The best books to learn about the African experience of slavery and its afterlives

Portia Owusu Author Of Spectres from the Past: Slavery and the Politics of "History" in West African and African-American Literature
By Portia Owusu

Who am I?

I am a scholar of African and African American literature with interests in the cultures, histories, and philosophies of Africa and the diaspora. Currently, I teach and research at Texas A&M University. The history of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies are huge components of my current research; it is also the topic of my doctoral research which I completed in 2017 at The School of Oriental African Studies (SOAS), The University of London. 


I wrote...

Spectres from the Past: Slavery and the Politics of "History" in West African and African-American Literature

By Portia Owusu,

Book cover of Spectres from the Past: Slavery and the Politics of "History" in West African and African-American Literature

What is my book about?

Historical memory of slavery in the US is controversial, but undeniable. This is largely due to the plethora of scholarship on the subject. This is not the same, however, in Africa, where an incalculable number of people were forcibly deported and enslaved in the New World. The obvious link between the past and the present in African American literature and popular discourses appears missing in Africa. Thus, the conclusion is: in Africa, there is no historical memory of slavery. 

My book contends with this thesis. It provides a reading of selected West African narratives to note unique and specific ways that African writers remember and articulate the enduring legacy of slavery and how these both diverge and converge with perspectives in African American narratives. 

The books I picked & why

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Homegoing

By Yaa Gyasi,

Book cover of Homegoing

Why this book?

This book is, for me, the African Beloved (Toni Morrison). Just as Morrison delves into the interior lives of enslaved people, Gyasi’s concern is not with the history of slavery per se, but history as an evasive force in the lives of individuals. What I love about this book is its settings in historical sites of enslavement, namely Cape Coast (coastal Ghana) and the United States. In Gyasi’s portrayal of life among an African society, she gives readers opportunities to imagine African life before slavery and to really consider how the trade in flesh impacted individuals and communities. Gyasi doesn’t stop there: by following characters as enslaved persons from Africa to the Americas, she juxtaposes the convergences and divergences in the African and African American experiences of slavery and consequently, its afterlives.  


The Dilemma of a Ghost

By Christina Ama Ata. Aidoo,

Book cover of The Dilemma of a Ghost

Why this book?

The 1960s and 70s were periods of Black Consciousness, both in Africa and the diaspora. At the heart of this was Pan-Africanism, a political ideology built on historical and cultural links between Black people everywhere. At the heart of these ideas was a psychical and physical “return” to Africa, the “motherland”. This short, but powerful play, explore these politics in the marriage of Ato Yawson and Eulalie Rush, a Ghanaian man and an African-American woman who emigrate from the US to Ghana in search of racial and cultural harmony. What occurs is a dramatization of what happens when political ideologies are applied to private lives. What I love about this text is its confrontation of slavery as traumas that cannot be easily erased by political rhetoric and national endeavors to “move on.”


The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

By Olaudah Equiano,

Book cover of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African

Why this book?

Equiano’s text is part of the plethora of autobiographical narratives written by formerly enslaved persons who worked to abolish the slave trade in the 18th and 19th centuries. In this text is all the classic themes and conventions of the genre – the quest for freedom, trauma, dislocation, etc. – but Equinao text distinguishes itself as one of the few slave narratives that provide a detailed portrayal of an enslaved person’s formative years in Africa (in this case, Igboland, modern-day Nigeria), before enslavement in the New World. The unique aspect of the text allows meditations on identity, family, and childhood as formed and deformed by slavery. 


The Slave Girl

By Buchi Emecheta,

Book cover of The Slave Girl

Why this book?

The transatlantic slave trade was, historically, the most organized and sophisticated system of dependence, but it was not the only form of enslavement. In Africa, prior to it, and even proceeding it, were systems of bondage. This is the heart of Emecheta’s novel: set in the early 20th century, it tells the story of a young Igbo woman who loses her parents and is then sold into slavery. As characteristic of Emecheta, it is beautifully written and developed in characterization. Specifically, what I love about this novel is its perspective on the African female in situations that are physical, psychological, and cultural enslavement. 


Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance

By Ngugi Wa Thiong'o,

Book cover of Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance

Why this book?

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is not just a celebrated writer, but a respected critic of African literature, known for his advocacy of African languages. In this book, wa Thiong'o provides an exploration of slavery’s effects on the historical, cultural, and literary lives of Africans. His focus is on the fragmentations that slavery created in African identities and how these play out in literature. The book advocates for a re-membering of fragments created by slavery. I think this book – and frankly any work by wa Thiong'o – is a necessary addition to the collection of any reader interested in African literature, particularly the legacy of slavery and colonialism in African writings.  


5 book lists we think you will like!

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa, and Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade if you like this list.