58 books directly related to slaves 📚

All 58 slave books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

By David W. Blight,

Book cover of Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Why this book?

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.


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

By Amy Murrell Taylor,

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

Why this book?

This book recovers—through diligent archival spadework and keen historical empathy—the human realities of emancipation for freedom-seeking enslaved persons. Emancipation, Taylor demonstrates, was a humanitarian refugee crisis acted out amidst the uncertainties of civil warfare. Embattled Freedom supplies a sweeping survey of a complex historical process, but it does so on a human scale—tracking a small group of protagonists as they wind their way to the uncertain asylum of slave refugee (“contraband”) camps. The author’s close attention to the material realities of “contraband” camps—hunger, shelter, and clothing—builds a sense of intimacy and emotional connection. Scholars have established that emancipation was a process, and that the enslaved played a vital role in their own liberation; here is the best account of how that struggle was lived.   


The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

By Joseph M Thomas, Scott Korb, Jean Fagan Yellin

Book cover of The Harriet Jacobs Family Papers

Why this book?

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 that city. While Jacob’s voluminous letters and those of her family are best known for telling the dramatic story of her own life, they also bear witness to the grueling, heartbreaking, inspiring, and courageous story of formerly enslaved men, women, and children in Union-occupied Alexandria.


Empire of Cotton: A Global History

By Sven Beckert,

Book cover of Empire of Cotton: A Global History

Why this book?

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.


Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora

By Stephanie E. Smallwood,

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

Why this book?

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.


Slave Ship Sailors and Their Captive Cargoes, 1730-1807

By Emma Christopher,

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

Why this book?

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.


To Be a Slave in Brazil: 1550-1888

By Katia M. de Queiros Mattoso,

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

Why this book?

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.


Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

By John Michael Vlach,

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

Why this book?

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.


The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

Why this book?

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.


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

By Amitav Ghosh,

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

Why this book?

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.


Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Harriet Jacobs,

Book cover of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Why this book?

Jacobs’ emotionally compelling book is arguably the most well-known slave narrative written by a woman. Published in 1861, under the pseudonym Linda Brent, this intimate memoir played an important role in the antislavery movement. Nineteen-century readers were moved, as are readers today, by the story of a young woman so determined to avoid the sexual advances of her enslaver that, for seven years, she hides in her grandmother’s coffin-like attic from which she secretly watches from afar her two children at play. The narrative ends on a cautiously hopeful note. When Jacobs finally escapes from North Carolina, she is able to spend time with her children in New York City and Boston, but she is still enslaved.


The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery

Why this book?

Historians and popular writers typically come either to praise or to bury Lincoln. The author of a seminal 1970 study of the political culture of the early Republican Party, Foner here examines Lincoln’s thoughts and actions as he grew from being a young free soiler—who held some unfortunately characteristic Midwestern attitudes toward race—into the far wiser president who advocated voting rights for black veterans in his final speech.

Lincoln’s defenders and detractors too often cherry pick his statements on civil rights, as if the Lincoln who debated Stephen Douglas was the same man who invited Frederick Douglass to his second inaugural, but Foner’s careful attention to context reveals a complicated yet ever evolving wartime leader.


Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation

By Ikuko Asaka,

Book cover of Tropical Freedom: Climate, Settler Colonialism, and Black Exclusion in the Age of Emancipation

Why this book?

This is transnational scholarship at its best. Asaka tells the story of how the history of emancipation in Canada and the United States is intertwined into the history of efforts to exile freed people to tropical climates around the world where they could be used to create a monopoly over indigenous lands. This is a tale of hemispheric proportions, taking the reader from North America to the Caribbean and the East Coast of Africa, but of global importance – telling as it does the history of the racialization of freedom in the Age of Empire. Just as important, and told here in arresting fashion, are the ways in which black activists contested and remade those spaces.


The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

By Mary V. Thompson,

Book cover of The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon

Why this book?

Mount Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson has written what will become the definitive book on slavery at George Washington's home. The book puts you in the place of an enslaved person, what their daily life was like. Throughout his life Washington struggled with slavery, he wanted it to end. Finally in his will, he freed his slaves. Sending a message to the country that slavery must end. There were those who were angered by this action, documented in the book. One contemporary said it was “the…worst act of his public life.” There were former slaves that thought differently. Over thirty years after Washington’s death eleven African American men were observed making repairs to Washington’s tomb. When asked about it by a visitor to Mount Vernon, it was discovered that they were former slaves of Washington freed in his will. They had volunteered their time for the memory of a man “who had been more than a father to them.”

Mary Thompson does not pull any punches. She gives a very balanced view of slavery at Mount Vernon. The harsh realities are covered, as well as little-known facts. Slaves did earn money in different ways, raised their own animals, some hunted game with firearms. There are extensive tables in the appendix listing the names of slaves. A must-read book for those who want to understand slavery in the period.


Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

By Jean Fagan Yellin,

Book cover of Harriet Jacobs: The Remarkable Adventures of the Woman Who Wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Why this book?

Like the thousands of other readers who’d been haunted by Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl when it resurfaced during the civil rights era, I had questions.  Were the horrific events of her enslavement and escape really true?  Did Jacobs herself write the book, or was it the work of the white abolitionist she identified as her “editor”? In this biography, we’re given answers based on the documentary evidence Jean Yellin unearthed over 30 years of research. We learn that Jacobs’ stranger-than-fiction slavery narrative is factually accurate and that it was the work of Jacobs herself. In our present age of exploded myths, there’s something breathtaking about that discovery, and about Yellin’s masterful rendition of the life of an icon of Black female resistance.


On Juneteenth

By Annette Gordon-Reed,

Book cover of On Juneteenth

Why this book?

In this brief and powerful book, esteemed historian Annette Gordon-Reed focuses on “Juneteenth”, the day (June 19, 1865) when enslaved workers in Texas were declared free by the Union Army following the conclusion of the Civil War. For Gordon-Reed, a black Texas woman, Juneteenth, recently declared a federal holiday, offers a starting point for pondering the legacy of slavery and emancipation for Afro-Texans and for thinking more broadly about the tension between history and myth. In the course of all this, Gordon-Reed tells her own personal story about navigating the often fraught terrain of her state’s legacy of racial exploitation.


Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"

Why this book?

This book is a raw peek into America’s troubled past. It’s a series of interviews that Hurston conducts with a man who was on the last slave ship to make the transatlantic passage. It is a difficult read on two levels: subject matter and English. Hurston presents the words of a man named Cudjo Lewis as authentically as possible. What may seem to some today as parody, is translated to the page with accuracy. For me it communicated first-hand some of the past my main character has lived through. Books like this help to inform my protagonist’s current attitude toward the world (Alexander Smith in Blood For The Sun and All The Dead Men).


Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

By Kirk Savage,

Book cover of Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race, War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America

Why this book?

Kirk Savage’s book was one of the first critical monographs focusing on the presence and problems of race representation in American monument culture. Written well before monument removals in the 21st century, Savage identified what would become one of the central issues of our time: how Americans have created and sustained racial injustice in the public square via monuments and memorials. This book elevated the study of monuments in American classrooms—and society. The recent controversy over whether to remove the Emancipation Monument by Thomas Ball from public squares in Boston and Washington, DC indicates that Americans have been wrestling with the problems of monuments for a very long time.


The Known World

By Edward P. Jones,

Book cover of The Known World

Why this book?

Toni Morrison once described her books as simple stories about complicated characters, and this also applies to The Known World. This beautifully-written novel, told from the perspective of slave-owners, surprises—but in this case, because they’re Black.

I’d come across an instance of African American slave-owning (which were very few) while researching my first book. Jones understands that the contradictions of the premise offer a great opportunity to explore the fiction of American racial identity.

In The Known World, there are no characters in white hats and others in black hats. The African American characters are no more noble than the white ones.

No, slavery corrupts all.


Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

By Lea Vandervelde,

Book cover of Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier

Why this book?

Lea VanderVelde’s biography of Mrs. Dred Scott captures the environments in which Harriet Scott lived her life and filed her suit for freedom in 1846 (it took 11 years before the Scotts’ legal case was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court). Harriet Scott filed separately from her husband because she believed she could establish her freedom, thereby ensuring the freedom of her two daughters, whose condition followed that of the mother. An illiterate enslaved woman, Harriet Scott left virtually no documents. VanderVelde provides rich context in which to situate and explain Scott’s life and freedom struggle, vividly recreating her world. This informative book is well worth reading.


Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery

By Anne Farrow, Joel Lang, Jennifer Frank

Book cover of Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery

Why this book?

Three veteran journalists without a regional axe to grind but only a desire to find and communicate the historical facts present a compelling argument that slavery was a national, not merely a Southern, problem. Their findings are truly an inconvenient truth that anti-Southern historians must face if they sincerely want to be objective chroniclers of our nation’s history.


Zong!

By M. Nourbese Philip,

Book cover of Zong!

Why this book?

A historical/legal/poetic examination of the way that African bodies were treated and disposed of in the context of transatlantic slavery and how the author simultaneously advances a process of reclamation. NourbeSe provides a meditation in which silence and space advance our understanding of the gravity and horror of the subject which in no way compares with what the unnamed victims experienced.  She recalls them and names them into existence.


Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

By Jessica Millward,

Book cover of Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland

Why this book?

What does it mean to be free—and how can you prove that you are? Millward’s utterly engrossing book demonstrates how significant Black women’s reproductive sexuality was to their pursuit of freedom. Following the formal end of US participation in the international slave trade in 1808, white enslavers placed unprecedented demands on enslaved Black women to bear more children. Because the laws defined the child according to the mother’s free or unfree status, enslaved women literally birthed the property of white enslavers. But what if a currently enslaved person proved that the womb from which they entered the world belonged to a free person? Millward shows how Black women and their descendants paved their own pathways to freedom.


Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

By Eric Foner,

Book cover of Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy

Why this book?

This short and accessible book places the end of slavery in the United States in a comparative global context, illuminating the strategies used by employers in the American South, Haiti, the British Caribbean, and British colonies in Africa to deny economic independence to Black workers and ensure a continued source of cheap labor. The book is especially useful for its clear demonstration of how law and policy (rather than invisible market forces) structure economic relations. Foner shows that the fortunes of working people can shift dramatically depending on who controls the government and makes the laws—essential knowledge for countering the arguments of economic theorists and political leaders who claim that vast inequalities of wealth are natural or inevitable.


Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism

By Erin Kathleen Rowe,

Book cover of Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism

Why this book?

This brand-new, prize-winning book is a gorgeous synthesis of some of the most important trends in current Iberian studies. Early modern empire-building, missionary efforts, and the African slave trade fostered a new cult of black saints, which Rowe documents through stunning photography from tiny and forgotten churches across the peninsula. In focusing on black saints and their devotees—a largely understudied part of early modern Catholic culture—Rowe not only centers and elevates the diverse and often marginalized individuals who shaped global Catholicism, but also emphasizes important conversations about race and inclusion in early modern society.


Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

By Elizabeth Keckley,

Book cover of Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House

Why this book?

The stars had to align perfectly for this autobiography to have been written. Born into slavery in the American South, Elizabeth Keckley learned to read and write at a time when laws forbade it. Her skills as a seamstress allowed her to buy her freedom and later become Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker. She also became a close confidant of the First Lady, gaining an unfiltered view of life in the White House during one of the most crucial times in our nation’s history. After Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley published this autobiography and was widely criticized for relaying intimate conversations and private moments she shared with the Lincoln family. In addition, Keckley’s unflinching account of slavery was difficult for many to read. However, this book has endured as one of the best accounts of life as a slave and of the Lincolns’ time in the White House.


The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860

By Calvin Schermerhorn,

Book cover of The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860

Why this book?

Much of the recent outpouring of books on the domestic slave trade is an outgrowth of revived debates about the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism in the United States. Calvin Schermerhorn draws that connection as tightly as any historian in recent memory, tracing the financial innovations generated by the trade and following the money around the country and across the Atlantic as a foundation for American economic growth was built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people trafficked against their will.


Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

By James Oakes,

Book cover of Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865

Why this book?

For decades, historians have argued over who was the most responsible for the death of slavery during the war years. Was it the president, Congress, or self-emancipated freedpeople who forced Washington to confront the issue and then donned blue uniforms to fight for freedom? James Oakes here demonstrates that the enemies of slavery created a formidable alliance and that from the moment South Carolina seceded, the Republican Party was committed to both victory and liberation in the Confederate states.

As he did in a superb earlier volume on Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, Oakes depicts the president as a prudent and savvy leader, one careful not to get too far out in front of Congress on this explosive issue. Even so, Oakes observes that while Lincoln quoted from the Second Confiscation Act in his initial Emancipation Proclamation, he used his powers as commander in chief to go beyond the intent of Congress to forge an alliance with black recruits.


Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

By Frederick Douglass,

Book cover of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave

Why this book?

Anyone wishing to explore the remarkable life of Frederick Douglass needs to start with his own writings, in particular his 1845 autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the book that shot the young abolitionist to fame. While far from the first enslaved person’s narrative to have been printed, it was the best-written and most precise in detail, mixing scenes of great emotional warmth with brutal outrages that shocked contemporary readers. It also revealed Douglass’s real name (Frederick Bailey), leading to death threats and fears of recapture. Having decided to leave America until the furore died down, the 27-year-old Douglass embarked on the transformative near two-year tour of Britain and Ireland that has formed the basis of my recent work.


Riddley Walker

By Russell Hoban,

Book cover of Riddley Walker

Why this book?

This novel is set a couple of millennia after the apocalyptic event in what is currently the English county of Kent. It is narrated by the title character in a form of pidgin English that’s difficult to come to grips with. It took me a few goes to get into this book, but am I glad I did.

Riddley’s narration employs phrases like ‘suching waytion’ (situation) and ‘catwl twis’ (catalyst). Neither prose nor dialogue are easy to understand at first, but the perseverant reader grows accustomed to the strangeness of the language. They find themselves so absorbed in the richness and quirkiness and heart-rending awfulness of Hoban’s future world, their earlier struggles are quickly forgotten. This tale haunted me long after I’d finished it. It still does.


William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad

By Don Tate,

Book cover of William Still and His Freedom Stories: The Father of the Underground Railroad

Why this book?

I love how author/illustrator Don Tate re-discovered and brought to life this true story of an office clerk who risked everything to become a conductor, and took it upon himself to be the record keeper, of the Underground Railroad. With his painstaking records, he reunited countless families torn apart by slavery and preserved an important piece of history. “It wasn’t his job to do,” the book says, “but William thought these written records might help someday.” This message—that we often have to step beyond what may be our “job” to help others and make a difference—will linger in the hearts and minds of kids who experience this powerful story.


The Indigo Girl

By Natasha Boyd,

Book cover of The Indigo Girl

Why this book?

Sometimes strength, particularly for women in history, has been quieter. The colonial early American setting of The Indigo Girl echoed part of the painting’s story from my book as well. In The Indigo Girl, Eliza is willing to speak up, to do what is right, even when it’s the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. As a huge art history fan, and as a hobbyist painter, I am always interested in learning more about where pigments and colors come from. This story told about that, but it also explored forbidden friendship and love and touched the heart, leaving a stain of remembrance, deeper than the indigo itself. 


Before She Was Harriet

By Lesa Cline-Ransome, James E. Ransome (illustrator),

Book cover of Before She Was Harriet

Why this book?

Did I save the best for last? I may have (although I recommend all of these books). This book appeals to me on so many levels. First, it tells the story of an important woman of history who was dauntless in her mission to help others to safety and freedom. Second, the dreamy, lyrical narrative is so different from how so many picture book biographies are written, yet incredibly effective. Third, the art is amazing – especially in its depiction of Harriet as an old woman when her strength was still so evident. And fourth, the story is told in reverse chronology. What a great decision! I use this book often when I teach about nonfiction picture book writing because of this creative approach. Hands down. I love this book.


The Boy and His Ribbon

By Pepper Winters,

Book cover of The Boy and His Ribbon

Why this book?

Wow, this book! I loved it so much! Pepper Winters is one of my favorite authors. She’s an expert at world-building and writing dark romance. Her characters stay in your mind long after you finish the novel and her unique, sexy stories are unforgettable. This book was unlike anything that I have read lately. It has adventure, angst in Pepper’s wonderful signature style, and a deep, everlasting love between the two main characters that is both heart-wrenching and extraordinary. I highly recommend reading this one. Tissues will be needed!


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.


Chains

By Laurie Halse Anderson,

Book cover of Chains

Why this book?

Chains tells the story of the enslaved during a revolution for independence. The irony of the enslaved risking their well-being for a new nation whose founding and ideals fell short of granting all men and all women “certain inalienable rights,” is not missed in these pages. In fact, it is masterfully delivered for all readers – young and old. Anderson is a master weaver. She beautifully threads stunning strands of real history within the tapestry of her modern classic. Most Americans are not aware that the mayor and other leaders of New York nearly succeeded in ending the rebellion against their King. In the late spring of 1776, a plan formed to assassinate General Washington. Anderson weaves the intrigue of the assassination with the role that an enslaved girl could have had in squashing it - effectively saving the American revolution.  


An Ember in the Ashes

By Sabaa Tahir,

Book cover of An Ember in the Ashes

Why this book?

In a fantasy world inspired by ancient Rome with a Hunger Games-type tournament, a spy hiding as a slave clashes with an elite soldier who is more than meets the eye. The unexpected chemistry between Laia and Elias shines against the backdrop of the brutal world of the Empire. This story explores so many different sides of humanity, and it’s the human connections that kept me hooked and eagerly anticipating the rest of the series.


Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War

By Bruce Levine,

Book cover of Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves During the Civil War

Why this book?

The Confederacy was consistent throughout most of the war that Black men could not be recruited to serve in the army as soldiers. This was a war to preserve slavery and white supremacy and Black enlisted men would have undermined the very justification for secession and the creation of a new nation. As the war entered its fourth year, however, more and more people realized that this policy was no longer tenable. Historian Bruce Levine offers a thorough analysis of the very public and bitterly divisive debate that took place throughout the Confederacy in 1864 over whether slaves could be recruited as soldiers. Confederates debated this subject in the capital of Richmond, in the army, and in countless newspapers. The question was clear: Should the Confederacy recruit Black men as a way to avoid defeat? That it took the Confederate government until mid-March 1865 to finally approve slave enlistment—much too late to make any difference to the outcome of the war—reinforces just how important protecting slavery was for white southerners, even in the face of military defeat.


Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade

By Siân Rees,

Book cover of Sweet Water and Bitter: The Ships That Stopped the Slave Trade

Why this book?

While doing research on the British campaign to end the slave trade, I read many books, but no book transported me to the decks of the slave ships and to the rugged coast of Africa like Sweet Water and Bitter. The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is placed in its historical, military, and economic context, but Siân Rees also shows the human side of the story. On every page, there is another amazing/shocking/heartbreaking/inspiring vignette. You meet the sailors and missionaries who fought to smother the slave trade, often at the cost of their lives. The hopes and hardships of life in Africa are expressed by emancipated slaves, naval officers, and ordinary seamen. Rees' prose is clear and even-handed. My paperback copy is bristling with little post-it notes.


Someone Knows My Name

By Lawrence Hill,

Book cover of Someone Knows My Name

Why this book?

Someone Knows My Name, is a poignant portrayal of the horrors of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the inhuman strength and perseverance of a woman who survived it.

As a writer and historian, I love when I find a writer who can put themselves inside the mind of a person from an earlier time. Lawrence Hill truly does, especially the way he describes how alien the new world was for someone who came from a different culture. How every detail is new, and how heart-wrenching it is to be torn from everything you know. 


The Naming: Book One of Pellinor

By Alison Croggon,

Book cover of The Naming: Book One of Pellinor

Why this book?

The Naming, which is the first in The Books of Pellinor quartet, was the first true YA quest novel I ever read. As a Tolkien nerd who was greatly inspired in high school by the Lord of the Rings—almost certainly the series which made me a fantasy writer myself—I had never encountered anything in YA that came close to the depth of landscape worldbuilding that Tolkien so masterfully executes in his books. And in The Naming I felt like I had finally entered a world as intricate and well-developed as Middle-earth—or as close as the faster pace of YA narrative would allow. What was more, our reluctant quester turned out to be a young woman, and I was both thrilled and relieved to see myself in Maerad as I joined her on her journey. 


Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

By Catherine A. Jones,

Book cover of Intimate Reconstructions: Children in Postemancipation Virginia

Why this book?

This inspired, award-winning study looks at how black and white households were reshaped in Virginia after the Civil War. It’s full of captivating stories: Black parents trying to wrest their children away from former enslavers; once-privileged White families having to send their boys or girls into the job market to compensate for the loss of enslaved laborers; or officials coping with masses of orphaned children. It also shows the different ways that adults used ideas of childhood for political ends, as well as how children themselves fared in the aftermath of war.


The Slave Ship: A Human History

By Marcus Rediker,

Book cover of The Slave Ship: A Human History

Why this book?

Both incredibly fascinating and horrifying, this book found its start in the author’s desire to write about sailing ships. I’m interested in socio-political history and I’ve found that there’s nothing more disturbing or terrifying than looking deep into the world’s past. It’s a great way to be informed and to pepper fiction with interesting nonfiction details. (And to be horrified.) Our imaginations can not outpace what people have actually done. In the foreword, Reddiker describes researching the subject and finding information about the ships that carried human cargo for chattel slavery. There’s a personal anecdote as the author digs further into the records. He suffers an unexpected emotional impact as he began to understand what an immense human tragedy the entire affair was. Then he realizes that no one else has written about the subject from this perspective and his research becomes focused on revealing this history. It is stunning and sobering stuff.


Up From Slavery

By Booker T. Washington,

Book cover of Up From Slavery

Why this book?

Theodore Roosevelt read the book and loved his philosophy and way of telling a life story. Autobiography is at the heart of American literature. Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute and Roosevelt’s contemporary in age and thinking, was the first writer the President invited to lunch at the White House, controversial as that invitation came to be. We love the book because, in this day of reconsidering Black history, the reader can see how Washington’s notion of self-reliance, captured in his famous admonition, “Cast down your bucket where you are,” helps to define the quest for economic and social freedom for people of color in the early 20th century. Readers will discover a compelling man with an engaging writing style who speaks to the struggles within American society that persist to this day.


The Kitchen House

By Kathleen Grissom,

Book cover of The Kitchen House

Why this book?

In this bestseller, Grissom offers an intricate view of little-known history. I am intrigued by stories that open a window onto aspects of life in history that, for one reason or another, are unfamiliar. Grissom’s story of an Irish indentured servant struggling to bridge the gap between race and class is just such a revelation. These issues remain timeless and powerful.


River God

By Wilbur Smith,

Book cover of River God

Why this book?

We follow the slave, Taita, an expert in art, poetry, medicine, and engineering after he is commanded to look after a young princess married off to the Pharoah. Smith’s portrayal of ancient Egypt during the era of the pharaohs will enthrall you, all while weaving a heart-racing tale of bravery, heroism, revenge, and love. I particularly had a fondness for the faithful and affectionate friendship he had with the Queen all throughout her life.


Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

By Catherine Clinton,

Book cover of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

Why this book?

This non-fiction book is giving Harriet Tubman the recognition she deserves. She was a hero in the true sense, who lived a life of service to others, and truly helped change the world. We have all heard of her, but few know who she really was, how much she did, and how incredibly brave she was.

Sometimes when I’m having a hard time, I think of how much she did all by herself, literally walking alone into enemy territory to save others, and leading an army of men. I could never compare myself to her, but thinking of her inspires me and gives me courage. 


Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

By Glenn McNair,

Book cover of Criminal Injustice: Slaves and Free Blacks in Georgia's Criminal Justice System

Why this book?

Of the many books that explore African-Americans’ experience in the South’s antebellum Criminal Justice System this work stands out.  In this comprehensive study of the criminal justice system of a slave state. Glenn McNair traces the evolution of Georgia’s legal culture by examining its use of slave codes and slave patrols, as well as presenting data on crimes prosecuted, trial procedures and practices, conviction rates, the appellate process, and punishment. Based on more than four hundred capital cases, McNair’s study deploys both narrative and quantitative analysis to get at both the theory and the reality of the criminal procedure for slaves in the century leading up to the Civil War.


A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

By Laurent Dubois,

Book cover of A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804

Why this book?

During the Age of Revolution, enslaved and formerly enslaved residents of the French Caribbean were among those who most vigorously insisted that the “rights of man” were universal. This book focuses on the colony of Guadeloupe, though Laurent Dubois has written about the Haitian Revolution as well, an event that resulted in the first nation in the Americas to outlaw human enslavement. Enslaved and free Afro-French men and women engaged colonial assemblies and militias to stake their claims to the rights of citizenship. As they endeavored to turn Enlightenment ideals into political realities, Afro-Americans in the Caribbean championed the rise of freedom in the West.


Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett,

Book cover of Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

Why this book?

Slaves brought deep knowledge of healing cures and medicines from Africa and that knowledge remained and circulated, helping “to heal the body and preserve the soul” as they endured slavery. Slaves held a “relational view” of sickness and health, focusing on the broader slave community and its health rather than the wellness or illness of the individual. This book in no way romanticizes slave healing as aiding an idealized communal harmony. Fett never lets us forget that slaves always faced conflict and struggle, especially since slaveholders intervened constantly in matters of health. Here, though, we gain a deep and powerful—and painful—understanding of certain kinds of relations on plantations, particularly male and female slaves’ work of curing and healing, and the uses of “conjuring,” “working roots,” divination, and “the clandestine practices of antebellum hoodoo.” Interpreting medical beliefs and practices, Fett illuminates broader social struggles over power.


The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery

By Nicholas Draper,

Book cover of The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery

Why this book?

Based on painstaking analysis of the surviving records of the Commissioners of Slave Compensation, this book provides a comprehensive look at British slave-ownership in 1833, when the British government abolished colonial slavery and paid £20 million to slave-owners as compensation for their loss of human property. After emancipation the enslaved received nothing. Moreover, they were forced to remain on their plantations and continue to labor for their former masters under the apprenticeship system, which was not abolished until 1838. Draper concludes that slave-owning was widespread in metropolitan Britain and that many individuals, businesses, and institutions derived wealth from African slavery.

This book demonstrates that there is indeed a strong case for reparations and it is best read as a companion piece to University College London’s Legacies of British Slavery project, an extensive database tracing the impact of slave-ownership on the development of modern Britain.


Phoenix Unbound

By Grace Draven,

Book cover of Phoenix Unbound

Why this book?

Although this book does feature some heavy themes (CW for mentions of rape), it’s a powerful story about dealing with trauma – and moving on from it, to the life one wants to live. Draven’s characters simply breathe. They feel fleshed-out and real, with all the contradictions of real people. Although the book is part of a series, the story feels complete on its own; the worldbuilding is lush and interesting. I love books that feature travel because being on the road is a great way for characters to connect with each other, as they must rely on one another for safety and survival. Phoenix Unbound features two very different characters who come together in a way that feels real – and beautiful.


Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780–1825

By Marcela Echeverri,

Book cover of Indian and Slave Royalists in the Age of Revolution: Reform, Revolution, and Royalism in the Northern Andes, 1780–1825

Why this book?

An important and original work that privileges the vantage point of blacks and indigenous people. Historians have often portrayed the royalist side in the Spanish American wars as conservative and backward, but by analyzing the political strategies of nonwhites, this book shows convincingly that their affiliation with the Spanish Crown was a sensible one. 


By Darkness Hid: Volume 1

By Jill Williamson,

Book cover of By Darkness Hid: Volume 1

Why this book?

The quintessential YA Christian fantasy story in my opinion! Jill hits every fantasy beat perfectly, and I particularly loved the obvious care she put into the details. The result is a world that feels ripped from the pages of history, yet it’s overlaid with spiritual themes, supernatural happenings (bloodvoicing, anyone?), and allusions to Christ that will resonate for followers of Jesus. When I want a story that has overt and uplifting Christian themes, I reach for this series. 


The Spartacus War

By Barry Strauss,

Book cover of The Spartacus War

Why this book?

Nobody embodied the grit and glamor of Rome quite like gladiators. Forced to fight half-nude before audiences numbering into the thousands, they oozed confidence and sex appeal. Most famous of them all was Spartacus, who in 73 BCE broke out of a gladiatorial school in southern Italy and became the leader of what was probably the greatest slave uprising in antiquity. Even slave-owning Romans saw nobility in Spartacus. In modern times he has been a hero for all kinds of people struggling for freedom. I can never stop thinking about Spartacus and learned a lot from Barry Strauss’ absorbing book. An expert in military history, Strauss helps you understand what it was like to fight as a gladiator and how Spartacus’ remarkable insurgency was finally defeated by a savage counterinsurgency.


Creolization and Contraband: Curaçao in the Early Modern Atlantic World

By Linda M. Rupert,

Book cover of Creolization and Contraband: Curaçao in the Early Modern Atlantic World

Why this book?

The Dutch were a force to be reckoned with in the early modern Caribbean, trading with everyone and insinuating themselves everywhere. Rupert’s book shows how the small desert island of Curaçao became a trading entrepôt and in particular how Dutch suppliers, enslaved Africans, and Spanish consumers became entangled. One amazing aspect of this history that Rupert uncovered is the fact that the Protestant Dutch on Curaçao allowed the slaves there to be catechized by Spanish priests from the mainland (today’s Venezuela), working across not only imperial boundaries but also those of religion.


The Tide Between Us

By Olive Collins,

Book cover of The Tide Between Us

Why this book?

The Tide Between Us is similarly typical of many Cornish novels which involve travel to the West Indies. The maritime links between those areas were extremely strong at those times. It therefore relates to the Transatlantic factor in my own novels which involves the West Indies and the slave trade.   


Property

By Valerie Martin,

Book cover of Property

Why this book?

A thin, little book and a true masterpiece!

Narrated by Manon Gaudet, the mistress of an 1830s plantation outside New Orleans, the novel forced me to adopt the perspective of a person who is both oppressed, as a woman in the 19th century, and oppressor, as a slave-owner, who is keenly observant and stunningly blind. Manon’s body-servant, Sarah, has given birth to a deaf wild-child who Manon cannot ignore, given his striking resemblance to her own husband. Manon, who is obsessed with Sarah too, is incapable of recognizing her as someone being victimized by her husband. She only sees a rival.

I teach Property in my classes. My students hate Manon. They also love the book!