This rich and intricate collection of poems chronicles the various experiences of American slaves. Drawn together through imagery drawn from quilting and fiber arts, each poem is spoken from a different perspective: a house slave, a mother losing her daughter to the auction block, a blacksmith, a slave fleeing on the Underground Railroad.
This moving and eloquent set of poems, brought to life by vivid and colorful artwork from Michele Wood, offers a timeless witness to the hardship endured by America's slaves. Each poem is supplemented by a historical note.
About the Author
Cynthia Grady is a poet and a librarian at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C. I Lay My Stiches Down is her first published book. In her spare time, Cynthia quilts. Visit her website at www.cynthiagrady.com. Michele Wood is a painter, illustrator, designer, and writer. She received the American Book Award for her first book,Going Back Home, and the Coretta Scott King Award for the illustration in her book I See the Rhythm. Michele lives in Georgia. Visit her website at www.michelewood.com.
Read an Excerpt
I Lay My Stitches DownPoems of American Slavery
By Cynthia Grady
Eerdmans Books for Young ReadersCopyright © 2012 Cynthia Grady
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLog Cabin
The finds of archaeologists beneath dilapidated cabins down the hill: some chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coons and squirrels — hard remains of suppers stalked by moonlight, faith, starvation. Caches, too, of divination: sea shells, broken beads, and bundled roots suggest how slaves survived a knotted life of cornmeal, cruelty, death. The dig won't yield the stolen, lost, withheld: shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons.
Archaeologists excavating the areas where enslaved Africans and African Americans lived have discovered artifacts that resemble ritual objects similar to those used in West African religious practices. These artifacts have been found buried in symbolic arrangements and clustered near doorways and chimneys — thresholds for people and spirits.
I need the music of my forebears from Afrik, but take the mending to my lap and work beside the Missus' chair. A spell of quiet sewing, restful breath — it soothe my soul, dangling by a thread that been spun like cotton fiber grown and pinched on this hell place. Before I know, I'm rocking with the rhythm of the stitching, humming low the melody of "Gilead." A balm for hunger, sorrow, heartache, yes, he is.
A healing ointment found in Gilead on the eastern shore of the Jordan River was so curative that it was equal in worth to salt, a precious commodity in ancient times. In the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah warns that not even this balm's healing qualities are enough to rescue sinners from God's judgment. Interestingly, the traditional spiritual "There Is a Balm in Gilead" refers to Jesus of the New Testament, who would heal all, regardless of their sins.
Like a hyena on the hunt, you know, he opportunistic, unspecialized. The bounty hunter prowl the riverbank. He use the wind to his advantage and he listen; he watch intently. A slave to greed, the hunter aine no match for this old pilgrim in the woods. He don't quite hear the owl that call my name to take me to the water where the current runs less swift. I wait — then thread my way to freedomland.
Helping slaves escape to freedom through the network of people called the Underground Railroad was highly secretive, dangerous work that involved deception of all kinds — especially since slave owners often hired bounty hunters to track down runaway slaves. Using bird calls was one way for slaves to communicate with one another without being detected.
A pilgrim is a person of religious devotion who embarks on a spiritual journey. For some slaves, the quest for freedom was a spiritual journey as well as a physical one.
"Take Me to the Water" is the name of a spiritual referring to baptism by immersion in a river or lake. Here, the phrase also signifies crossing the Ohio River into safety.
Come August, Young Master and me runs through the cool of the hick'ry nut grove to find our friend canoeing downstream, smooth as a needle through silk. We wade in, a-whistling, beach his boat. Fish the old river with hand spears — sharpened bone tied to wooden shaft — not a pole and line. Aim low on account of the trick the light play in shallow waters. We thank Creation, church-like, for the catch, and pray we three be best friends forever.
When enslaved children were still too young to work the fields, they spent their days playing after the morning chores of slopping hogs or milking cows, sweeping or gardening. They often played with children in the master's family. Before American Indians were "removed" to reservations by the U.S. government, they often lived near plantation communities in varying degrees of friendship and cooperation with slaves and slaveholders.
She always needling me. "Add some more salt." Or, "Girl, why cain't you move faster than that?" Her voice so shrill, it make your skin goose up. I move fast, all right. A heap of gold-rimmed plates brighter than the halo on the head of Baby Jesus in one hand, platter with green beans and collards in the other, I done trip over the piano bench. Lord, those flyin' plates look like angels, but I 'spect tomorrow be the fields for me.
Working as a domestic slave had some advantages over field work. Often, though not always, house slaves lived within the master's household rather than in the slave cabins, so living conditions were better. But being under the constant watchful eye of the master's family came with its own set of problems. If the master and his wife were not particularly attached to their house slaves, they would threaten the slaves with being sent to work in the fields if their work or attitude was found unsatisfactory.
Excerpted from I Lay My Stitches Down by Cynthia Grady Copyright © 2012 by Cynthia Grady. Excerpted by permission of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This patchwork quilt of poems by Cynthia Grady, who is a poet, a librarian, and a quilter, includes fourteen poems that describe the lives of enslaved people in America. Each poem is named for a traditional quilt pattern, which also echoes the theme and style of the poem. For example, this is the poem ¿Log Cabin.¿"The finds of archaelogists beneathdilapidated cabins down the hill:dome chicken bones, the skins and skulls of coonsand squirrels ¿ hard remains of suppers stalkedby moonlight, faith, starvation. Caches, too,of divination: sea shells, broken beads,and bundled roots suggest how slaves surviveda knotted life of cornmeal, cruelty, death.The dig won¿t yield the stolen, lost, withheld:shoes, safety, drums, dignity, daughters, sons."Other poems include ¿Anvil¿ about a blacksmith and ¿Rail Fence¿ about slaves who were horse trainers or jockeys. ¿Wagon Wheel¿ describes a girl separated from her family, and ¿Tree of Life¿ tells of a slave tied to a tree and under the lash. The form of the poems is unrhymed but tightly metered lines of ten syllables apiece, in order to mimic the square shape of a quilt block. Not all poems are about fear and suffering (although most are); some reflect moments of joy or spirituality. A vibrant acrylic painting by award winner Michele Wood illustrates each poem. The pictures incorporate the quilt pattern used in the title of the poem.
A lovely book. I loved the ways in which Cynthia Grady incorporates the themes of quilting, slavery, and music into each poem. The illustrations by Michelle Wood are stunning. I showed the book to a writer friend who quilts; she's probably got a copy on her book shelf by now.
I Lay My Stitches Down works capably to introduce both slavery and poetry to a young audience. The poems are quite good, focusing on the lives of slaves in the American south, with a particular focus on the day-to-day means of survival. This approach is well-boosted by sections under each poem providing informative details about those aspects of daily life discussed in the poems. However, the focus on survival means that the book prefers to show what people did to maintain their psychological health during slavery, rather than critically analyzing the institution of slavery itself. I found this a little disappointing, but I can understand why the author took this direction in writing a book directed at children. The art is not only excellent, but matches up well with the text, both working to illustrate the melancholy pleasures and abuses of African American life under slavery.
I am not usually able to feel the power behind a poem, but in the case of "I Lay My Stitches Down" I could truly feel the emotions churning just beneath the surface of the words. As a pre-service middle school teacher I feel truly lucky to be able and have this book in my classroom.I also loved how the author explained her methodology at the beginning of the book, explaining how the poems have three things in common, allowing them to be woven together into one quilt.My favorite poem was "Schoolhouse", maybe this is because I am a teacher but it truly resonated with me. I just could not imagine being afraid and forbidden to learn, and I think that is an amazing lesson for my future students to understand. Very well written.
I'm not a huge poetry fan, but I loved this book. Ms. Grady has compiled an excellent collection of poems about the identity and culture behind the early African culture in America and their journey from slavery to freedom. Every part of this book, the pictures, the explanations, are wonderful additions to these amazing poems and add insight to their meaning and the context behind them.