We Shall Overcome

Music has always been at the core of the Black experience in America. The myriad songs of a stolen people intermingling and creating Negro spirituals, gospel, jazz, etc., gave voice to a people. Within the music, there is a singular longing for freedom, a hope for future generations, and a protest against oppression. Resistance is the melody of Black survival, and nowhere is that more evident than in the protest music that became the soundtrack of not only the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s but also many movements that came before and have risen since. Among the songs of protest, “We Shall Overcome” is perhaps the most recognizable. In We Shall Overcome, a picture-book adaptation of this classic gospel piece, the song comes to life. Illustrator Bryan Collier ushers readers through the lyrical journey of words that have carried generations through sit-ins, marches, rallies, and prayer services.

The existence of this book is itself a protest. Visually documenting this historic song is not just an ode to the past but a call to action for us all that the fight for freedom and equality is far from over. The book opens as a nameless Black girl waits for her schoolmates before they take their daily walk through their neighborhood to school. The first few pages feel expansive and spacious — almost empty. The very first fold offers a bird’s-eye view of the neighborhood, as the children file on the very bottom of the page. The neighborhood is very neat, almost sterile, other than the houses and verdant lawns — what would probably be the ideal American neighborhood. This starkness carries over on the next spread to the little girl’s room. We see her from behind as she pensively stares out of her window. Maybe she is daydreaming. The perspective this picture affords invites us to join in her daydream. It is quiet. It is calm. There is peace here.

Collier plays with scale throughout the book; the scenes zoom in and out as the children set out on their journey. At times, people fill the page. In other moments, the background tells the story as if the artist wants to absorb us into the space. For example, the scene depicting the 16th Street Baptist Church — the site of a KKK-bombing that took the lives of four young Black girls in early 1963 — dominates the double-page spread and suggests the site as somber remembrance. Our protagonist is the sole person in the scene, contrasted in color against the black and white of the landscape. She pauses as the reader remembers who was lost there.

Using watercolor and collage, the colors are at once muted and rich for most of the book, until the final few spreads in which the colors become noticeably brighter. The juxtaposition of history and present day is rendered on the pages through color and black and white, using the latter to depict the places and people representing the movement for civil rights. On an obvious note, the artist is making a distinction between past and present; however, there is something more happening on the page. As the children walk, it feels like they walk amongst apparitions of the past that are coexisting alongside us in the present day. On some pages, the apparitions dominate, and on others they cohabit equally with the present. On one spread, as the children watch a film in class, the scene depicts a protest with children at the forefront. On the next page, the scene zooms in and is now in color. Here, we are reminded that progress is not a straight line and that this protest could easily be happening today. This scene feels like a baton being passed to the next generation to take up the next leg of the race for freedom.

The mood of remembrance shifts on the next pages as the children make their way home and they walk through a street. We see a man paint in large yellow letters on the road. We come to learn that the words are “Black Lives Matter,” signifying the modern movement against police brutality. As the children walk, their footsteps expose somber faces that feel like the human foundation supporting the community. The children join community members, and they paint a mural as the scene brightens to a final spread. Here, the little girl is depicted as a butterfly with collaged wings. She extends to us a leaf of peace as a cloud of witnesses from the past look on from behind, supporting, encouraging, and reminding.

This is a tender offering in a time when pushback against antiracism continues to rise. The use of the timeline format, along with additional information and an illustrator's note at the book's close, offers not only the history of this iconic song but also the places and people in the book. This book serves as a call to keep marching as well as a stark reminder of the many generations before who, each in their own ways, worked to overcome the indignities of racism and live into the reality of their humanity.


Monique Harris

Monique Harris is a public educator, reading specialist and independent educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science degree in Education from Simmons University, and is enrolled in a PhD program at Florida State University.

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