Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on June 17, 2015
Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton
By Don Tate
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Publication date: 9/1/2015
Reading and writing American history can prove daunting for the researcher who wants to recover diverse experiences from hidden or disguised narratives.
A generation of Texas public school students (count me in that number) graduated without the opportunity to discuss one difficult history topic in the classroom. The Mexican government’s prohibition of slavery—a major cause of revolutionary sentiment in the 1836 cry for independence from Mexico—until recently was missing from the Texas history curriculum. A kibosh like that has all sorts of consequences, including the odds that certain stories will go untold.
Where do we find these untold stories? What about our diversity gives us the impetus to research them? Will the stories dredge up discomfort in others? In ourselves?
Critically-acclaimed author-illustrator Don Tate often hesitated when offered manuscripts on the topic of slavery.
In the Author’s Note of his upcoming picture book biography Poet: The Remarkable Story of George Moses Horton, Tate writes about having a change of heart. A fellow author introduced him to the story of a literate slave in nineteenth century North Carolina and he became intrigued. Further reading led him to more African-American history and an overwhelming sense of pride.
“In creating the book, it was my goal to present the topic of slavery as more than an uncomfortable word. I wanted readers to know who George Moses Horton was and to demonstrate his relevance in their lives today.”
Poet tells a universal and resonating story of unbreakable joy against insurmountable odds. Impeccable gouache, ink and pencil illustrations and hand-lettered verse all underscore the theme that learning to read has the power to change lives.
Leaning heavily on Horton’s autobiography The Life of the Author, Written by Himself, Tate learned of the distinct environment that shepherded the verse of the only poet to have been published while enslaved.
In the Author’s Note, Tate writes that Horton lived among the largest population of free blacks in the American colonies. There were more open views toward emancipation in North Carolina. On smaller plantations, less wealthy farmers worked alongside their slaves and embraced them as family members.
Horton taught himself to read using a hymnal and scriptures. He earned enough money to purchase his time and spent Saturdays at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, where students paid him to write love poetry.
“In time, George published the Hope of Liberty, his first book. He wanted to use his earnings to purchase his freedom.
“When editors at Freedom’s Journal learned of his plan, they tried to raise money to help him. Influential people joined the cause—newspapermen, a college president, a governor. They offered a great deal of money, but George’s master refused to sell his valuable slave.
“George was devastated.” (p. 24-25)
Tate reminds readers that Horton’s writing was not without dangers; after all, he wrote about the oppression of slavery. A slave rebellion in 1831 prompted fear of literate slaves like Horton because they could speak out. Teaching a slave to read or write became outlawed.
A highly worthwhile read, Poet represents one of those untold stories that need to be researched, published, reviewed and placed in the hands of younger readers more often.
Don Tate is an award-winning author and illustrator of critically acclaimed books for children, including The Amazing Age of John Roy Lynch written by Chris Barton and The Cart That Carried Martin written by Eve Bunting. Don currently lives with his wife and son in Austin.
Peachtree Publishers is an independent trade book publisher, specializing in quality children’s books, from picture books to young adult fiction and nonfiction.
Category: Biography, Nonfiction Picture Book Wednesday