Want to read or watch some more about American slavery?
Of course the first book on the list should be Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. It’s fiction, but based firmly in the harsh reality of slavery. It’s called the book that started the war. It certainly increased Northerners’ sympathy for slaves. Of course, if Uncle Tom had been a little less turn-the-other-cheek Christian the book wouldn’t have been so influential. But all of Uncle Tom’s misplaced pacifism and loyalty to the guy who sold him down the river aside, it is actually a pretty strong social commentary.
Roots, by Alex Haley, tells the story of slavery from a slave’s perspective. In the 1970’s it was made into a mini-series for television. A definite must-read. It might also be a must-see; I don’t know, because I never saw the series.
My all-time favorite book about slavery and one of my all-time favorite books in general is Alan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. The oldest woman in town is being interviewed by a newspaper reporter. The woman tells her life story, which includes getting married to a middle-aged veteran of the Civil War at age thirteen. Her husband was the youngest Civil War soldier at age thirteen.
A more recent literary novel is The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. It addresses slavery in Virginia, including the phenomenon of black slaveholders. It won several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Lately I’ve been reading Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January books, a series of mysteries set in 1830s New Orleans, among the free people of color. Benjamin’s mother is a placee who lives in the French Quarter. Benjamin was trained as a doctor in Paris, but here in New Orleans he makes his living as a piano player. Each book, apart from being a murder mystery, focuses on one aspect of life in 1830s New Orleans. The first book in the series is A Free Man of Color.
And for those of you willing to do some research: Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Yep, believe it or not, Moby Dick is about slavery and all the politics surrounding it. In order to figure it all out, you’ll have to not only read the book itself, but several scholarly articles. I had fun doing it in graduate school, but I know it’s not for everyone.
As for non-fiction, I read a lot of books on the subject of slavery in high school, but I don’t remember specific titles. At the moment I’m reading Black Reconstruction in America by W.E.B. Du Bois. I can definitely recommend it. It’s extremely detailed and yet it reads like a train. Also, one of my readers brought this article to my attention. Thanks, Michiel.
There are plenty of first-hand accounts out there, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup being the first one that comes to mind because of the Oscar-winning movie based on the book.
As for movies, I can recommend Amistad, based on the true story of mutiny on a slave ship; 12 Years a Slave, obviously; and Django Unchained. The latter is Quentin Tarantino’s wonderful, completely fictional revenge movie, done in the same style as Inglourious Basterds. Watch for my favorite line: “I love the way you die, son”.
This is just a list of the first books and movies about slavery that come to my mind that I can really recommend. What are some of your favorites? Let us know in a comment.