The best novels about slavery from both sides

Michael C. White Author Of Soul Catcher
By Michael C. White

The Books I Picked & Why

The Confessions of Nat Turner

By William Styron

Book cover of The Confessions of Nat Turner

Why this book?

A great and controversial novel—aren’t great novels always controversial?The Confessions of Nat Turner takes as its starting point the mind of a slave, Nat Turner, as he awaits his execution for leading a failed slave rebellion in 1831. Even when it was published in 1967, the novel inspired a strong backlash from the African-American community, who were upset, in part, because of the portrayal of a Black man lusting after a White woman. Written by a Southern White, the novel is a powerful story, powerfully told, one that remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published. 

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The Underground Railroad

By Colson Whitehead

Book cover of The Underground Railroad

Why this book?

The reason I so love this novel is that it seamlessly blends the horrific elements of a realistic portrayal of slavery, with a beautifully rendered fantasy/symbolic element. The two merge flawlessly to form a world that is at once brutal and appalling with another that is highly symbolic, fantastical, and lyrical in its beauty. The most obvious and compelling example of the latter element is referred to in the title itself—the mythically depicted underground railroad. Unlike the real one (run by heroes like Harriet Tubman), Whitehead’s symbolic railroad develops on an imaginative and magical level, which suggests the “underground” reality of a slave’s rich psychical and imaginative world.

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By Toni Morrison

Book cover of Beloved

Why this book?

In both raw and densely poetical language, Morrison’s novel sets out to shock readers, especially white readers, about the horrors of the South’s “peculiar institution,” as well as the North’s often quiet complicity. It sets up a mythical, almost Sophoclean tragedy: namely, how far will an escaped slave mother go to prevent her child from suffering what she had to. The answer lies at the heart of this powerful novel.

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The Known World

By Edward P. Jones

Book cover of The Known World

Why this book?

This novel takes for its premise the little-known fact that freed slaves in the South sometimes themselves owned slaves. While slavery was and is primarily a white institution, Jones wants to focus on larger questions of human trafficking, human dignity, and the broad culpability of slavery. But what I find most interesting about this novel is that it brings the question of slavery into a modern context, where it exists not just as a historical fact but as a contemporary plague that haunts us today. The multiple characters—White and Black—force us to question what each of us would do if slavery still existed.

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By Russell Banks

Book cover of Cloudsplitter

Why this book?

What makes this immense novel (768 pages) so engrossing is that we get a very inside view of the great (or demonic—depending on your perspective) figure of John Brown. Told by his son Owen, the novel gives us both a panoramic view of Brown, his vision of slavery, his tumultuous times, and his quest to eradicate slavery by any means, as well as a very intimate portrait of the myth of John Brown as opposed to man and father.  

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