Once you read Nancy Rawles’ My Jim, a compelling slave story about Sadie (the wife of Huck Finn’s friend Jim), who chose to remain a slave and stay with her family on the plantation, you will likely want to read other stories like it: narratives that sweep you back in time and make you think. Most slave narratives, unlike My Jim, are the stories of men and women who strove to escape. Some African American historical fiction reveals slavery’s cruelty and harsh conditions, but very few novels feature strong, admirable slaves who chose to stay together rather than attempt personal escape.
Another painfully lyrical family story is J. California Cooper’s The Wake of the Wind, in which a homestead settled by freed slaves provides the backdrop for the story of another strong family determined to survive. Mor and Lifee struggle through the Reconstruction period — the obstacles of racial hatred and their resulting poverty— and leave strong, capable children who value their freedom and strive for justice, to keep the family together.
If you haven’t read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines yet, stop what you are doing and read it now! You won’t find an easier way to learn the basics of African American history. It’s a treat to see history — from the Civil War to the civil rights era — through the memorable voice of Miss Jane, a 100-year-old former slave. And if you wonder what slavery was really like, read Phyllis Perry’s Stigmata, the story of modern-day Lizzie DuBose, who has terrifyingly real visions of her ancestors’ lives as slaves and must integrate the spirits of the past with her own search for meaning: an example for readers to emulate.
Many of us are familiar with the heart-wrenching premise of Beloved by Toni Morrison, the story of a young mother who remembers killing her child to escape re-enslavement. Although set on a Caribbean island rather than America, The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke is another unforgettable story of an extreme response to slavery. In her confession to the local police, Mary Mathilda tells the story of her 30 years in service to the cane plantation master, his unfeeling cruelty, his treatment of their child and the hatred she received from the other slaves for what they saw as her special treatment. Austin’s stream of consciousness narrative works powerfully to sustain a nearly painful suspense leading up to the killing to which she is confessing. The Polished Hoe would spark a great book group discussion.
Two novels published last year are powerful reminders of the emotional impact of slavery and of a hope for healing. James McBride’s lyrical Song Yet Sung gives us escaped slave Liz, a “dreamer” like Martin Luther King Jr., whose visions for a free future are as inspiring as her circumstances are dire. Someone Knows My Name by Lawrence Hill, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage, portrays captured slaves aboard a slave ship on the agonizing voyage across the Atlantic. Hill’s novel goes on to trace the life of one slave, Aminata Diallo, who vows to record and remember every detail of her journey toward eventual freedom. She embodies, for readers, the passage of time in a slave’s life (slow), and the de-humanization and devaluing of their lives. Aminata’s attempts to recall justice and identity by making sure “someone knows my name” demand compassion and, at the same time, hope.