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Cover image for How they got over : African Americans and the call of the sea
How they got over : African Americans and the call of the sea

1st ed.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, c2003.
Physical Description:
xvii, 104 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Profiles: Paul Cuffe (1759-1817) -- James Forten (1766-1842) -- Robert Smalls (1839-1915) -- Matthew Henson (1866-1955) -- Shirley Lee (1935- ) -- Evelyn J. Fields (1949- ) -- Michelle Janine Howard (1960- ) -- Snapshots: Langston Hughes (1902-1967) -- Alex Haley (1921-1992) -- Samuel L. Gravely Jr. (1922- ) -- Carl M. Brashear (1931- ) -- Albert José Jones (birthdate unavailable) -- William Pinkney (1938- ).
Added Author:
Profiles African American men and women who have had a strong connection with the sea, from slaves whose owners sent them to work on ships to today's fishermen, naval officers, and marine biologists.


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book J 920 GRE 1 1

On Order



African Americans have been drawn to the sea for hundreds of years. In this collection of biographies, Eloise Greenfield examines how that connection to the sea has influenced generations of African Americans -- from a shipbuilder-businessman during the American Revolution to the first woman and African American to hold the highest-ranking position in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps. The lives of the extraordinary men and women included here create a stirring image of the powerful tie between African Americans and the water that has both bound them and set them free. Jan Spivey Gilchrist's artwork is as evocative as the profiles of the people it illustrates.

Author Notes

Eloise Greenfield was born in Parmele, North Carolina, on May 17, 1929. While she was still an infant, her family moved to Washington, D.C., where she has lived ever since. Ms. Greenfield studied piano as a child and teenager, before getting a full time civil service job. Her decision to write came from a lack of books on African Americans. There were far too few books that told the truth about African-American people. Ms. Greenfield wanted to change that.

Greenfield has received many honors for her work, including the 1990 Recognition of Merit Award presented by the George G. Stone Center for Children's Books in Claremont, California for Honey, I Love; and an honorary degree from Wheelock College in Boston, Massachusetts. In addition to writing herself, Eloise Greenfield has found time to work with other writers. She headed the Adult Fiction and Children's Literature divisions of the D.C. Black Writers' Workshop (now defunct), a group whose goal was to encourage the writing and publishing of Africa-American literature. She has given free workshops on the writing of African-American literature for children, and, under grants from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, has taught creative writing to elementary and junior high school students. Ms. Greenfield is also a member of the African-American Writers Guild.

Greenfield has also received the Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children, given by the National Council of Teachers of English. In 1999 she became a member of the National Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent. She has received the Coretta Scott King Award for Africa Dream, the Carter G. Woodson Award for Rosa Parks, and the Irma Simonton Black Award for She Come Bringing Me That Little Baby Girl. For many of her books, she has received Notable Book citations from the American Library Association, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Council for the Social Studies. Ms. Greenfield has received, for the body of her work, the 1993 Lifetime Achievement Award from Moonstone, Inc., Philadelphia; and the 1993 Children's Literature and Social Responsibility Award from the Boston Educators for Social Responsibility.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 5

School Library Journal Review

Gr 3-5-Eight seafaring African Americans from the last 250 years are profiled: Paul Cuffe, James Forten, Robert Smalls, Matthew Henson, recreational scuba diver Shirley Lee, Evelyn Fields of NOAA, and Michelle Howard of the U.S. Navy. The title refers not to their crossing the ocean, but to the meaning in the gospel song "How I Got Over"-in other words, how they pushed on with their lives, "in spite of pain, grief and enormous obstacles." A full-page, black-and-white drawing of each individual accompanies the text. Following the profiles are "snapshots," or spreads, that introduce Langston Hughes, Alex Haley, Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., Carl M. Brashear, Albert Jos Jones, and William Pinkney. A "montage" highlights African-American involvement with the sea, be it as Civil War sailors or Pea Island Station Lifesavers. The bibliography is extensive. The open layout, generous type size, and engaging writing make this a good choice for reports.-Diane S. Marton, Arlington County Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Publisher's Weekly Review

Taking the title from the gospel song "How I Got Over," Eloise Greenfield discusses, through 13 biographies, how African-Americans "were able to get on with their lives, in spite of pain, grief and enormous obstacles" in How They Got Over: African Americans and the Call of the Sea, illus. by Jan Spivey Gilchrist. Paul Cuffe, an African-American shipbuilder, a member of the American Colonization Society and a founder of a colony for free blacks in Sierra Leone, leads the way. A wide range of individuals people the volume, including Rear Adm. Evelyn J. Fields, who holds the highest position in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps, and Alex Haley, who joined the U.S. Coast Guard at age 17 and, the author asserts, "became a writer during his life at sea, and at least partly because of it." (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Horn Book Review

(Intermediate) The black Americans profiled here all turned to the sea as a means of ""getting over""--finding a way, as in the gospel song ""How I Got Over,"" to get on with one's life ""in spite of pain, grief and enormous obstacles."" In the first section (""Profiles""), seven men and women, introduced chronologically--from Paul Cuffe (1759-1817), a merchant who built boats and sailed them commercially, to Commander Michelle Janine Howard (1960- ), appointed to work with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2000--not only answer the call of the sea but make distinguished contributions to nautical history. The second section (""Snapshots"") provides sketches of six twentieth-century seafarers (including Alex Haley and Carl Brashear), while the concluding section (""Montage"") provides brief annotations of groups of individuals--such as the all-black crew of lifesavers on North Carolina's Outer Banks--that subtly lead readers to further research. A complete bibliography, citing books, articles, and interviews, marks an excellent starting point for such inquiry. Full-page pencil illustrations introduce the first seven subjects, while an uncaptioned group portrait of the second six asks readers to match the faces with their stories. The engaging text deftly defines unfamiliar words and neatly provides historical context. Greenfield writes, ""The sea, with its power and beauty, never begs for attention. It demands it."" The same can be said of this fine, and unusual, collective biography. Index. (c) Copyright 2010. The Horn Book, Inc., a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

A series of sketches, some sketchier than others, attempts to bring to a child audience a number of African-Americans who have had some relationship with the sea. Figures from history--Paul Cuffe, James Forten, Matthew Henson--share space with more contemporary and less well-known figures--deep-sea diver Shirley Lee, NOAA administrator Rear Admiral Evelyn J. Fields, Naval Commander Michelle Janine Howard. These "Profiles" are followed by a series of "Snapshots"--brief page-and-a-half entries on such individuals as Langston Hughes and Alex Haley which emphasize their sea-going sides--and then a brief "Montage" of paragraph-long blurbs on other African-American involvements with the sea. The organizational concept is novel, but that's where the novelty ends. The relative unevenness of coverage gives the whole a somewhat scattershot effect and mostly tantalizes rather than informs with the briefer entries. There is very little indication in this offering that Greenfield (Honey, I Love, above, etc.) is a poet: short, choppy sentences rarely attain a level of beauty higher than bland. As nonfiction, it reads like a very old-fashioned example of the art. Despite allusions in the text to diaries and letters, primary-source material makes no appearance; neither, with one exception, are there quotes from any of the living figures profiled. Combined with the generally undistinguished language, this makes for an essentially passive text. Frequent collaborator Gilchrist (as above) provides black-and-white portraits of the individuals represented at the beginning of each chapter. A bibliography and index (not seen) round out this uninspiring biographical collection. (Biography. 8-11)

Booklist Review

Gr. 4^-6. This well-designed collective biography features African American men and women who answered the call of the sea. In the first section, "Profiles," Greenfield presents seven individuals, each introduced by a full-page black-and-white illustration. The second section, "Snapshots," introduces six people, some not thought of in terms of the sea, including Langston Hughes, who worked as a mess boy on a ship bound for Africa. The breadth of the subject gives Greenfield a variety of stories to tell, and she tells them very well. Among those profiled are Michelle Janine Howard, the first woman to act as the executive officer of a U.S. Navy combat ship, and Robert Smalls, who sailed a Confederate ship carrying 16 slaves out of Charleston Harbor to the Union fleet and freedom. The final pages provide brief introductions to topics such as the all-black Pea Island Station Lifesavers of North Carolina and the WAVES program of the U.S. Navy. With subtle shading and effective use of white space, Gilchrist provides sensitive drawings. An afterword and extensive bibliographies of books and other sources are appended. Worthwhile reading on an unusual topic. Carolyn Phelan

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