The Fisk Jubilee Singers are a world-renowned African-American choir from Nashville, Tennessee. In Give Me Wings, former Tundra Books publisher (and anthropologist) Kathy Lowinger explores the origins of this group, which arose to face the challenges of a post–Civil War society. Ella Sheppard, a young former slave, helped form the group in 1871 as a way to earn funds for the Fisk Free Colored School, now Fisk University. Her story, and that of the Jubilee Singers, drives the plot, but Lowinger’s book is more ambitious than a simple biography.
To explain the significance of the choir’s struggles and its achievements in such turbulent times, Lowinger seamlessly weaves historical information into her narrative, about subjects such as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. In addition, numerous sidebars, photographs, quotes, and prints put faces to the people involved and clearly answer such questions as how slavery came to the U.S. in the first place. They also provide succinct introductions to important personalities of the time, including Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.
Given that the book covers so much ground, the bigger issues could be overwhelming. To her credit, Lowinger doesn’t let this happen. She writes with a storyteller’s ease, and the narrative never feels weighed down by dry facts. The author also inserts fictionalized scenes at the beginning of each chapter, further humanizing the story. Eavesdropping on these imagined conversations helps make the events more meaningful and the historical people real for a young 21st–century audience. Real, too, are the songs, although most middle-grade readers will not recognize them. However, the powerful lyrics to standards such as “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” punctuate each chapter and remind us that the Jubilee Singers had a message to deliver.
Give Me Wings is an engaging tribute to the singers’ fight to be heard and their ultimate success.