A natural extension of my Africa picture book collection has been picture books that show African-American culture, especial religious life. (This passion has no doubt been encouraged by our relationships with brothers and sisters at Solid Word Bible Church in Indianapolis.) Besides picking up Under the Baobab Tree at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing last month, I bought The Beatitudes by Carole Boston Weatherford, illustrated by Tim Ladwig.
The Beatitudes is a survey of African-American history beginning with the slave ships.
“I am the Lord your God.
I was with the Africans who were torn
from the Motherland and cramped in holds of ships...” it begins.
The theme throughout is that God was there in the midst of the struggles and suffering, victories and promises. I love the way Martin Luther King’s dream is shown as a reflection in the mall pool rather than the reality of the 1960s. Brief biographies in the back fill out the identities of some of the people whites like me might not recognize. Across the bottom of the pages runs the text of Matthew 5:3-12.
How the scriptural text fits the bit of history being illustrated can make for great discussion. As I write, I have the book open to the page about Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and James Varick founding African-American denominations while the people were still trapped in slavery. “Blessed are they that mourn,” it says across the bottom of the page, “for they shall be comforted.”
“Why would the people mourn?” I want to ask. “How would going to church and worshipping God comfort them?”
Beneath the picture of President Obama taking the oath of office at his inauguration, the text returns to “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Honor and humility. God’s presence through it all.
Although the format is a picture book, The Beatitudes is not intended for small children. It’s target audience is elementary school and up, learning history, learning their cultural heritage, and learning to tie them both to their faith. The Bible is not a book to be stored in a glass cupboard, protected from dirty fingers and taken out only for special religious occasions. Our faith is meant to impact our everyday lives. Talking about the events of African-American history in the context of Jesus’ words is a way of teaching children to think biblically about life and current events, shaping their minds and worldviews so they think like Christians about what they see around them. This can be a useful book in any school or church library, but especially in African-American and multi-ethnic churches and homes.