Saturday, January 19, 2013


Monday, January 21st, is Inauguration Day. It seems a perfect time then, to share Charles R. Smith's latest picture book,  BRICK BY BRICK. This picture book tells the story of how the White House was actually built.

By slaves.

Did you know that?

I didn't.

In the author's notes, Smith says:
When construction began in 1792, it (the White House) was in the middle of nowhere.
Manpower was needed to clear the forest, build the house, and make all the beautiful details inside. Lots of manpower. Local workers including immigrants from Scotland and other countries were hired, as well as free blacks, but it wasn't enough.
That's where the slaves come in.
After realizing there weren't enough workers in the population to assist in construction, the government looked to slaves to round out the workforce. Slave owners from Virginia and Maryland received five dollars a month to rent out each slave. After a hard day of work, slaves returned to a small, shared hut and ate from the rations of pork, beef, and cornmeal provided to them. 

Slaves endured a snake-infested swamp island and mosquito swarms to dig up the stones needed for the walls of the house. They endured hour after hour of cutting and trimming wood, often until their hands were bloodied or deformed. The work was hard on the body, especially the hands. 

I chose to focus on the hands…
 And so Smith takes readers through the slaves' building of the White House- digging and breaking the stone, sawing down trees, making bricks, building walls, completing the finish work- focusing on the hands with his typical, gorgeous, rhythmic, repetitious poetry,  and tight-in specificity. Listen to a page:
Sawyers saw blades
through logs of oak wood,
seven days a week
where a forest once stood.



Up, down, push, pull
two men per pit saw,
spraying sawdust
until slave hands are raw.

Slave hands saw
twelve hours a day,
but slave owners take
slave hands' pay.
Hands also feature prominently in Floyd Cooper's illustrations. Cooper, illustrator of many, many books, including classics like BROWN HONEY AND BROOMWHEAT TEA and MEET DANITRA BROWN, and newer work like QUEEN OF THE TRACK: ALICE COACHMAN, OLYMPIC HIGH JUMPER, and IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY is right up there with Kadir Nelson on my list of favorites. The illustrations for BRICK BY BRICK, done in tans, browns, sepia, and blues, are perfect.

A book you will definitely want to share this week…


Nanc said...

Thanks for introducing me to this book...I'm getting it. I never knew. Wow !9240

Stacey Shubitz said...

Love, LOVE, L-O-V-E this book. I will be sharing this on TWT in advance of National Poetry Month.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

I am posting about this for Friday Poetry this week. I linked to you!