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The Old African /

An elderly slave uses the power of his mind to ease the suffering of his fellow slaves and eventually lead them back to Africa. Based on an actual incident from black history. Full description

Main Author:
Other Authors: Pinkney, Jerry,
Format: Book
Language: English
Published: Dial Books, 2005
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No one on the plantation had ever heard the Old African's voice, yet he had spoken to all of them in their minds. For the Old African had the power to see the color of a person's soul and read his thoughts as if they were words on a page. Now it was time to act--time to lead his fellow slaves to the Water-That-Stretched-Forever, and from there back to Africa. Back to their home.

Based on legend and infused with magical realism, this haunting tale is beautiful in both its language and its images. Julius Lester and Jerry Pinkney have found a new, extraordinary way to express the horrors of slavery and the hope and strength that managed to overcome its grip.

Review by Booklist Review

Gr. 4-7. From his 1968 Newbery Honor Book, To Be a Slave 0 (1968), to Day of Tears0 (2005), Lester has brought the African American slavery experience to young readers. Complemented by Pinkney's powerful illustrations, this picture book presents an unflinching account of the brutal history and of personal courage, told with a lyrical magic realism that draws on slave legend and the dream of freedom. Lester begins with the horror of the plantation, where the workers must watch the white master whip a young runaway. The Old African, the slave Jaja, never speaks, but he has the spiritual power to enter the minds of other people, and he can take away the runaway's pain. He remembers the terrifying attacks on his Ibo people in Africa, the white traders, and the journey across the ocean, when he saw his wife stripped naked and then leap overboard. Now Jaja leads the plantations slaves back to the ocean, where they walk into the water to freedom and reunion. The stirring illustrations, glowing with color and swirling with action, beautifully depict the dramatic escape fantasy (which is based on legend), but they never deny the horror; they show the public whipping and the crowded ship's hold, so like the bunks in Auschwitz. The triumph over oppression is in the unforgettable words and pictures of individual people--and the connections between them. --Hazel Rochman Copyright 2005 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Based on legend, this story by frequent collaborators Lester and Pinkney moves gracefully and affectingly from darkness into light. As the tale opens, a plantation master whips a young slave who has attempted to escape. Yet the slaves witnessing this do not see the blood glistening on the boy's back; instead they see in their minds a picture of water "as blue as freedom." This vision is provided by the Old African, once called Jaja, a wise slave with a unique power to speak to his fellow captives in their minds and "[pull] the pain from the channels of their souls as if it were a worm in the earth." The narrative then returns to the time of Jaja's capture from his African village and the Middle Passage (across the "Water-That-Stretched-Forever") to be sold into slavery. Like Tom Feelings's The Middle Passage, author and artist do not spare readers the horrors that occurred. Lester describes the stripping down of captives and liberties taken with the women; in wordless spreads, Pinkney shows Jaja chained to a man who was just fatally shot. On the journey, Jaja's wife throws herself overboard and his mentor is beaten to death. Back in the present, the Old African learns that his master wants him dead, and believes "it is time to go home." Two stunning wordless spreads depict the triumphant, uplifting finale, in which the sage leads the captives along the ocean floor to their homeland. By not shying away from the realities of these characters' daily life, Lester and Pinkney make their victory all the greater. Ages 9-up. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 3-6-As the story opens, the Old African is watching a boy being whipped on a plantation in Georgia. He is putting a picture into the minds of his comrades-"a picture of water as soft and cool as a lullaby"-and the picture stops the boy's pain. The Old African doesn't speak-he hasn't since he was brought over on a slave ship-why should he when there is no one who would understand? As he cares for the boy, who had been whipped for running away, a hope sprouts in his mind-a way to return home-and he uses his powers to take his people on an incredible journey home. Lester's story is based on a legend about Ybo Landing, GA, where a group of slaves walked into the water, saying they were walking to Africa. His resulting novella-length allegory about spirit, memory, and freedom shows how hope can live in a people even when the spirit dies. Pinkney's characteristic mixed-media illustrations are uneven and not necessarily his best, but the numerous spreads are stunning, showing power in landscape and emotional energy in posture, and the series of three toward the end (the people entering the water, walking along the ocean floor, and emerging in Africa) completely redeem the entire book, capturing all of the literal vividness that the story suggests. Lester and Pinkney combine their talents here to create an unusual, complex, and thought-provoking offering in which the Old African is the keeper of a power that brings comfort and, ultimately, salvation to his people.-Nina Lindsay, Oakland Public Library, CA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Julius Bernard Lester was born in St. Louis, Missouri on January 27, 1939. He received a bachelor's degree in English from Fisk University in 1960. He moved to New York to become a folk singer. He performed on the coffeehouse circuit as a singer and guitarist. He released two albums entitled Julius Lester in 1965 and Departures in 1967. His first published book, The Folksinger's Guide to the 12-String Guitar as Played by Leadbelly written with Pete Seeger, was published in 1965.

In the 1960s, Lester was closely involved as a writer and photographer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He traveled to the South to document the civil rights movement and to North Vietnam to photograph the effects of American bombardment. He also hosted radio and television talk shows in New York City.

He wrote more than four dozen nonfiction and fiction books for adults and children. His books for adults included Look Out, Whitey!: Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama, Revolutionary Notes, All Is Well, Lovesong: Becoming a Jew, and The Autobiography of God. His children's books included To Be a Slave, Sam and the Tigers, and Day of Tears: A Novel in Dialogue, which won the American Library Association's Coretta Scott King Award in 2006. He also wrote reviews and essays for numerous publications including The New York Times Book Review, The Boston Globe, The Village Voice, Dissent, The New Republic, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

After teaching for two years at the New School for Social Research in New York, Lester joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1971. He originally taught in the Afro-American studies department, but transferred to the Judaic and Near Eastern studies department when Lester criticized the novelist James Baldwin for what he felt were anti-Semitic remarks. He died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on January 18, 2018 at the age of 78.

(Bowker Author Biography)

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