Today is the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, which makes it an appropriate and much needed time to reflect back on the slave trade and its legacy. While it sometimes feels far removed from our current lives, present day racism and the necessary movements it continues to spark, such as Black Lives Matter, remind us of the extensive work we still need to do in order to achieve an equal and nondiscriminatory society.
Philosopher and essayist George Santayana famously stated, 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ and I think it makes clear why we have internationally recognized days for events such as the Abolition of Slavery. History is so important because it educates us on where we went wrong in the past and how we can collectively avoid such terrible errors in the future.
And so, in honour of remembering and marking the Abolition of Slavery, here are 5 books that should be on all of our TBR lists:
#1 Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes:
The winner of the 2007 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in Canada, this novel tells the life of Aminata Diallo, a midwife who is kidnapped from her native village in Africa as a girl and forced into slavery. Told from the first person perspective of Aminata as she recounts her various homes, her escape to Canada and her present day commitment to fighting for the Abolutionist movement in England, Hill weaves a mesmerizing tale that makes explicit the horrors of the slave trade at the same time as it celebrates the heroic and brave actions of his heroine.
The title of the novel refers to the historical document of the same name kept by British naval officers that documents the 3000 blacks who had served the King in the American Revolutionary War and were fleeing to Canada in 1783. The book plays a crucial role in the story and despite it being a work of fiction, I found I learned a great deal while reading this text.
#2 Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin
This novel was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century after the Bible. If this alone doesn't alert you to the necessity of reading this novel, maybe the fact that it is said to have 'helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War' will.
Beecher-Stowe was a teacher in Connecticut when she wrote this novel and it gained her great fame and notoriety. When she went to the White House in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted her by saying 'Is this the little woman who made this great war?' There were, of course, other major contributors to the War, yet Beecher-Stowe's representation of the evils of slavery certainly contributed to changing attitudes in society.
The novel revolves around the character of Uncle Tom, a middle-aged slave who has undergone countless trials in his lifetime. With a wide cast of characters, it examines the slave trade as a business, the relations between slaves and their owners and makes clear the horrors taking place in America at the time.
#3 Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad
The winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction, this novel is at the top of my TBR list for the new year. Whitehead first came up with the idea in the year 2000 and put off writing the novel for 15 years, feeling he wasn't ready yet. It seems he got it right in the end, as it's earned both commercial and critical acclaim since its release.
The novel tells the story of two slaves, Cora and Caesar, as they attempt to make their way to freedom by following the Underground Railroad. Whitehead did extensive research into oral history archives before writing the novel in order to be able to provide detailed descriptions of plantations and the realities of slavery. Yet he also incorporates various elements of magical realism. You know the Underground Railroad? In Whitehead's novel it takes the form of an underground subway system.
It sounds fascinating in terms of both form and content, and I can't wait to get to it.
#4 Toni Morrison's Beloved
The winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Morrison's dedication is to the 'Sixty Million and more' Africans and descendants who died as a result of the slave trade. The novel tells the story of Sethe and her daughter after their escape from slavery. Living in a house that is haunted, Sethe remains surrounded by the horrors of slavery despite having lived 'free' in the state of Ohio for 18 years.
Morrison also incorporates elements of magical realism to explore the presence of the past and the shattering impact Sethe's memories have on her present day life. Morrison's text is notoriously stylistic and, at times, resists comprehension. It won't be your easiest read, but it certainly conveys the devastating legacy of the slave trade and its traumatic impact on the human psyche.
#5 Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family
You might know Roots as the hugely popular television miniseries that was watched by an estimated 130 million viewers (more than half of the US population at the time), won nine Emmy Awards in 1977 and was an effective cultural phenomenon. But before all of that, it was a novel.
Haley's work follows the life of African slave Kunta Kinte and seven generations of his descendants down to Haley in the present day. Haley grew up hearing stories about an ancestor named Kunta Kinte, and grew fascinated with the idea of tracing his family lineage. Although much of the novel is fictional, Haley has said he used carefully preserved oral history and corroborating factual evidence to construct his narrative that he calls 'faction'.
Haley has received some flack from historians and genealogists, but the fact remains Roots was a cultural sensation that sparked a great deal of interest in African American history and genealogy. It remains a highly relevant text that continues to pose questions regarding the slave trade and its impact on future generations.
Do you have any novels you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments below.