The best books on African slavery in the Americas

Eric Nellis Author Of Shaping the New World: African Slavery in the Americas, 1500-1888
By Eric Nellis

The Books I Picked & Why

Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas

By Frank Tannenbaum

Slave and Citizen: The Classic Comparative Study of Race Relations in the Americas

Why this book?

This is a comparative short study of slave societies in the Americas with an emphasis on how the Brazilian system was more legally and morally fluid than the more rigid North American system. The importance of this book lies in its originality and influence as a model for generations of historians.  Tannenbaum’s legalistic themes have been superseded by enriched data sources and social science theories and models. An additional characteristic of this comparative model was the introduction of the work of controversial Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, his thesis of miscegenation and its role in defining Brazilian national character. Tannenbaum’s optimistic closing prediction about racial harmony has not yet occurred.


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Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

By John Thornton

Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400-1800

Why this book?

An invaluable scholarly source for understanding the Atlantic slave system at its source.  Among the book’s virtues are details of the cultures and politics in the area of European penetration and African slavery itself and the African participation in the European trade. This book should be recognized with the extensive literature on the Atlantic slave trade for its acknowledgment of the great range of African languages and cultures that ended up in Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America.


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Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

By David Eltis, David Richardson

Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Why this book?

This is best viewed as a template for the vast historiography of the slave trade that includes studies of the slave ship, the crews, the horrors of the “middle passage” and the organized acquisition in Africa and disposal in the Americas of African bodies. The Atlas is a graphic summary of the comprehensive base compiled by Eltis and his colleagues.


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The Strange Career of Jim Crow

By C. Vann Woodward

The Strange Career of Jim Crow

Why this book?

This succinct and persuasive study of the profound failure to integrate the freed slave population in the U.S. after 1865 is a rare example of a scholarly work’s direct influence on governments and the process of reform.  The author’s premise and analysis is that popular and local official antipathy to emancipation led to enforced, violent segregation (Jim Crow) that was constitutionally affirmed in the 1896 Plessy case.  The book’s three editions follow the history of civil rights reform from the 1950s to the 1970s and the Supreme Court’s gradual dismantling of the Plessy rule. While Jim Crow law has been overturned, versions of real-life Jim Crow conditions remain.


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Between the World and Me

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Why this book?

This autobiographical award-winning book makes clear that a constitutional end to segregation does not mean it ends in practice. This is an angry, fatalistic view of race relations in 2015 America. The book is presented as a cautionary letter of advice to the author’s son on how to attain and keep self-esteem in a dangerous world where ultimate authority is determined by “white” identity. Coates uses “body” as meaning person or self. He draws a line in African American history from the tobacco fields of seventeenth-century Virginia to the lethal ghetto streets of today and to the police violence against blacks, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the inevitable statistical evidence of black denigration. 

Among Coates’s models are his radical father, Malcolm X, and the victims of police violence. He dismisses the promise of a post-racial America and denounces American “democracy” as lacking a moral basis. The format Coates uses emulates James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and his debt to the black literary canon of the twentieth century runs through the book. The title of the book is taken from a Richard Wright poem of 1935 and the poet’s encounter with the remains of a lynched black man. I recommend Darryl Pinckney’s review in The New York Review of Books for a clear-minded comment on Coates’s “precursors” and the perils of “hopelessness”. 


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