The best books about enslaved people

54 authors have picked their favorite books about slaves and why they recommend each book.

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Frederick Douglass

By David W. Blight,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Decades in the making, Blight’s epic 2018 Pulitzer prize-winning biography will be the standard-bearer for works on Douglass for at least the next generation or two. It is the ideal combination of high-calibre writing, rigorous research, and empathy for its subject.


Who am I?

I am a writer and editor living in Cork, Ireland. I have a PhD in history from University College Cork and am the author of four books, including two on the African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I have been fascinated by Douglass ever since I discovered he travelled through Ireland as a young man, a tour that coincided with the onset of the Great Irish Famine. Douglass will also appear in the book I am currently writing, ‘Freedom’s Exiles’: The Poets, Plotters and Rebels and Who Found Refuge in Victorian Britain.


I wrote...

Frederick Douglass in Ireland

By Laurence Fenton,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass in Ireland

What is my book about?

Frederick Douglass arrived in Ireland in the summer of 1845, having decided to leave America after the publication of his incendiary autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Douglass spent four transformative months in Ireland, filling halls with eloquent denunciations of slavery and sharing a stage with the great Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell –who christened him ‘the black O’Connell of the United States’. Douglass delighted in the openness with which he was received in Ireland, but was also shocked at the poverty he encountered.

This compelling account of the celebrated abolitionist’s tour combines a unique insight into the formative years of one of the great figures of nineteenth-century America with a vivid portrait of a country on the brink of famine.

Embattled Freedom

By Amy Murrell Taylor,

Book cover of Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps

This book won all the awards from professional history organizations—almost literally. Yet it’s also readable and moving. It’s a deeply researched book about the fraught experiences of the hundreds of thousands of slaves who ran away, or were liberated, during the Civil War. Contraband camps were an opportunity for former slaves to be thought about as something other than property. Yet the camps were also dangerous places, where disease and administrative indifference made freedom nearly as deadly as slavery. This is simply the best recent book about the African American experience during the Civil War.


Who am I?

A long-time professor of history at Marquette University, James Marten is a past president of both the Society of Civil War Historians and the Society for the History of Children and Youth. He’s written or edited over twenty books and scores of articles and has been interviewed on National and Wisconsin Public Radio and for numerous local and national publications. He writes about the ways in which big events affect normal people, from children and families to soldiers and veterans.


I wrote...

The Children's Civil War

By James Marten,

Book cover of The Children's Civil War

What is my book about?

Children--white and black, northern and southern--endured a vast and varied range of experiences during the Civil War. Children celebrated victories and mourned defeats, tightened their belts and widened their responsibilities, took part in patriotic displays and suffered shortages and hardships, fled their homes to escape enemy invaders, and snatched opportunities to run toward the promise of freedom.

Offering a fascinating look at how children were affected by our nation's greatest crisis, James Marten examines their toys and games, their literature and schoolbooks, the letters they exchanged with absent fathers and brothers, and the hardships they endured. He also explores children's politicization, their contributions to their homelands' war efforts, and the lessons they took away from the war.

The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

By Joseph M Thomas, Scott Korb, Jean Fagan Yellin

Book cover of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

As the Union Army penetrated into Confederate territory, enslaved men, women, and children fled bondage to take refuge with the army. Roughly half a million formerly enslaved people exited slavery in this way, spending the war in encampments appended to the army or in Union occupied cities. They influenced the progress and outcome of the war as well as emancipation. They also encountered conditions that amounted to a humanitarian crisis, one that soldiers tasked with fighting a war were ill-equipped to meet. Civilians from the North made their way to camps and occupied cities to serve as relief workers. Harriet Jacobs headed South as just such a worker. Jacobs herself had been born a slave and made a harrowing escape decades earlier, but when war broke out, she braved the South again. She made her way to Alexandria, Virginia where she worked among the many freedom seekers who came to…


Who am I?

Despite what my kids think, I am not actually old enough to have “been there” during the Civil War itself, but I have spent my entire professional career studying it. Years in archives reading other people’s mail, old newspaper accounts, dusty diaries, and handwritten testimonies, along with sifting through records books and ledgers of all descriptions have taught me exactly how intertwined slavery, Civil War, and emancipation all were, and I am dedicated to trying to explain the connections to anyone who reads my books, stumbles across my digital history work, or sits in my classroom at Georgetown University, where I teach history. Two good places to see the results of my efforts include What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War which won the Avery Craven Award for best book on the Civil War and was a finalist for the Lincoln Prize and Frederick Douglass Prize, and Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War, which won the Jefferson Davis Prize and was also a finalist for the Lincoln Prize.


I wrote...

What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War

By Chandra Manning,

Book cover of What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War

What is my book about?

In this unprecedented account, Chandra Manning uses letters, diaries, and regimental newspapers to take the reader inside the minds of Civil War soldiers-black and white, Northern and Southern-as they fought and marched across a divided country. With stunning poise and narrative verve, Manning explores how the Union and Confederate soldiers came to identify slavery as the central issue of the war and what that meant for a tumultuous nation. This is a brilliant and eye-opening debut and an invaluable addition to our understanding of the Civil War as it has never been rendered before.

Empire of Cotton

By Sven Beckert,

Book cover of Empire of Cotton: A Global History

While perhaps not ‘business history’ in the strictest of senses, Empire of Cotton explores themes relevant to any business history – those of power, hierarchy, capitalism, and consumption, to name a few, and does so in a global context. This is a book not just about history, but about how this history has shaped the world we live in today. In places, it is a sobering story of power struggles and exploitation, of conflict between humans as well as between humans and the natural world. While not one for the faint-hearted, this award-winning tome is worth the effort it requires.


Who am I?

I began my academic career working on political history until a chance conversation and a serendipitous find in an archive changed the direction of my doctoral research. Since then, I have become increasingly enmeshed in Business History, interested predominantly in the people that were at the heart of commercial activity. It is my belief that the landscape of business was – and is – shaped more by the people directly involved in it than by those making policy and devising international treaties. My current work – funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council Leadership Fellowship – explores the ways in which information was created, disseminated, and utilised in early modern business networks.


I wrote...

Conflict, Commerce and Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713

By Siobhan Talbott,

Book cover of Conflict, Commerce and Franco-Scottish Relations, 1560-1713

What is my book about?

It has long been thought that the Franco-Scottish ‘Auld Alliance’ ended in 1560. In this book, I dismantle this assumption, showing that the Auld Alliance continued to play a crucial role in Franco-Scottish relations after 1560, as well as in broader British and European politics and commerce, even after the British unions of 1603 and 1707. Scottish ‘privileges’ in France were regularly renewed – the result of repeated overtures, from both sides, to maintain their long-standing ‘special relationship’. Focusing on periods of war, I show how the activities of the individuals who participated in Franco-Scottish commerce – predominantly merchants, but also manufacturers and consumers – shaped the continued development of this alliance throughout the tumultuous long seventeenth century. This book won the Senior Hume Brown Prize in 2016 and was Highly Commended in the Frank Watson Prize in 2015.

Saltwater Slavery

By Stephanie E. Smallwood,

Book cover of Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora

Relying primarily on Royal African Company records, Smallwood reconstructs the forced migration and enslavement of approximately 300,000 African men, women, and children who were transported in English ships from the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana) to the Americas between 1675 and 1725. She traces their dehumanizing journey from captivity in European forts on the West African coast through commodification at sea to sale in slave markets in the Caribbean and North America.

Through careful analysis of quantitative data, Smallwood tracks the processes of commodification that underwrote the transatlantic slave trade while simultaneously foregrounding the human experience of captivity and migration. This book offers a model example of innovative historical writing.


Who am I?

I'm a historian of early modern Britain and the British Atlantic world who realized years ago that Britain, like the United States, hadn't yet fully acknowledged or come to terms with its involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and African slavery and its global afterlives. Although awareness of Britain's role in the African slave trade and Atlantic slavery has begun to feature more prominently in national consciousness, particularly due to the work of The Movement for Black Lives and calls for an overdue reckoning with the legacies of colonialism, slavery, and racial injustice, much work remains to be done. Using the archival record--as flawed as it may be--to piece together Britain's imperial past, confront calculated historical silences, and track the full extent of British participation in the enslavement of millions of Africans will help to ensure that the histories and voices of enslaved people and their descendants aren't distorted or forgotten by current and future generations.


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A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica

By Brooke Newman,

Book cover of A Dark Inheritance: Blood, Race, and Sex in Colonial Jamaica

What is my book about?

A Dark Inheritance explores how colonial authorities and planters in Jamaica, Britain’s most valuable Atlantic colony by the mid-eighteenth century, used blood lineage to justify hereditary racial slavery and limited rights for free people of African descent. Based on extensive archival work, it highlights the creative ways notions of ancestry and blood enabled white colonists in Jamaica to assert and defend their privileged racial, political, and socio-economic status while simultaneously defining and redefining who was a slave and who was not, and by extension who was “white” and who was not.

At the same time, it shows how enslaved and free people of African and multiple ancestries articulated a counterargument for freedom and equality with white subjects grounded in allegiance to the British Crown and their own understandings of blood lineage.

Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807

By Emma Christopher,

Book cover of Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807

Despite the vast literature on the transatlantic slave trade, the role of sailors aboard slave ships has remained unexplored. This book fills that gap by examining every aspect of their working lives, from their reasons for signing on a slaving vessel to their experiences in the Caribbean and the American South after their human cargoes had been sold. It explores how they interacted with men and women of African origin at their ports of call, from the Africans they traded with, to the slaves and ex-slaves they mingled within the port cities of the Americas. Most importantly, it questions their interactions with the captive Africans they were transporting during the dread middle passage, arguing that their work encompassed the commoditisation of these people ready for sale.


Who am I?

As an engineer, I have constructed bridges, highways, and power plants throughout Africa, and on journeys learned and explored the continent's history. My novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. My 200 plus sources, and excerpts from many of them, are listed on the companion website


I wrote...

Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

By Manu Herbstein,

Book cover of Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

What is my book about?

Ama is a neo-slave narrative set in the late 18th century. The novel follows the life of its eponymous protagonist from her youth in the African Sahel to old age in a Brazilian sugar estate, a life in which she balances resistance to the deprivation of her freedom with unavoidable accommodation to the power of her oppressors. It has four sections, entitled Africa (set in the north of today’s Ghana and in Kumase, capital of the Asante Empire); Europeans (set in the Dutch slave castle at Elmina); The Love of Liberty (set in the Middle Passage); and America (set in Bahia).

To Be a Slave in Brazil

By Katia M. de Queiros Mattoso,

Book cover of To Be a Slave in Brazil: 1550-1888

In the introduction, dated July 1978, Mattoso writes. … my purpose in writing this book was to discover what life was really like for the slaves in Brazil … This book is addressed to an audience of general readers. I have therefore felt free to dispense with the usual scholarly apparatus of extensive footnotes and bibliography … Its title … signals my intention to adopt the standpoint of the slaves themselves … to trace the various stages in the lives of the slaves as individuals and of the slave group as a community.


Who am I?

As an engineer, I have constructed bridges, highways, and power plants throughout Africa, and on journeys learned and explored the continent's history. My novel, Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, won the 2002 Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Best First Book. My 200 plus sources, and excerpts from many of them, are listed on the companion website


I wrote...

Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

By Manu Herbstein,

Book cover of Ama, a Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade

What is my book about?

Ama is a neo-slave narrative set in the late 18th century. The novel follows the life of its eponymous protagonist from her youth in the African Sahel to old age in a Brazilian sugar estate, a life in which she balances resistance to the deprivation of her freedom with unavoidable accommodation to the power of her oppressors. It has four sections, entitled Africa (set in the north of today’s Ghana and in Kumase, capital of the Asante Empire); Europeans (set in the Dutch slave castle at Elmina); The Love of Liberty (set in the Middle Passage); and America (set in Bahia).

Back of the Big House

By John Michael Vlach,

Book cover of Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

Though it was wealthy white planters who built plantations, the enslaved people who worked them imbued these landscapes with their own meanings. With over 200 photographs and drawings of Antebellum plantations, Vlach leads readers on a tour of plantation outbuildings, providing examples of how slaves used these spaces despite—and in defiance of—their masters’ intentions. Testimonies of former slaves (drawn from the Federal Writers’ Project collection) give the reader a sense of what it was like to live and work in these settings.


Who am I?

Lori Benton is an award-winning, multi-published author of historical novels set during 18th century North America. Her literary passion is bringing little-known historical events to life through the eyes of those who lived it, either set along the Appalachian frontier, where European and Native American cultures collided, or amidst the conflict-laden setting of the southern plantation. Her novel, Mountain Laurel, begins an epic family saga that immerses readers in 1790s North Carolina plantation life and the moral dilemmas created by the evils of slavery.


I wrote...

Mountain Laurel

By Lori Benton,

Book cover of Mountain Laurel

What is my book about?

Ian Cameron, a Boston cabinetmaker turned frontier trapper, has come to Mountain Laurel hoping to remake himself yet again--into his planter uncle's heir. No matter how uneasily the role of slave owner rests upon his shoulders. Then he meets Seona--beautiful, artistic, and enslaved to his kin.

Seona has a secret: she's been drawing for years, ever since that day she picked up a broken slate to sketch a portrait. When Ian catches her at it, he offers her opportunity to let her talent flourish, still secretly, in his cabinetmaking shop. Taking a frightening leap of faith, Seona puts her trust in Ian. A trust that leads to a deeper, more complicated bond.

The Hemingses of Monticello

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Gordon-Reed is a masterful historian and nowhere is that more evident than in this exceptional, prizewinning book that explores the complexities of freedom and slavery during the early Republic. She traces the stories of several generations of this family, including the stories of Sally Hemings and her brother James, who together lived with Jefferson in Paris during the 1780s, a place where they might have obtained their freedom, albeit likely at the cost of never returning to the rest of their family in Virginia. But some of the most fascinating and surprising elements of the book touch on many other family members and the family’s reputation at Monticello as the first family of enslaved people. Gordon-Reed’s achievement with this book cannot be overstated; it is a beautifully written and provocative work.

Who am I?

I’d love to see more readers explore the surprising world of the early American republic beyond stories about presidents and the Founders—in part because that history can be so illuminating about our own world. Originally from California, I’m now a professor in the History Department at Virginia Commonwealth University, and the author of the prizewinning A Nation of Speechifiers: Making an American Public after the Revolution. I’m now starting work on a new project on the yellow fever epidemics that struck New York City during the 1790s, a piece of which appeared in Smithsonian Magazine in March 2021 and the Intervals podcast produced by the Organization of American Historians.


I wrote...

The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity

By Carolyn Eastman,

Book cover of The Strange Genius of Mr. O: The World of the United States' First Forgotten Celebrity

What is my book about?

When James Ogilvie arrived in America in 1793, he was a deeply ambitious but impoverished teacher. By the time he returned to Britain in 1817, he had become a bona fide celebrity known simply as Mr. O, counting the nation’s leading politicians and intellectuals among his admirers. And then, like so many meteoric American luminaries afterward, he fell from grace.

The Strange Genius of Mr. O is at once the biography of a remarkable performer—a gaunt Scottish orator who appeared in a toga—and a story of the United States during the founding era. Ogilvie's career featured many of the hallmarks of celebrity we recognize from later eras: glamorous friends, eccentric clothing, scandalous religious views, narcissism, and even an alarming drug habit. Yet he captivated audiences with his eloquence and inaugurated a golden age of American oratory. Examining his roller-coaster career and the Americans who admired (or hated) him, this fascinating book renders a vivid portrait of the United States in the midst of invention.

In an Antique Land

By Amitav Ghosh,

Book cover of In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale

While this may not be Amitav Ghosh’s best work, it is perhaps his most experimental writing in which he brings together his non-fiction travel writing with historical fiction of a subject he was researching as a PhD student. The book opened my eyes to the possibility that two genres can live together in one book, and if merged well can tell a beautiful, fascinating, and complete story.


Who am I?

I love reading history that is told in an experimental, interesting manner – history merged with travel, fiction, magical realism, etc. I began my writing career as a travel writer, bringing together history with travel but increasingly I have begun to experiment more. My book Walking with Nanak brings together 4 genres. One intellectual question that I have pursued through my writing is challenging modern notions of national, religious, and ethnic identities. I see my writing style as an extension of that pursuit, breaking away from the neat compartmentalization of genres. 


I wrote...

Walking with Nanak

By Haroon Khalid,

Book cover of Walking with Nanak

What is my book about?

Walking with Nanak is an experimental book that brings together different narratives, genres, and writing styles, including fiction, history, magical realism, and poetry. It is a book that traces the story of Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, the story of the author and his discovery of Guru Nanak’s legacy, the story of Sikh Gurus, the evolution of Sikh history, and finally the poetry and hagiography of Guru Nanak.  

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