Friday Fiction: Amos Fortune: Free Man

Amos FortuneAmos Fortune: Free Man
Yates
1951

Submitter: Somehow this book from 1951 was still on the shelf, maybe because of that shiny Newbery sticker on the cover. Or maybe it just got overlooked. Either way, a story of a slave written in the 50s is likely going to be questionable today, and I would say this one is. Descriptions comparing Black characters to dogs and untamed animals are jarring. The idea that Africans needed to be civilized before they could handle freedom seems to be presented not as something that many people wrongly believed at the time but as actually being true. At one point it is spoken directly from the still-enslaved main character himself. With some guidance and discussion, this book could be instructive of assorted historical and current trends in racist thought and language, but the public library kids biography section isn’t the place for that.

Holly: No, it isn’t. Just because a book is an award winner does not mean it should be kept forever. Either put it in a special Newbery reference collection or weed it.

Mary: This was pretty much the only slavery discussion that was around when I was a child in the 1960s. I remember liking the story. However, it was written in the 1950s for a white audience and of course it sanitized the evil of slavery for said audience. Although Amos Fortune was based on a real person, it really is a biographical novel. I think this article can give people more to chew on if they are second guessing weeding a Newbery.

Amos Fortune in Boston

Amos Fortune page 38

Amos Fortune page 40

Amos Fortune page 44

Amos Fortune page 49

Amos Fortune page 50

10 comments

    1. That book, along with the Phantom Tollbooth, seems to have been assigned reading everywhere for everywhere, and I missed it. I finally read the former when it was part of the college library’s banned books week exhibit, someday I’ll run across Johnny and read about him.

  1. A Black Writer could take up this subject and rewrite this story. This is a fiction right now, an honest reinterpretation could render it a memoir. According to the article linked by Mary, the truth is out there but Elizabeth Yates decided to “fudge” it and actually insert her own ideas of noblesse oblige which today is probably an insult since it acts first, then may or may not even ask questions let alone listen later.

    1. A Black writer should take this up and write an up to date and more accurate kids’ book about Amos. It would be a service both to literature and to kids of all races.

  2. Here is a great website and a review on a current juvenile book that cites several Newbery medal titles that contain unexamined (racist) tropes on Indigenous people. This is so much bigger than we realize.
    Thank you to my great colleague at our library who referred me to this website.
    Art needs to do more than imitate life; art needs to stop and let life show itself as it is.
    https://americanindiansinchildrensliterature.blogspot.com/2021/10/not-recommended-alan-gratzs-ban-this.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+AmericanIndiansInChildrensLiterature+%28American+Indians+in+Children%27s+Literature%29

  3. ‘Thee knows’ should be ‘Thou knowest’. Surprising that the mistake was made in the 1950s, but everyone today ALWAYS get this sort of thing wrong, Read the King James Bible to learn correct Early Modern English! (people used to).

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