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Friday, August 19, 2016

Give Me Wings: How a Choir of Former Slaves Took on the World. Written by Kathy Lowinger. Annick Press, 2015. $21.95 ages 12 and up

"Slaves sang work songs to keep in time with one another on jobs like hoisting a heavy beam or rowing a barge, and to lighten the drudgery of picking cotton under a blazing sun or harvesting rice in a sweltering paddy. Religious songs were part of every prayer meeting, promising a home in heaven as the reward for a lifetime of suffering. And in the rare happy times, there were joyful songs ... "

Kathy Lowinger did diligent research before penning this fascinating history of slavery in the United States. It opens at the time of the Civil War and takes readers through to the early twentieth century. It tells the story of Ella Sheppard and the Jubilee Singers and spotlights the role education plays in changing long held opinions and attitudes.

The author has divided the story she tells into nine chapters, and opens each one with a pertinent quote that speaks to the chapter's main idea. The first chapter begins with a quote from Ella's mother. By telling the story through Ella's experiences and introducing readers to her mother Sarah, Ms. Lowinger explains the slave trade and the routes taken to bring slaves to North and South America. There are sidebars, a map, archival photos and artwork, and a carefully drawn accounting of Ella's early years.

Each of the following eight chapters will help readers grasp the struggle that slaves faced in trying to make a better life for themselves - the right to education, freedom and change for all. The Sheppard family's struggle is clearly framed in context with all that is happening around them. Once the world at the time is clear and understood, we follow Ella as she enrols in Fisk University (then the Fisk Free Colored School) and, with determination and grit, begins to earn the education she craves.

A threat that their school might close encourages a group of young people, once slaves, to form the Jubilee Singers and raise the funds needed to keep it open. Their program gained tremendous popularity when the began to sing the songs of their enslaved ancestors: today we call them spirituals. Their tour took the path of the Underground Railroad and they brought music to those who didn't know their stories, even singing for Queen Victoria on a European tour. They raised enough money to fund Jubilee Hall, which still stands on the Fisk campus in Nashville.
By sharing this history through Ella's eyes and experiences readers have a clearer and more personal look at the many challenges of the time following the Civil War. The sidebars, paintings, postcards, included quotes, archival photos, posters and the inclusion of and explanation concerning some of the popular songs add context and will encourage interested readers to look for answers to their unanswered questions elsewhere. Back matter includes an afterword, a time line, a list for further reading and a comprehensive index. Still, the book feels like a story, and is never overwhelmed at any point by the historical details.

Ella and her choir members worked extremely hard to have their story heard. Their success changed history in many ways by changing minds in a dynamic and entertaining way.

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