The best novels about the human toll of American slavery

Who am I?

I am an American novelist and a lifelong, enthusiastic student of American history. To me, history is people. In addition to first-hand accounts and biographies, one of the best ways to understand those people is historical fiction. For the last two decades, I’ve lived in the Southern United States, surrounded by the legacy of slavery, America’s “peculiar institution” that claimed an unequivocal evil was a positive good. Because both the enslaved and their enslavers were human beings, the ways that evil manifested were as complex as each individual—as were the ways people maintained their humanity. These are a few of the novels on the subject that blew me away.


I wrote...

Necessary Sins

By Elizabeth Bell,

Book cover of Necessary Sins

What is my book about?

In antebellum Charleston, a Catholic priest grapples with his family's secret African ancestry and his love for a slaveholder's wife. Joseph Lazare grows up believing his black hair and olive skin come from a Spanish grandmother, and he’s shocked to learn she was an enslaved African. At thirteen, Joseph allows racial prejudice to limit his future and chooses the seminary. At twenty-three, he is ordained “a priest forever.” When he meets the passionate Tessa Conley, Joseph’s ordered world cracks at its foundation.

Necessary Sins is the first book in the epic Lazare Family Saga, a quartet of literary historical novels about a multiracial family struggling to understand where they belong in the turbulent decades before the American Civil War.

The books I picked & why

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The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses

By Sharon Ewell Foster,

Book cover of The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part I: The Witnesses

Why this book?

Until I read The Resurrection of Nat Turner, I considered myself a pacifist. I ended this novel and its sequel rooting for violent resistance and for Nat Turner, the man who led the most famous slave rebellion in American history, a man who was responsible for the deaths of women and children. In a culture of violence and unequivocal evil, turning the other cheek cannot be the only recourse. Foster left me forever changed.


The Prophets

By Robert Jones, Jr.,

Book cover of The Prophets

Why this book?

This novel is a fever dream of the best kind. The Prophets is unapologetically about love, how rare and revolutionary it is. How selfish, envious others can see it as a threat—especially when that love is between two enslaved Black men. As powerful as Isaiah and Samuel’s story is, the chapters set in Africa held me equally entranced. As I read, I kept shouting “Yes!” in my head. I felt like I’d been waiting for this book for years. I don’t reread novels often, but this is one to savor.


Douglass' Women

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Book cover of Douglass' Women

Why this book?

Escaping slavery doesn’t make you a saint. Even Frederick Douglass, one of the world’s most famous former slaves, one of history’s greatest writers, orators, and human rights activists, had feet of clay. His wife Anna was a free Black woman who helped him escape bondage and bore him five children. Yet Frederick cheated on her in a decades-long affair with a White German woman—who is somehow equally sympathetic here. I finished this novel loving all three of these flawed, complex characters, all of whom were real people. Rhodes’s psychological insight leaves me in awe.


Sister of Mine

By Sabra Waldfogel,

Book cover of Sister of Mine

Why this book?

The Jewish people have been persecuted—even enslaved—for millennia. One would hope this would make them more compassionate toward another persecuted and enslaved group, American Blacks. Unfortunately, this usually isn’t the way human nature works. To quote Frederick Douglass: “Everybody, in the south, wants the privilege of whipping somebody else.” If humans can get ahead by oppressing someone else, we too often do. With her fictional Jewish family and the Blacks they enslave—one of whom is also their blood kin—Waldfogel explores this terrible truth. A hundred and fifty years after its setting, this novel challenged me to be a better human.


Freeman

By Leonard Pitts, Jr.,

Book cover of Freeman

Why this book?

This novel begins just after the American Civil War and Emancipation, but it foreshadows the horrific legacy of slavery. The titular character, a Black man named Sam who is now free, goes in search of Tilda, the wife whom slavery ripped away from him. Meanwhile, her Confederate enslaver drags Tilda westward, refusing to give up the woman he thinks he owns. How do you rebuild a society and a family in the wake of slavery’s devastation? Pitts explores this question unforgettably, acknowledging the inevitable violence but with a glimmer of hope. Freeman put me through a whole gamut of emotions. It rung me out and gave me a soothing cup of tea at the end.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in slavery in the United States, Frederick Douglass, and Slavery?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about slavery in the United States, Frederick Douglass, and Slavery.

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