The best books by or about notable enslaved women

The Books I Picked & Why

Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

By Nell Irwin Painter

Book cover of Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol

Why this book?

In the photograph chosen for the cover of this book, Sojourner Truth’s simple but elegant dress, white shawl, and close-fitting headdress, the knitting needles in her hands, and the ball of yarn on her lap tell a story quite different from the one told by the direct gaze of her bespeckled eyes. Isabella, the slave born in Ulster County, New York in the late 1790s and whose first words were in Dutch, walked away from the abuses of slavery in 1826, learned to speak English, and in 1843, became Sojourner Truth, the preacher, orator, abolitionist, and feminist who travelled the nation. Painter’s well-researched and well-told biography brings together the whole story of this self-defined, indomitable, inspirational woman.

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Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

By Catherine Clinton

Book cover of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

Why this book?

I have visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, three times, so far, each time making made sure to see Harriet Tubman’s Bible and lace shawl. Searching for a good book about this courageous woman, I found the biography by Catherine Clinton. In scholarly yet compelling prose, Clinton reveals how a diminutive, illiterate young black woman with narcolepsy and a seizure disorder escaped enslavement in Maryland alone, returned more than a dozen times to lead an estimated seventy enslaved people to freedom in the North, helped John Brown plan his raid on Harper’s Ferry, served as a scout and spy for the Union Army, and led an armed expedition that freed some 700 slaves during the Civil War. Amazing!

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Complete Writings

By Phillis Wheatley

Book cover of Complete Writings

Why this book?

In 1761, the slave ship Phillis departed from Africa and headed toward America. Among the human cargo was a young girl. Judging by her missing incisors, she was seven or eight years old. Soon after the ship’s arrival in Boston, John and Susann Wheatley purchased the girl and named her after the ship that had delivered her to them. Mrs. Wheatley taught their servant to read and write and introduced her to classical and English literature, including revered poets. Around 1765, Phillis began writing poetry, and her first poem, “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin,” published in 1767, when she was only about fourteen years old, rendered her the first black person in America to publish a poem. Carretta’s collection of Wheatley’s work includes a fascinating, thoroughly researched introduction.

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The Bondwoman's Narrative

By Hannah Crafts

Book cover of The Bondwoman's Narrative

Why this book?

Though not published until 2002, after Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. purchased and authenticated the manuscript, the autobiographical novel The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts is widely considered the first book known to have been written by a fugitive enslaved woman. Crafts was the author’s pseudonym, and the novel, estimated to have been written in 1858, parallels the life of Hannah Bond, a woman who is documented to have escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation and who, like the novel’s protagonist, eventually settled in New Jersey. The preface and introduction of the published book read like a mystery adventure as Professor Gates reveals his multifaceted strategies to identify the real-life author and the real-life characters of her book.

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Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Harriet Jacobs

Book cover of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Why this book?

Jacobs’ emotionally compelling book is arguably the most well-known slave narrative written by a woman. Published in 1861, under the pseudonym Linda Brent, this intimate memoir played an important role in the antislavery movement. Nineteen-century readers were moved, as are readers today, by the story of a young woman so determined to avoid the sexual advances of her enslaver that, for seven years, she hides in her grandmother’s coffin-like attic from which she secretly watches from afar her two children at play. The narrative ends on a cautiously hopeful note. When Jacobs finally escapes from North Carolina, she is able to spend time with her children in New York City and Boston, but she is still enslaved.

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