The Old African

Brief Description: Picture book story (with rich illustrations by Jerry Pinkney) of an African man from the time he is captured in Africa, shipped across the Middle Passage, and enslaved on an American plantation. He has mystical powers which allow him to lead his fellow slaves to freedom by walking back to Africa along the ocean floor. Warning: text contains the N-word and some vivid depictions of the very tough abusive conditions throughout.

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Historical Era:

Date Range: 1700s-1800s

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Original Publication: 2005

Suitable for Grades: 6-8th

Target Audience: Middle Grade, Teen

Librarian's Review

This is a heart-wrenching (and sometimes gut-wrenching) portrayal of the horrors the African people endured during the time of slavery and the Middle Passage slave trade.  The “Old African” isn’t really an old man but rather a silent old soul with a magical power of communicating by reading others’ thoughts and also by putting his thoughts into their minds.  Thus he is able to ease the pain of the runaway slave being beaten by a plantation overseer in the opening scene.

In a flashback to about ten years prior we learn how the Old African and other villagers in an unnamed country were kidnapped by a rival warrior tribe, roped together and forcibly marched to the heretofore unknown sea where they first encounter pale-skinned people.  Because the captives do not know what they are seeing, the language of the story is descriptive but imprecise.  Jerry Pinkney’s beautiful painted illustrations are especially helpful in this section; they convey as much information as the text and are an integral part of the story.  The depiction of the Middle Passage voyage is especially harrowing.

Back on the plantation, the Old African learns from the beaten slave boy that the ocean is reachable by several days’ walk.  The Old African hatches a plan to take his people to the edge of the continent to try to return to their homeland.  Here the story takes a fantastical turn as the Old African carries out his plan.  As the author relates in a back matter note, there were some legends among Georgians about a group of enslaved people who talked about walking back to Africa along the ocean floor.  There is also documentation (see this write-up from the Georgia Historical Society) of an 1803 event in which a group of enslaved ethnic Igbo (Nigeria) people who revolted by dying by suicide by walking into the swamp rather than submitting to slavery.

Although this is a picture book, the difficulty of the subject matter makes it more suitable for more mature middle and high school readers.  The use of the N-word, depictions of sexual abuse and extreme physical cruelty are not for the faint of heart.  The story is not precise as to time or location, but could pertain to any time during the 16th or 17th centuries and take place on any southern U.S. plantation.

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