Brick by Brick is about the first White House that was built for the new president of the United States, George Washington, back in 1792. It was a big job and required a lot of workers. Local workers were hired as well as free blacks, but when that wasn't enough, slaves were used:
But while everyone else was paid for their labor, slaves were hired out by their masters who collected their pay and kept it for themselves:
Slave hands sawBut as new skills are learned, some slaves were able to receive pay and to save to buy their freedom:
twelve hours a day,
but slave owners take
slave hand's pay.
The story of the slave labor in Brick by Brick is written in sparse verse, with four lines to a stanza, repetitiously using the word slave yet it paints am incredibly vivid picture of the blood, sweat and hard work that these men and boys were forced to do by their masters. What makes this such an outstanding book is that Smith uses the names of real slaves he discovered while doing the research for Brick by Brick. In this way, he humanizes them for us, turns them into real people rather than allowing them to remain a nameless, faceless, anonymous people, easy to overlook, easy to hurt and easy forget about.Slave hand buildand slave hands saveshillings to be freeand no longer a slave.
And just as Smith's words give the slaves an identity, the illustrations give them a face, making the job all the more real and the workers all the more human for the reader. The illustrations were done by Floyd Cooper, one of my favorite illustraters. Cooper's oil wash paintings, done in earth tones, makes us feel the hot sun burning down on the workers, the sweat running down their bodies, the pain in their arms and legs, the blisters and aching back and muscles that must have plagued these men and boys day in and day out.
Brick by Brick is a poignant narrative that should be read aloud to appreciate its full impact and meaning. It is a book that should not be missed by anyone interested in American history and/or African American history. Be sure to read the author's note at the back of the book that explains why slaves were used to build the White House.
Nonfiction Monday is a weekly event hosted this week at Sally's Bookshelf
This is book 7 of my 2013 Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy