Author: Ellen Levine
Illustrator: Kadir Nelson
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Audience: 3 – 99
Summary: Henry’s Freedom Box is the poignant, harrowing and true story of Henry Brown, an African American slave, who in the mid-nineteenth century escaped slavery by mailing himself to freedom. Henry traveled 350 miles in a large box, sometimes upside down and always cramped, from Richmond, Virginia to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, garnering national and international attention for the plight of slaves. Henry’s story is not his alone. The impetus for Henry’s escape is the selling off of his beloved wife and children. His story is illustrative of the horrors families in slavery faced and the ways in which these families longed to love and grow together in peace and freedom and yet most often, if not always, encountered violence, degradation, humiliation, and separation. The story gives voice to our human condition: the desire to know that we belong, that our lives matter, that the lives of our loved ones matter no matter how seemingly insignificant we or they are.
Literary Elements at Work: There are two important literary elements at work in this story: artistry and the straightforward narrative of Henry’s life and plea as representative of all life and everyone’s plea: I am a human being, and I long to be free. The paintings throughout this book are inspired by a mid-nineteenth century anti-slavery artist, Samuel Rowse. Mr. Rowse’s original paintings of Henry were used to raise funds for the abolitionist movement. Mr. Nelson uses crosshatch pencil lines, and layers of watercolor and oil paint for each painting, giving an aged, almost folk art feel to each scene. These paintings are visually stunning; this is a beautiful storybook. Mr. Nelson’s facial expressions, use of color, and scene context provide a thoughtful engagement with the emotion of Henry’s story as well as a thoughtful understanding and interpretation of the word story Ellen Levine tells. Ellen Levine tells the story of Henry’s life, from a young boy in his mother’s lap to his rending away and separation from his boyhood family when he is given to another master; and again in his later life, from his courtship and marriage to Nancy, resulting in three children, to his own family’s rending away and separation from him. Throughout Henry’s tale, Ellen Levine cleverly gives voice to many of the atrocities that all slaves faced: agelessness, slaves did not have birth dates; namelessness, slaves did not have ancestral or recorded names; disconnectedness, slaves’ marriages were not honored and families were separated; powerlessness, slaves had no human voice, no economic voice, no political voice, no social voice, and yet, in the midst of social, political, economic, and personal isolation, slaves scratched, clawed and created a cultural and spiritual identity and network that enabled some to escape to freedom. Interestingly, Henry gives himself a birth date when he arrives in Philadelphia. Henry’s freedom date becomes his birth date, giving Henry in particular, and therefore slaves in general, a beginning grounding point.
Scripture: Exodus 20:2 , Deuteronomy 5:12-15, Galatians 3:23-29
Theology: It is clear from the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible that the Lord God has created us (all of us—red and yellow, black and white) for freedom—freedom to worship, rest, provide hospitality and live faithfully. Worship, rest, providing hospitality and living faithfully are not ways we seek to be free, rather we are free. In freedom, we live as citizens of God’s kingdom and citizenship implies participation. We participate in God’s kingdom when we worship, rest, provide hospitality and live faithfully. The truth about Henry’s life and all life is that God intends, wills, and works for us to be free! When we enslave one another, then no one is free. I heard Bill Clinton say at Rosa Parks’ funeral that when he and his friends heard that black people no longer had to sit at the back of the bus, then he and his friends knew that they no longer had to sit at the front of the bus. The old saying is true: as long as one human is not free, then all humanity is not free. And that is not the way God intends our lives, wills for our lives, and works for, in and with each of our lives. In Christ, we are heirs of the promise—freedom.
Faith Talk Questions:
Sit down beside your child, let her hold the book and turn the pages. Ask her to point to the characters as you read. Repeat this process on each page, considering the following: In the story, Henry does not have a birth date; ask your child, “Can you imagine that? Not having a birthday party? Not knowing how old you are?” You can ask a lot of “what if” questions about birthdays, imagining no presents, no parties, no friends or families to sing and celebrate with. Tell your child, “Think about Henry’s mom, Henry, Henry’s wife, Henry’s children, Henry’s trip,” ask, “What do you think his mother is feeling? Henry? Henry’s wife? Henry’s children? What do you think about Henry’s trip?” Read other books on slavery and slavery’s after effects—Coming On Home Soon by Jacqueline Woodson, Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom by Carole Boston Weatherford, Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaport, Coming Home: from the life of Langston Hughes by Floyd Cooper—just to name a few. Take a trip to the Harvey Gantt Museum for African-American Arts + Culture in Charlotte, or look for a local museum or African-American cultural center in your community. Consider and list other groups of people who have been treated this way in the past or are currently treated this way. Some groups who may appear on the list could include: Native Americans, children, Jews, homosexuals, and women. Explore our world with reference to slavery. Talk about intercessory prayer. What would an intercessory prayer look like, sound like, feel like for these—the enslaved? Think of someone you would like to pray for. Imagine that person. Close your eyes and say a prayer from your heart. Ask your child to say a prayer from her heart. Paint, draw, write, sing your prayers from the heart. This could prove to be a lifelong conversation.
Review prepared by Union Presbyterian Seminary student Kim Lee