A Picture of Freedom Discussion Guide
About this book
To the Discussion Leader
What was it like to be surrounded by elegance and luxury and not own a pair of shoes? How did it feel to serve fine ladies and gentlemen from platters laden with chicken and ham, while you and your friends struggled to sleep through hunger-filled nights? How much did it sting to be slapped for raising your eyes, or walking too slowly, or spilling the milk? Award-winning author Patricia C. McKissack provides young readers with a window into the Old South through the eyes, mind, and personality of a twelve year-old slave girl, Clotee. What differentiates Clotee from other people, even her master's son, is her ability to read and write during an era of widespread illiteracy - not only among slaves, but also among the more powerful slave-holders. Clotee's diary provides an exciting entree into plantation living in pre-Civil War Virginia.
The most remarkable feature of this diary is McKissack's ability to develop the character of Clotee. Through subtle changes in Clotee's life, readers watch her become more self-assured, more courageous, and more passionate about freedom. Her skills improve as she visualizes new words and new worlds. When she realizes that there are white men who care about the plight of the slaves, Clotee begins to comprehend that life is not a matter of black or white — whether in skin color, morality, or life-and-death choices. Patricia C. McKissack has crafted Clotee's diary from anecdotes of her own ancestors, chronicles of an actual slave, as well as extensive research from her highly praised Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters. Clotee's voice — as a child, as a girl, but most of all as a slave — provides young readers with a much needed, fresh perspective on slavery and plantation life just prior to the Civil War.
Clotee has the most wonderful, terrible secret. She understands that if she shares it with the wrong person, she will be beaten unmercifully. What is her secret? By listening, watching, and constantly practicing, Clotee has taught herself to read and write. This twelve-year-old slave girl, living in 1859 on a plantation in Virginia, possesses one of the most valuable of all abilities, and readily accepts the attendant risks because to her, literacy is as precious as life itself.
As purchased property, the slaves on Belmont plantation, including Clotee, her best friends Spicy and Hince, and her only family, Aunt Tee and Uncle Heb, have no more rights than the horses and cattle. Clotee discovers that their very lives belong to Mas' Henley when she witnesses Uncle Heb's death. But there's something different about Clotee - a part of her that no one can reach. "Mas' Henley thinks he owns everything here at Belmont, but he don't own all of me - not really.ä He look at me every day but he cain't see what's in my head. He cain't own what's inside me. Nobody can."
When Miz Lilly hires a tutor, Clotee fears her job fanning young Mas' William will cease and she will be excluded from the lessons that have introduced her to learning. But Ely Harms proves to be more than just a tutor. William and Clotee advance not only in their literacy but also in their understanding of humanity. Because of Harms' belief in liberty and personal rights, Clotee finally succeeds in visualizing the meaning of freedom. More than thirty years later, William writes these thoughts to Clotee: "Through education Mr. Harms did more to destroy slavery than all the laws on the books could legislate."
Patricia C. McKissack packs the pages of Clotee's diary with the intrigue and disloyalty of spies and traitors, the jubilant laughter of births, weddings and holidays, and the anguished weeping that accompanies murder and untimely death. But over and above all this, A Picture of Freedom is a book about the love of learning and a young girl searching for meaning in her life.
Thinking About the Book
- What is the most important word in Clotee's diary? Explain your choice.
- After reading A Picture of Freedom, what is one thing you learned about slavery that you didn't know before?
- Early in the diary, as Clotee describes Mas' Henley, Miz Lilly, and life on the plantation, she writes, "If mean was a tree, it would grow tall here at Belmont." What did she mean?
- If you had been a slave on Belmont Plantation, would you rather have worked in the fields, in the big house, or in the stables? Defend your reasons.
- How did the author of Clotee's diary let you see this twelve-year-old slave girl getting better and better at writing and reading from the beginning of the diary until the end?
- Do you think it is worse to offer people gifts and rewards to tattle on their friends like Mas' Henley and Miz Lilly did, or to become a traitor like Missy and Hince when they informed on fellow slaves and on Mr. Harms? Does it matter that Hince's reasons appeared to be more important?
- As an adult, William Henley wrote a letter to Clotee that said, "Through education Mr. Harms did more to destroy slavery than all the laws on the books could legislate." Why did William think that education is so powerful?
- Many slave owners believed that the slaves were happy living as they did. One of the arguments that the mas'ers used as proof was that the slaves sang and played music all the time. After reading Clotee's diary, do you believe this argument?
- Make a freedom quilt.
*First, write about your vision of freedom. This will help you to visualize your art for the quilt. Your description should be very specific and detailed.
*Next, sketch out your idea on paper. Around the border, print a brief explanation of your depiction of freedom. * Now, transfer your sketch onto fabric, allowing an extra inch around the outside edge for sewing the pieces together. Don't for get to sign your name!
*When the quilt is finished, display it proudly where everyone - including visitors to your school - may see it.
*Publish the Quilt Chronicle, containing the stories of each patch, so that everyone can understand your conception of freedom.
- In the diary, Uncle Heb told a spider-man story to Clotee and Spicy as they helped him in the garden. Go to the library and find some "Anansi the Spider" folktales from Africa. Select your favorite Anansi tale and create a dramatization which includes information on the background of the Anansi stories. When you have practiced your production, stage a performance for a class of younger children.
- Patricia C. McKissack says that she used much of the research she and her husband did for their non-fiction book Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters to help her write Clotee's diary. Read both books. Which book did you enjoy more? Why?
- Using entries in Clotee's diary as a place to begin, find out more about the slaves' songs and dances. Is any of this music still popular today? Where did the songs and dances come from? Can you find any pictures of slaves singing and dancing? Are there any recordings of these songs available today? Prepare a class presentation on the Sights and Sounds of Slavery.
- Although Clotee and her friends are characters the author invented, there are several real heroes from American history who are mentioned in the diary: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass. See what you can discover about one of these special people, and share your report with the class.
Discussion Guide written by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, Houston, Texas, and Linda M. Pavonetti, Ed.D., Assistant Professor, Oakland University, Department of Reading and Language Arts, Rochester, Michigan.