Past and Present Merge to Lift Us in Bryan Collier’s We Shall Overcome
We Shall Overcome
Illustrated by Bryan Collier
Published in 2021 by Scholastic
Ages PK -6
Weaving past and present together through image and anthem, master illustrator Bryan Collier gifts us the inspiring message of the protest song “We Shall Overcome” in the form of a picturebook. Immersed in Collier’s deeply symbolic collages, readers accompany a young Black girl wearing a bright yellow dress as she leaves her home, goes to school, and gathers with friends to paint a mural near a street with bright yellow lettering that reads ‘Black Lives Matter.’ The text is composed solely of several verses of the famous spiritual printed line by line below double page spreads. The illustrations fuse past events with the present narrative; historical figures and monuments are represented by Collier in black and white, while the present is represented in bright colors. For example, when the young girl rides the bus to school, she appears to be seated across from Rosa Parks. As she enters her school building, she walks alongside the Little Rock Nine being escorted by armed guards into Little Rock Central High School. The last double page spread is particularly stunning; Collier echoes visual motifs from previous pages to create a butterfly-winged image of the girl. As she extends a peace sign to readers, she stands in front of images of those who have worked to lift her, while her wings reflect the images of those in whose footsteps she has walked. Back matter includes notes on the historic and contemporary images along with an Illustrator’s note. This moving picturebook invites us all to reflect on the contributions of the freedom fighters who have come before us, and on all of our roles and responsibilities in sustaining the continuing journey toward freedom.
Teaching Ideas: Invitations for Your Classroom
Note to our Readers: These ideas are not meant to be prescriptive. Choose one. Choose more. It’s up to you. Some ideas are bigger and will take a number of days to complete. Some are shorter. You can also choose to complete one part of a teaching idea, but not the whole thing. It’s up to you!
Reading the Journey: Visual Literacy. Allow time for a deep study of the images in We Shall Overcome. Ask students to describe what they see, using Visual Thinking Strategies – “What’s going on in this picture?” Read the Back Matter that includes Collier’s notes on the historical monuments featured in the illustrations. Pay particular attention to the final double page spread with the word: “…someday.” Invite students to think aloud about the symbolism expressed in this powerful image. Students may notice how this page incorporates visual elements from the previous pages and the way that the girl’s wings are self-created (the butterfly mural), and constructed from the support she has received from others (faces in the footsteps).
Connections: “Hand in Hand”. As students read We Shall Overcome, they may notice the visual motif of connection. Several double page spreads include images of hand holding and people walking shoulder to shoulder and arm in arm. In the context of the pandemic and the physical separation we have endured, these images are especially striking. Invite students to consider how we connect as human beings and how connections help us to bridge differences in life experiences. Collaborate with your art teacher to construct a mural that celebrates these connections (for further inspiration see Maybe Something Beautiful).
In Whose Footsteps Do You Walk? As you read We Shall Overcome and engage in the close study of illustrations described in the teaching invitation above, students are sure to note the images of faces in the footsteps of the young people participating in the Black Lives Matter protests. After discussing this symbolism, ask your student to consider in whose footsteps they walk symbolically – who are the people who have created opportunities for them and whose ways of life they emulate. To pay tribute to the people they identify, students can create an individual or collective art project that emulates Collier’s technique of representing faces in footsteps.
History of a Song. In the back matter and in his Illustrator’s note, Bryan Collier notes the enduring presence of the song “We Shall Overcome.” Learn more about the history of this anthem in Debbie Levy’s We Shall Overcome: The History of a Song illustrated by Vanessa Bradley-Newton. Additional resources include The Kennedy Center’s: Story Behind the Song, Genie Deez’s YouTube video: “A History of We Shall Overcome”, A search on YouTube also turns up performances, such as Joan Baez at the March on Washington, Pete Seegar, Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson. As an extension, ask students to consider the role of an ‘anthem’ in inspiring unity and social change: for more, see the teaching invitation about anthems in our entry on Amanda Gordon’s Change Sings.
Picture Books Based on Songs. Extend the teaching invitation above with an exploration of other picturebooks based on songs or poems (for example, Kadir Nelson’s He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands, Ashley Bryan’s Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals, and other titles by this master illustrator, Bryan Collier’s version of Langston Hughes’s I, Too, Am America, E.B. Lewis’s This Little Light of Mine, and Dav Pilkey’s illustrated version of Richard Blanco’s One Today. Students can select a song or poem of deep significance in their own lives and create illustrations to accompany the lyrics .
Duet Model Reading: The Undefeated. Read We Shall Overcome in a Duet Model with Kwame Alexander and Kadir Nelson’s The Undefeated. Discuss how each book blends past and present and celebrates the accomplishments of Black Americans. Invite students to consider how they might use text and image to pay tribute to African American history and contemporary movements, such as Black Lives Matter.
Symbols of Peace: A Peace Offering. The young African American girl (identified as such by Collier in his dedication) featured on the cover and throughout the book, holds out a peace symbol. Her eyes look into those of the reader, and it’s easy to imagine that the offering extends out of the book. Invite your students to connect with the concept of peace and the history represented in Collier’s illustrations. Read Baptiste and Miranda Paul’s picture book Peace and invite students to consider multiple meanings of peace as well as how each book is itself a peace offering. Encourage your students to reach out with peace offerings of their own. Depending on the time you have available, these offerings can be as simple or complex as the extension of a greeting, a gift of art, the composition of a song, the planning of an event, or the creation of a memorial (endless possibilities….).
Merging Past and Present. Collaborate with your school art teacher or a local artists to create images that merge the past and present as Collier has done. Ask students to select a moment from history that resonates with or is significant to them. Students can research images from that event or time period using local or national archives or museum or organization websites. Using mixed media, students can create art that merges these historical images with contemporary images to represent the connections students are making.
Illustrator Study. Bryan Collier has won numerous awards for his illustrations and was recently selected to deliver the 2023 Children’s Literature Lecture Award. Engage students in a study of Bryan Collier’s books, including those featured on the Classroom Bookshelf (see Further Explorations below). Learn about Bryan Collier’s life and work on his website and in the interviews included in the Further Explorations section. What do students notice about Collier’s process, technique, style, and commitments? What more do they want to learn?
Grades 4 and Up
Peaceful Protests. Learn more about the history of peaceful protest in Black history. Collaborate with your school or local library to compile a text set of titles that feature peaceful protest. Classroom bookshelf entries include: The Teacher’s March, No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, Above the Rim: How Elgin Baylor Changed Basketball The Teachers March! How Selma’s Teachers Changed History ,and March: Book Three . Be sure to include Kathlyn J. Kirkwood’s memoir for middle grade readers titled Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day to add a powerful first hand account of peaceful activism.
Critical Literacy: Black Lives Matter Mural. We Shall Overcome includes an image of ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted in yellow on black pavement. Provide students with photgraphs of the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington DC and read about the mural’s history in this Guide to Black Lives Matter Plaza. Engage students in a discussion of Murial Bowser’s intention to signify that this was a safe location for people to gather to protest police violence. Discuss the power of visual display, language and art. Next read about controversy over this art project in the New Yorker article “The Secret Project That Led to Black Lives Matter Murals Coast to Coast” and in this Washington Post article. Support students to understand the critique of Mayor Bowser by the local chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement that the mural was ‘lip service’ rather than support for change in policing. Encourage students to to debate the power of the mural – socially, symbolically, and as a form of activism.
Genie Deez’s YouTube video: “A History of We Shall Overcome”
Kathlyn J. Kirkwood’s memoir Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round: My Story of the Making of Martin Luther King Day
Bryan, A. (2012). Walk together children: Black American Spirituals, Volume One. Alazar Press.
Kirkwood, K.J. (2022). Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round: My story of the making of Martin Luther King day. Ill. by S. Walthall. Versify.
Levy, D. (2013), We Shall Overcome: The History of a Song. Ill. by S. Walthall. Versify / Harper Collins.
Lewis, E.B. (2005). This little light of mine. Simon & Schuster.
Nelson, K. (2005). He’s got the whole world in his hands. Dial Books.
Bryan Collier titles featured on The Classroom Bookshelf:
I Too, Sing America
Between the Lines: How Ernie Barnes Went From the Football Field to the Art Gallery
Dave the Potter
About Erika Thulin Dawes
Erika is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former classroom teacher, reading specialist, and literacy supervisor, she now teaches courses in children’s literature, early literacy, and literacy methods. Erika is the co-author of Learning to Write with Purpose, Teaching with Text Sets, and Teaching to Complexity.
SLJ Blog Network