well. The thesis is available for download at: https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/handle/1807/14503?mode=full

Highly Recommended.

Philip Bravo is a librarian at the Winnipeg Public Library in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.

Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.
 

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