Grade 8 Up—The songs written and first sung by African-American slaves were inspired by a host of human needs: to express emotion, to call God, to remain heartened under oppression, and, perhaps most importantly, to communicate covertly, often about the Underground Railroad. Giovanni brings these motives home in this short, impressionistic look at the lives of the slaves, beginning with their holding in places such as Cape Coast Castle and Goree Island, through the end of the Civil War, when members of divided families desperately attempted to track one another down. Giovanni is a poet, and the book has cadence; in tone, it almost reads like the transcript of a speech or sermon, as the author is generous with her own opinions and often refers to herself within the text. The spirituals themselves are thoughtfully placed—and their complete lyrics are printed as back matter—but Giovanni doesn't always effectively connect the songs to the travails they are meant to communicate. Light on dates, time lines, or political explanations, this is neither a thorough nor an academic history; rather, it is an invitation for readers to look into the lives of figures such as Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, and events such as the Stono uprising and the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. A glossary of terms will get them started.—Denise Ryan, Middlesex Middle School, Darien, CT
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*Starred Review* Personal and passionate, Giovanni's short narrative talks about the sacred songs first sung by slaves, tracing how the people in bondage created the great spirituals to tell their stories, and what the songs still mean to us today. She addresses the horror of people torn from home and from family, Africans in America bought and sold, those who escaped, and those who stayed, and the wonder of how they made songs about their work. She analyzes the words for messages of defiance, whether it is Nat Turner's "Steal Away" or the angry demand of "Before I'd be a slave / I'd be buried in my grave"; and she tracks a tradition that runs from the spirituals all the way to rhythm and blues and then hip-hop and rap. Always her focus is on her own favorites and what they have meant to her. The clear text is just over 60 pages; then the words of the songs are quoted in full in more than 30 spacious pages, followed by extensive notes on names and terms, a bibliography, source notes, and a list of recommended recordings. The intimate, unpretentious talk about familiar songs will grab readers, who will want to find out more about the inspiring history. Link this to Virginia Hamilton's The People Could Fly (rev. ed., 2004) and to Julius Lester's From Slave Ship to Freedom Road (1998). Hazel Rochman
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