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DON"T PANIC

The Story of Slavery

Posted by jcmaziquemd on September 25, 2010

The Story of Slavery

  • By CYNTHIA CROSSEN

Columnist's name

Textbooks can illuminate the economic and political foundations of American slavery, but novelists tell the story I want to know: how slaves were captured and sold, their daily lives (what they ate, where they slept, what they sang), how they endured.

The truest story of all comes from slaves themselves, and you can hear some of their voices on the audio book version of "Remembering Slavery," a collection of interviews with former slaves conducted in the 1930s. These witnesses to an unimaginable life are unsentimental but poignant beyond belief: "During slavery, it seemed like your children belonged to everybody but you."

My favorite novels about slavery are James McBride’s "Song Yet Sung," which shows how the voices of slaves who were forbidden to speak to one another could not be silenced; "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation" by M. T. Anderson, the story of a slave in Revolutionary-era Boston, when slave-owning patriots were noisily and hypocritically extolling freedom; Valerie Martin’s "Property," an illustration of how slavery was often a "negotiated relationship" between master—or mistress—and slave (though not between equals); Barry Unsworth’s "Sacred Hunger"—the triangle of human trafficking among English investors, African traders and American plantation owners; and "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones, whose depiction of a freed slave owning slaves is staggering.

A nonfiction work that gives a vivid picture of life on one plantation—Thomas Jefferson’s—is Annette Gordon-Reed’s "The Hemingses of Monticello." Whatever her relationship to Jefferson, Sally Hemings was clearly an extraordinary woman, who managed to negotiate her children’s freedom. Although I haven’t read it, I’m intrigued by David Bradley’s "The Chaneysville Incident," a historical novel about a group of escaped slaves who supposedly chose to die rather than return to slavery.

William Styron’s "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a fictional memoir of the slave who incited a violent rebellion in Virginia in 1831, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1968 despite a furious controversy over whether Mr. Styron, a white Southerner, could truly imagine what it was like to be a slave who believes he’s divinely inspired to liberate his people. It’s worth reading if only to answer that question for yourself.

My daughter has been studying slavery in her American history class, and I realize I don’t know as much about it as I thought I did. I mainly like to read novels. What are some good ones about this subject?

—J.K., St. Louis

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