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Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence

Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence
Written by Gretchen Woelfle and Illustrated by Alix Delinois
Published in 2014 by Carolhoda Books
ISBN 978-0-7613-6589-1
Grades 2-8
Book Review

“Mankind in a state of Nature are equal, free, and independent.” As Mumbet carried a tray of drinks to the men penning these words, she wondered Wasn’t she a part of mankind?   In Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence, young readers and historians are brought into the world and thoughts of Mumbet, a slave living in Massachusetts Bay Colony on the heels of the Revolutionary War. As readers, we witness the cruel words and punishments Mumbet and her daughter Lizzie were subjected to from their owners and society at-large. We witness her strength and bravery in the face of daily hardship. We witness her conviction to stand up against injustice to change written law and set the course for the campaign against slavery in this country. In this fictionalized biography, Gretchen Woelfle tells a story of American history often unheard. Woelfle follows in the tradition of historians like Howard Zinn who urged a rewriting of history from the voices of everyday people towards collective change. In this way, the book provides new essential reading for social studies units of study focused on early American history and the New Nation. In addition, Woelfle’s use of craft techniques throughout the book—dialogue, internal thinking, onomatopoeia, sentence variety—provide a mentor text for upper elementary writers crafting narratives from their own lives or when creating research-based historically situated narratives.  Alix Delinois’ illustrations are paired powerfully with Woelfle’s words particularly in how we internalize Mumbet’s feelings through her facial expressions and posture throughout the book. Through Delinois’ bold brushstrokes we sense Mumbet’s initial despair, her determination, and her eventual joy. This book will help create a classroom of inquirers and historians, readers, and writers who wonder about the power of their own voices to enact change.

Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 2-8
Thoughtful Pages. The layout decisions of Mumbet’s Declaration of Rights invites readers to linger on each page. Beginning with the cover, discuss with students what we learn from the title and close-up image of Mumbet’s face. Consider beginning a K-W-L chart with your class centered around what we know, wonder, and learn about Mumbet and this time in American history throughout the book. Draw students’ attention to the endpapers which string the words she overhears colonists discussing as they crafted the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 . Notice the font replicating fountain pens and how various portraits of Mumbet are featured in the background. Linger with students on the title page noticing the color choices that reveal the setting and how Mumbet is portrayed differently on this page in comparison to the cover. Throughout the book pause with students to notice how key words are larger and more bold throughout the text to draw readers in to what’s important. Consider with students why these words hold greater significance including: owned, freedom, “useless garbage“, and all.  
Writing History: Biography or Historical Fiction? Given the extensive role dialogue plays in this story, discuss with students whether you would characterize this book as a biography or historical fiction. To write a biography of someone else’s life requires research. Read with students the author’s note and discuss the kinds of research Gretchen Woelfle would have engaged in to write about Mumbet’s life with such detail. Could she have read primary documents including Mumbet’s 1781 court case? Could she have visited her burial plot in Stockbridge, Massaschusetts and spoken to historians at the Ashley House? Consider with students whether Woelfle fictionalized the dialogue and internal thoughts or whether she would have found them recorded somewhere.  In the author’s note,  Woelfle explains that while there is much we know about Mumbet there is equally much we don’t know. Discuss with students the complexity of finding primary sources and credible secondary sources when researching people who were slaves. View a website dedicated to Mumbet with students to find the court record from her 1781 trial, portraits, her will, and photos of her gravesite. The New York Historical Society has a wealth of primary source documents from slaves who lived in New York. Consider having students read and discuss primary documents from the slave era, noting what kinds of documents they find, the significance they hold in American history, and what they learn. 

Multigenre Text Set: Narratives of Slaves and Black Americans. In the eighteenth century, particularly in New England and the mid-Atlantic states, there were free and enslaved Black Americans living side by side. To support students to better understand and contextual the era, read other narratives of slaves including Sojourner Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass, and Dave Drake (known as Dave, the potter) (see Resources). Expand student understanding of the experience of slavery through the reading of African American Folktales such as the collections by Virginia Hamilton (see Resources). To further student understanding, view the video of Danny Glover reading from Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of Fourth of July for a Negro.” Encourage students to share what they learned from this performance about the complexity of national identity for slaves. Share these texts alongside accounts of African Americans who lived in this era and were not enslaved such as the Black whaling captain Paul Cuffee. Students can be supported to understand that slavery existed in the North and that being Black was not synonymous with slavery. 
The Power and Importance of a Name. Mumbet was called many names including Bett, Betty, and Mom Bett. She didn’t have an official first name and didn’t have a last name until she was free and could name herself. Once free she gave herself the name Elizabeth Freeman. Discuss with students the ways we connect with our names and the roots it has to our own families. With sensitive consideration of family structures, consider having students interview family members about their names, why they were chosen, what they mean, and the history of their last names. Have students then consider the ways slaves were robbed of their identities, histories, and family origins through naming systems that did not allow for last names. Have students discuss the power of Mumbet’s choice of last name–Freeman. 
Human Rights Text Set. The words of Article I of The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 prompted Mumbet to go to court and win her freedom. Article I begins with the words: “All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” These words echo the sentiment of the Declaration of Independence from four years earlier. Support students to analyze the Declaration of Independence, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly. Discuss with students ways the UDHRs is used today and how issues of freedom remain a fundamental global issue. Consider supporting understanding through multimedia arrangements by groups such as Human Rights Action and Amnesty International. In addition, consider having students write their own Rights of Children. With their own ideas drafted, read and discuss with students the Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted in 1959 by the United Nations General Assembly.  What similarities do they notice between their own thinking about children’s rights and the UN’s? You may want to draw students’ attention to Article III about entitlement to a name in light of Mumbet’s story. 
Author Study. Gretchen Woelfle is the author of many picture books, short stories, essays, and biographies. View her website with your students to learn more about her work and her interests. Consider a shared writing activity where you and your class compose an email to Woelfle offering your own book review followed by questions about her research and her latest writing adventures. Create a text set of Mumbet’s Declaration of Independence along with other books of Woelfle’s about pioneering women including Write on, Mercy! The Secret Life of Mercy Ottis Warren and Jeanette Rankin: Political Pioneer. 
Illustrator Study. Alix Delinois has also illustrated Eight Days: A Story of Haiti by Edwidge Danticat and Muhammad Ali: The People’s Champion by Walter Dean Myers. View his illustrations through these picture books and through his website portfolio. Encourage students to closely read and make connections across these texts using the academic language of visual literacy through discussion of the impact of color choices, line, form, shape, and layout. 

Learning About Author’s Craft. Throughout the book, Woelfle uses craft techniques that make Mumbet’s Declaration a strong mentor text for narrative writing, particularly history-based narrative. Note for students Woelfle’s use of description of people and events, Mumbet’s internal thinking, dialogue between Mumbet and Mr. Sedgwick, metaphors, and onomatopoeia to emphasize actions. Explore with students what it means to write a biography and why authors might choose to include dialogue for effect. Unless the language is pulled from a written work as evidence, how can we have dialogue in biography? Consider with students how to rewrite passages with dialogue to be strictly nonfiction. How can they do that and still use an engaging voice? 
Critical Literacy

Grades 4-8

Modeled Inquiry and Becoming Inquirers. Mumbet’s freedom started with her own inquiry. She imagined a better world where she could secure her own freedom. Support students to share their own wonderings about the story, this chapter in American history, and about other conditions of injustice. What wonderings do they have that can make the world a better place? What would they like to change in their own neighborhoods? What will they do to enact this change? 
What it Means to Be Literate. Mumbet did not read or write, but her words and her voice were powerful. Consider with students the ways that people can make their voices heard today. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have made an enormous impact on social change as seen through the events in Egypt in 2010.  Consider with students how sites like Instagram allow users to share their voice without words. What kinds of social tools do they find powerful? In what spaces do they share their own voice? In what ways should we redefine what it means to be “literate”?
Rewriting History from Voices Unheard. American history is often told through the eyes of elected leaders which means that textbooks and historical accounts heavily lean towards the telling of history from White, male, economically and socially privileged positions. Interrogate with students your social studies textbook and have students rewrite history from other points of view. Whose voices are centered? Whose voices are missing? Encourage students to conduct research to find out more about the voices unheard including women, children, and those from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. 
Online Resources

Gretchen Woelfle’s Site

Alix Delinois’ Site

New York Times Book Review

Site Dedicated to Elizabeth Mumbet Freeman
The Upper Housatonic Valley African American Heritage Trail

Massachusetts Historical Society

The MA Historical Society

African American History Museum: Nantucket Campus

Paul Cuffee Collection at the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

UDHR Youtube created by Human Rights Action
UDHR Animated by Amensty International
New York Historical Society Slavery In New York Materials
Born in Slavery Collection from The Library of Congress
Slave Narratives from Africans in America PBS Series
Slavery and the Making of America PBS Series
Slave Narratives HBO Special Available on YouTube
John Adams Declaration of Independence Scene from HBO Series
Amnesty International. (2008). We are all born free: The universal declaration of human rights in pictures. London, UK: Frances Lincoln Children’s Books. 

Bolden, T. (2002). Tell all the children our story: Memories and mementos of being young and black in americaHenry N. Adams Press. 

Hamilton, V. (2002). Many thousand gone: African americans from slavery to freedom. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers. 
Hamilton, V. (1993). The people could fly: American black folktales. New York, NY: Knopf Books for Young Readers. 

Hill, L.C. (2010). Dave the potter: Artist, poet, slaveNew York, NY: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Jacobs, H. (1861/2001). Harriet Jacobs: Incidents from the life of a slave girl. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications. 
Laiz, J. (2009). A free woman on God’s earth: The true story of elizabeth mumbet freedom, the slave who won her freedom. South Egremont, MA: Crow Flies Press. 

Levine, E. (2007). Henry’s freedom box. New York, NY: Scholastic Press. 

Truth, S. ( 1850/1997). Narrative of Sojourner TruthMineola, NY: Dover Publications. 
Lester, J. (2000).  To be a slave. New York, NY: Puffin Press. 
Lester, J. (1999). From slave ship to freedom roadNew York, NY: Puffin Press. 
Lester, J. (2007). Day of tears. New York, NY: Hyperion Books. 
McKissak, P. (1999). Black hands, white sails. New York, NY: Scholastic Press. 

National Geographic. (2008). Every human has rights: What you need to know about your human rights. Des Moines, IA: National Geographic Children’s Books. 

Stroud, B. (2007). The patchwork path: A quilt map to freedom. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press. 
Weatherford, C. B. (2006). Moses: When Harriet Tubman led her people to freedom. New York, NY: Hyperion Books. 
Yetman, N. (2002). When I was a slave: Memoirs from the Slave Narrative CollectionMineola, NY: Dover Publications. 

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is an associate professor of literacy at Manhattanville College. Her work focuses on children’s literature, literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.