A Few Books and Movies About American Slavery


django unchainedWant 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.

6 responses to “A Few Books and Movies About American Slavery

  1. Not sure I’d qualify Tarantino’s “Basterds” and “Django” as wonderful, given they are more for entertainment value rather than accurate history by any means. I was called out (thankfully) to do a dead body removal (I worked at a funeral home at the time) while watching “Basterds” and just never bothered to rent it to see what I missed. “Django” I actually enjoyed… watching some fave actors in other than their typical roles… and the fictional idea of a “Dirty Harry” slave was cool. But… there were more than a few historical inaccuracies in both films so I’d caution your readers to take to much to heart if they watch them. Your other references are very sound sources though, to be sure.
    You know.. given you’ve gone this far you might want to present to your readership the history of the Ku Klux Klan, which was an important part as a result of the collapse of Reconstruction. An interesting historical tidbit… you mentioned how “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was a catalyst for abolitionist furvor in the North. A ressurgence in the Klan in the very early 20th century was due in great part to the silent film “Birth Of A Nation”, which rather depicted the Klan as a glorious organization. Even to this day.. the media plays a role in how our history is formed.

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    • Hi Doug, Yes, I know Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds are fiction and historically inaccurate. Nobody ever managed to burn to death the entire top tier of the SS. But it’s what everyone wants to do when they see what those bastards did, so you get to vicariously do it. The same in Django Unchained. You should finish Inglourious Basterds. Just don’t start watching it expecting a regular WWII movie. It’s meant to be a theatrical, cathartic experience. The crescendo even takes place in a movie theater.
      As for the KKK, that’s a good idea. But I’ll give everyone a break first. Me too. And I’m still reading Du Bois. I want to thank you, by the way. I really enjoyed writing this series. I started with what I knew, but especially your comments kept me on my toes and I learned a lot more. I had always meant to read Du Bois, but now I finally did.

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  2. Great list. I have 12 Years on my library request list.
    If I may add one more:
    Frederick Douglass’ autobiography
    Anyone interested in the civil rights movement and what happened behind the scenes may be interested in Harry Belafonte’s memoir My Song

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    • Great! Thanks, Debra.
      Yes, Frederick Douglas was also a former slave. It’s much more well-known than 12 Years a Slave was until recently.
      At some point I might write more about the Civil Rights Movement.
      As for slave songs: I learned from reading Hambly’s Benjamin January books that many slave songs were secret instructions for runaway slaves that might be nearby while they were working in the fields. Any song about wading in the water, for instance, could mean that whites were hunting for the runaway with dogs, so he should go through water whenever possible, so the dogs couldn’t follow the scent.

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  3. Some of those old songs are so beautiful, too. They continue to be sung. I love how even in the worst of situations hope remains.

    I haven’t read any Benjamin January books. More for the list. thanks!

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    • Yes, especially if you ever go to New Orleans, you should start reading one, because he (I mean the character) mentions all the streets where he walks and where his friends live and all that, and it’s all in the old part of town, so you can actually follow his footsteps and imagine which houses were placee’s cottages, etc.

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