9 Reads on the Roots and Legacy of Slavery in America

Four hundred years ago, the first African slaves were brought to the shores of what would become the United States of America. Early America was built directly on the back of slave labor, but even today, over a century since the end of slavery, its legacy remains at the core of many of the US’s policies. If you’ve been reading the essays released by The New York Times Magazine for its “1619 Project,” these books will teach you even more about how the repercussions of slavery still haunt the nation.

“The Hopefulness and Hopelessness of 1619” by Ibram X. Kendi (The Atlantic)

The author of Stamped from the Beginning and How to Be an Antiracist poignantly describes how the pains of America’s first slaves still resonate with the struggles of African Americans today. “I feel lucky to be alive as an African American. … Black death matters to racist America. Black life matters to African America,” Kendi writes in this ultimately uplifting Atlantic article.

The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed

This is the best overview of the founding of slavery in America, seen through the history of the Hemings family, who were owned by Thomas Jefferson. The Hemingses of Monticello shines a bright light on a little-known history, and its publication continued to break down barriers, as author Annette Gordon-Reed became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in History.

Never Caught by Erica Armstrong Dunbar

It’s no secret that our Founding Fathers didn’t live up to the shining ideals they laid out for the country. This is the story of Ona Judge, one of President George Washington’s favored slaves who risked everything for freedom. Learn about the real-world power of grit from Judge in this compelling account of her escape and the intense manhunt Washington led to recapture her.

Also available as an audiobook.

Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

If you’ve been reading The New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project” essays, then Ibram X. Kendi’s book is an absolute must-read. He, too, chronicles how racism has effected a slew of policies throughout American history, and while the ideas are always morphing and manifesting differently, they are still an intrinsic part of the country’s politics and cultural identity today.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

After Solomon Northup, a free man, was kidnapped and sold into slavery, he wrote this memoir about his experiences going from a free man to someone’s property. It’s a crucial first-hand account of slavery’s cruelties, and it gained widespread recognition recently thanks to the Oscar-winning film adaptation in 2013.

Also available as an audiobook.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

At the time of its publication in the mid-1800s, Frederick Douglass’ memoir of his time as a slave became one of the most influential texts in the abolitionist movement. It personalizes all the dehumanizing cruelties slaves endured, from not knowing their birthdays to physical and sexual abuse.

Also available as an audiobook.

The Fiery Trial by Eric Foner

The Civil War led to the official end of slavery, with Abraham Lincoln delivering the Emancipation Proclamation and leading the Union troops to victory. But how exactly did moderate Lincoln come to see that slavery needed to end, no matter how strong the opposition stood? Eric Foner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history details Lincoln’s political evolution and how he stood strong during one of America’s most trying times.

Ebony & Ivy by Craig Steven Wilder

Democrats are now the liberal party and the Republicans are conservative, but in the past that was all flipped. Ivy League schools and many other prestigious liberal universities were once the gatekeepers of racist ideas. MIT history professor Craig Steven Wilder shows just how intricately slavery and higher education were (and therefore always will be) intertwined.

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

This book from the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God became one of the biggest literary accomplishments of 2018. Written back in 1927, when Zora Neale Hurston interviewed Cudjo Lewis, the last living person who’d been brought to America as part of the slave trade, it’s an incredibly important source text recalling the horrors of slavery during the era of segregation.

Also available as an audiobook.

You can find the original list on Scribd.


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