Taking Up Space (A Black History Month Post)
February 21, 2019 § 2 Comments
In her modern dance classes, my daughter cherishes above all the few minutes devoted to “sparkle jumps.” One by one, the dancers crisscross the studio at a run. As each one reaches the middle, she explodes into a leap, arms reaching up and out, head tall, like the points of a star. For one perfect moment, my daughter takes up as much space as her little body will allow.
“I love watching you take up space,” I tell her.
Taking up space is sometimes perceived in our society as a nuisance. Even the expression has soured in our language; we say it about someone whose obstinate presence doesn’t seem to be offering anything of value.
But taking up space is power. I’m here, and I have as much a right to be seen and heard as you do. It is also a privilege. A privilege which comes with freedom. A privilege denied to those in bondage. A privilege denied to those who may be free on paper, but who still live under the shadow of oppression.
So Tall Within: Sojourner Truth’s Long Walk Toward Freedom (Ages 7-10) is a portrait of a woman who devoted her life to the fight to take up space—and to make sure that space mattered. Lyrically presented by Gary D. Schmidt (who, coincidentally, wrote last week’s middle-grade book) and powerfully illustrated by Daniel Minter, the book is a provocative exploration, not only of Sojourner Truth’s self-emancipation from slavery and crusade to speak out about human rights, but also of the tenuous connection between self-dignity and physical presence.
I asked my eleven year old to pick a word to describe this book. “Intriguing,” he said. He is spot on. So Tall Within is a prime example of a picture book biography targeted at the older elementary child. A book with layers of meaning. A book well researched, offering occasional citations from some of Sojourner’s own writings and speeches. A book whose illustrations invite endless discussion. A book which should be allowed to take up space of its own.
The striking cover of this picture book biography casts Sojourner as an old woman—an erect and imposing figure, the luminous blue of her clothes and glasses contrasting the bronze of the fields behind her, like a clear water basin on a hot, dusty day. One hand wraps around her walking stick, a nod to the final third of the book, which addresses the thousands of miles Sojourner traversed on foot across fifteen years to speak out about the injustices of slavery and the importance of equal rights for African-Americans. The title reads So Tall Within, but it is clear that Sojourner’s inner strength extends to the way she is seen on the outside.
But Sojourner’s imposing presence was earned, not birthed. In fact, it’s fascinating to observe the subtle ways in which Sojourner’s body is painted throughout this story of her life.
Born a slave named Isabella, she “lived in a cellar where the windows never let the sun in and the floorboards never kept the water out.” Her body is small, almost collapsed upon itself, as she perches on a stool—and yet, a careful reader will note the broom in her hand, evocative of the walking stick she will adopt in her free years.
When she is eleven, Isabella is sold “for a hundred dollars—along with a flock of sheep” and never sees her mother again. Here, her body is painted with an almost ghost-like transparency against the brown, dusty background. And yet, her head is erect, her profile distinguished, as it is throughout much of the book—a nod to her mother, who encouraged Isabella to keep her gaze on the stars and the moon, under which her family would always be together. “Those are the same stars, and that is the same moon, that look down upon your brothers and sisters.”
Isabella has several masters over the years—her final a man named Mr. Dumont in New York State, “who bragged that Isabella could ‘do a good family’s washing in the night, and be ready in the morning to go to the field.’” The illustration accompanying the page where he orders Isabella to marry a slave named Thomas and birth five children is one of the few instances where Sojourner’s face is undistinguished, her features blurred. It is as if her corporeality is literally disappearing alongside her lack of agency. Even her children are mere shadows, like many other slaves pictured throughout the book.
Isabella takes her emancipation into her own hands after Mr. Dumont refuses to honor his promise to free her a year before all slaves in New York were required to be freed by law. “…[T]he summer came and the summer passed. ‘Oh,’ thought Isabella, ‘I have felt as if I could not live.’ So that fall, after the work of the harvest was done, she held baby Sophia close and seized Freedom with her own hands.” She takes refuge with a white couple, who protect her and pay Mr. Dumont for her release when he eventually tracks her down.
Isabella may be a free woman, but she doesn’t transform into the indomitable figure we know today until she begins to stand against the oppression of others. The turning point comes when she learns Mr. Dumont has illegally sold her five-year-old son, Peter, across state lines. “Isabelle traveled miles and miles across New York to Kingston to tell her story to the Grand Jury. They saw how tall within she was. They gave her a letter for the sheriff, demanding that Peter be brought home. She took the letter and walked miles and miles back.” There, in front of the jury and against the backdrop of the Constitution, our protagonist begins to take up more space.
A legal win won’t necessarily correct a human wrong. Isabella learns of the devastating abuse suffered by her son at the hands of his slave owner, wounds from which he will never fully recover. As the Author’s Note elaborates, mother and son will eventually become estranged. This spread is one of the most upsetting in the book—there is little to separate the embracing mother and child from a landscape splattered by what looks like blood-tinged mud—and a powerful visual for our children to witness. “‘What is this slavery,’ wondered Isabella, ‘that it can do such dreadful things?’”
From here emerges the Sojourner we know, who adopts her new name meaning “journey” and begins to “tell the truth about Slavery.” In one illustration after another, she begins to assert a new physical presence. She stands in front of a crowd of people and stretches out her arms. She stands opposite Abraham Lincoln, her erectness matching his. She thrusts out her hand at an oncoming streetcar, after it refuses to stop for her because of the color of her skin.
I haven’t even told you my favorite thing about this book. In So Tall Within, with each transition, almost like mini chapter headings, Schmidt shares a line of poetic text beginning “In Slavery Time” (and, eventually, “In Freedom Time”), which is accompanied by a vertical painting, distinct in feel from the illustrative style of the rest of the story. These vertical paintings are both arresting and stunning—and would alone be worth the price of this book. In his Artist’s Note, Minter describes these paintings as “loosely planted in the times of legal slavery but that parallel the feeling of struggle in today’s streets—the feeling that you may be buried, but you are surrounded by soil that nourishes you.”
Many of these paintings speak to a kind of elusive or budding corporeality, often with allusions to seeds, roots, and leaves. Sojourner Truth drew tremendous strength and courage from her ancestry and her descendants. She was a living reminder that those who grow strong roots beneath the soil can eventually stretch big and tall above ground.
Sojourner took up space by standing tall, by opening her arms, and by using her powerful, persuasive voice to bring awareness to the injustices of her people and of others. She spoke out about the rights of liberated slaves. About the rights of women. She spoke about making prisons more humane and abolishing capital punishment. She once warned that if anyone tried to stop her, she “would rock the United States like a cradle.” One of the most powerful of Minter’s vertical paintings shows a naked slave man’s back alight with horizontal scars, which look (my daughter was quick to point out) like cursive writing in blood. The image is accompanied by the phrase, “In Slavery Time, when Words seemed weaker than whips,” but it is offset by the picture on the opposite page, which shows a crowd captivated by one of Sojourner’s speeches. Words—especially those reaped from the experience of oppression—can become the most powerful of tools.
We must teach our children to look for the light inside each other. We must encourage our children to celebrate their own unique presence, and we must teach them to create room for those who might need more allowance to find their own light, to direct that light out into the world, and to assume their own powerful space.
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