Thursday, July 7, 2022

Reading Through History: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates (1950)

Amos Fortune began his life as the son of an African king. Kidnapped into slavery as a young man and brought to the United States, he is purchased at auction by a Quaker family who take him in, teach him to read, and eventually give him his freedom. From there, Amos works toward freeing other slaves and slowly building the life he wants for himself.

The writing in this book is really well-crafted and it makes the story of Amos Fortune's experiences fighting against hardship really come to life. I read this aloud to my three oldest daughters, ages 4, 6, and 8, and they were utterly enthralled, begging me for just one more chapter. This was their first introduction to slavery in American history, and I appreciated that the book handled the subject matter in a way that was accessible for them. It was already very clear to all three of them that slavery is wrong (we talk about that when we read the Old Testament), and this book helped them understand how that wrong was carried out in our own society. They also love biographies, and hearing the details of Amos's jobs, homes, spouse, etc. really appealed to them.

Amos Fortune, Free Man isn't the most popular book today because people often judge it based on what it doesn't include, using today's approach to race as the standard. But considering this is a children's book from 1950, prior to the Civil Rights movement, I find it pretty impressive. Another wonderful book we recently read from around the same time period is Carvers' George (1952) by Florence Crannell Means. While George Washington Carver was born into slavery in the US and freed as a child, he has much in common with Amos Fortune when it comes to dealing with relentless adversity. Neither of these would be sufficient as the only book a child reads about the experience of black people during and after slavery, but they are both excellent entrypoints into the discussion for young readers.

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