The best books that recover early Black Atlantic lives

Why am I passionate about this?

When I decided to familiarize myself with eighteenth-century authors of African descent by editing their writings, I didn’t anticipate becoming their biographer. In annotating their writings, I quickly became intrigued and challenged by trying to complete the biographical equivalent of jigsaw puzzles, ones which often lack borders, as well as many pieces. How does one recover, or at least credibly speculate about, what’s missing? Even the pieces one has may be from unreliable sources. But the thrill of the hunt for, and the joy of discovering, as many pieces as possible make the challenge rewarding. My recommendations demonstrate ways others have also met the biographical challenge.


I wrote...

Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man

By Vincent Carretta,

Book cover of Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man

What is my book about?

This definitive biography tells the story of the former slave Olaudah Equiano (1745?–1797), who in his day was the English-speaking world’s most renowned, and probably wealthiest, person of African descent. Equiano’s greatest legacy is his best-selling classic 1789 autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself. A key document of the early movement to ban the slave trade, as well as the fundamental text in the genre of the African American slave narrative, it includes the earliest known purported firsthand description by an enslaved victim of the horrific Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas. Equiano, the African is filled with fresh revelations about this many-sided figure, who may have invented his African identity.

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The books I picked & why

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

Vincent Carretta Why did I love this book?

Equiano’s autobiography fascinated me when I stumbled upon a paperback edition of it in a local bookstore nearly thirty years ago.

A bestseller during Equiano’s lifetime, his Interesting Narrative is appreciated as a work of enduring historical and literary value. The odyssey he recounts takes him from enslavement as a child in Africa to becoming a leading figure in the struggle to abolish the transatlantic slave trade.

Along the way, he serves in the British Royal Navy, gains his freedom, participates in a scientific expedition to the Arctic, has a religious conversion, observes various kinds of slavery in North and Central America, England, Europe, and the Middle East before agreeing to help administer settling in Africa formerly enslaved poor Blacks who had joined the British forces during the American Revolution.

By Olaudah Equiano,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, first published in 1789, is the autobiography of Olaudah Equiano. The narrative is argued to be a variety of styles, such as a slavery narrative, travel narrative, and spiritual narrative. The book describes Equiano's time spent in enslavement, and documents his attempts at becoming an independent man through his study of the Bible, and his eventual success in gaining his own freedom and in business thereafter.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano was one of the first widely read slave narratives. Eight editions…


Book cover of Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World

Vincent Carretta Why did I love this book?

A masterful recreation from fragmentary evidence of the life and zeitgeist of an extraordinary individual, Sweet’s microhistorical biography demonstrates how an individual life can illuminate the culture of the African-Portuguese diaspora in Africa, South America, and Europe during the eighteenth-century.

Sweet’s subject is a very uncommon representative of the common man or woman. Like other slaves, Álvares repeatedly resurrected himself by creating networks of kinship and community through a combination of resistance, accommodation, and appropriation.

His reputed power to heal soon caused him as much trouble in Brazil as it did in Africa.

Sweet argues that the similarities between Roman Catholic and African theologies account for why Álvares so quickly (and apparently sincerely) embraced baptism, communion, and confirmation in the Church, without rejecting his African beliefs and practices.

By James H. Sweet,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Domingos Alvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Between 1730 and 1750, Domingos Alvares traversed the colonial Atlantic world like few Africans of his time--from Africa to South America to Europe. By tracing the steps of this powerful African healer and vodun priest, James Sweet finds dramatic means for unfolding a history of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world in which healing, religion, kinship, and political subversion were intimately connected. Alvares treated many people across the Atlantic, yet healing was rarely a simple matter of remedying illness and disease. Through the language of health and healing, Alvares also addressed the profound alienation of warfare, capitalism, and the African slave trade.…


Book cover of Rebecca's Revival: Creating Black Christianity in the Atlantic World

Vincent Carretta Why did I love this book?

Sensbach combines impressive archival skills with sophisticated analyses of textual and visual evidence to reconstruct the extraordinary life of a formerly enslaved woman of African descent, whose interracial marriage and missionary calling took her from the Caribbean to Germany and West Africa.

Rebecca’s Revival is a methodological tour de force, working from fragmentary evidence to reveal the complexity of issues of slavery, religion, and identity in the transatlantic eighteenth-century world.

Refusing to over-simplify the certainty of the evidence or its implications, Sensbach’s frequent use of words like “may,” “might,” “if,” and “perhaps” reflects not the weakness of indecision but rather the strength of a historian who discriminates the known from the unknown, and more importantly, the possible from the probable.

By Jon F. Sensbach,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Rebecca's Revival as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Rebecca's Revival is the remarkable story of a Caribbean woman--a slave turned evangelist--who helped inspire the rise of black Christianity in the Atlantic world. All but unknown today, Rebecca Protten left an enduring influence on African-American religion and society. Born in 1718, Protten had a childhood conversion experience, gained her freedom from bondage, and joined a group of German proselytizers from the Moravian Church. She embarked on an itinerant mission, preaching to hundreds of the enslaved Africans of St. Thomas, a Danish sugar colony in the West Indies. Laboring in obscurity and weathering persecution from hostile planters, Protten and other…


Book cover of The Two Princes of Calabar: An Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey

Vincent Carretta Why did I love this book?

English enslavers called Ancona Robin Robin John and Little Ephraim Robin John “princes” because they were literate English-speaking members of one of two ruling African slave-trading families in present-day southeastern Nigeria.

The lives of the Johns illuminate the surprisingly complex relationships among the participants in the transatlantic slave trade, when African suppliers of enslaved Africans often had as much economic and political power as their European customers.

The English allies of the rival family captured the two men during a trade war between the families in 1767.

They were taken to the Caribbean and North America, with several escapes and recaptures, before being brought to England, where they successfully sued for their freedom. They returned to the family business in Africa.  

By Randy J. Sparks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Two Princes of Calabar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In 1767, two "princes" of a ruling family in the port of Old Calabar, on the slave coast of Africa, were ambushed and captured by English slavers. The princes, Little Ephraim Robin John and Ancona Robin Robin John, were themselves slave traders who were betrayed by African competitors-and so began their own extraordinary odyssey of enslavement. Their story, written in their own hand, survives as a rare firsthand account of the Atlantic slave experience.

Randy J. Sparks made the remarkable discovery of the princes' correspondence and has managed to reconstruct their adventures from it. They were transported from the coast…


Book cover of Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and Their Global Quest for Liberty

Vincent Carretta Why did I love this book?

Rather than writing the life of just one person, Pybus scours fragmentary church, legal, military, and prison records on three continents to create what might be called a cumulative biography.

Pybus reconstructs the lives of individuals in the diaspora of men, women, and their families who embraced Britain’s offer of freedom to anyone who fled rebel enslavers to join its forces during the American Revolution.

Among them were men formerly enslaved to George Washington and Patrick Henry.

Evacuated by the withdrawing British forces at the end of the war, the continuing quest for freedom of Black Loyalists brought them to Canada, Britain, Africa, and Australia.

By Cassandra Pybus,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Epic Journeys of Freedom as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Cassandra Pybus adds greatly to the work of [previous] scholars by insisting that slaves stand at the center of their own history . . . Her 'biographies' of flight expose the dangers that escape entailed and the courage it took to risk all for freedom. Only by measuring those dangers can the exhilaration of success be comprehended and the unspeakable misery of failure be appreciated.--Ira Berlin, from the Foreword

During the American Revolution, thousands of slaves fled their masters to find freedom with the British. Epic Journeys of Freedom is the astounding story of these runaways and the lives they…


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Book cover of Rewriting Illness

Elizabeth Benedict

New book alert!

What is my book about?

What happens when a novelist with a “razor-sharp wit” (Newsday), a “singular sensibility” (Huff Post), and a lifetime of fear about getting sick finds a lump where no lump should be? Months of medical mishaps, coded language, and Doctors who don't get it.

With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling artistry of an acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Benedict recollects her cancer diagnosis after discovering multiplying lumps in her armpit. In compact, explosive chapters, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity, she chronicles her illness from muddled diagnosis to “natural remedies,” to debilitating treatments, as she gathers sustenance from family, an assortment of urbane friends, and a fearless “cancer guru.”

Rewriting Illness is suffused with suspense, secrets, and the unexpected solace of silence.

Rewriting Illness

By Elizabeth Benedict,

What is this book about?

By turns somber and funny but above all provocative, Elizabeth Benedict's Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own is a most unconventional memoir. With wisdom, self-effacing wit, and the story-telling skills of a seasoned novelist, she brings to life her cancer diagnosis and committed hypochondria. As she discovers multiplying lumps in her armpit, she describes her initial terror, interspersed with moments of self-mocking levity as she indulges in "natural remedies," among them chanting Tibetan mantras, drinking shots of wheat grass, and finding medicinal properties in chocolate babka. She tracks the progression of her illness from muddled diagnosis to debilitating treatment…


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