The Book Reviews – Website

August 6, 2008

To Be a Slave

To Be a Slave

Author: Julius Lester

Page Length: 160

Reading Level: 6

Genre: Non-fiction

REVIEW: This book is a compilation of letters, poems, and personal historical narratives from actual individuals who lived during the time of slavery, many of which were slaves. The author has taken time to research the written records of these individuals from sources such as the American Anti-Slavery Society, The Federal Writer’s Project, and the Archive of Folksong Library of Congress. The majority of the letters are from sources dated around the 1930’s. Imbedded in the letters and poems is the author’s interpretation of what the individuals were trying to convey based on true historical context. In doing so, the author paints a very different picture of slavery from that in the history textbooks.

I learned much from reading the words of the people who suffered and endured the harsh times of slavery. Before Africans were captured from their land and taken aboard ships to America, the new American colonists enslaved Indians, poor whites, prisoners, and debtors for 18 years. After that period, the first slave ship set sail for Africa hoping to seek out a larger, cheaper work force with which they could easily control and profit from. Upon arriving in Africa, the colonists, with the aid of some of the African chiefs, coaxed over 50 million Africans onto slave ships and sent them over to America. On their voyage from Africa to the New World, slaves ate only yams – and only minimal amounts at that. Many died from suffocation or suicide.

Upon arrival to America, many slaves were auctioned off and sent to live with their new owners. While on the plantations, not all slaves supported each other. Some of the slaves assigned to a slave owners house, would spy on the field slaves for his master. To pass the time and maintain high spirits, slaves would sing songs, dance, and gather for fellowship and religious services whenever they could. Such activities were looked down upon by the slave masters. Slave owners wanted to keep their slaves focused only on work and obedience. Any sign of human socialization and affection, was denied at every corner. The slaves were even denied their own names. Many times when a slave moved to a new owners property, he would receive a new name – or just an initial. When some slaves thought it was safe, or just plain could not stand being enslaved anymore, they would escape to the North where freedom was calling. Along the way many died or were captured and sent back to their owners. Some slaves escaped to live with the Indians fearing the white men of the North were no better than the South.

Slavery was not just created for a cotton field work force. It was a major driving force in the economy. Some have equated slavery to the stock market and it’s financial effects on the country. Many slave traders earned up to half a million dollars in revenue from their business dealings. Some individuals even took part in slave breeding, which primarily occurred in Virginia. However, only 25% of the south’s white population held slaves. But of that 25%, millions of dollars fueled it’s economy.

When slaves were actually freed by the government, many African-Americans did not know what to do. For years, slavery was all they ever knew. For some, they were born into slavery. When the country officially granted slaves their freedom, they did nothing to ensure that these new members of society would be self-sufficient. Many freed-slaves went back to their slave owners to work.

On page 155-156, Thomas Hall states that the country freed the slaves, but did nothing to help them afterwards.

America was not the first and only country to allow slavery, but it was certainly the cruelest. This book is a great example of how through letter writing/reading one can understand the effects of slavery on America’s history. This book is best read in small chunks. The teacher may be the best source to choose which sections to read out-loud to his/her students. The chapters are divided up nicely by theme. I highly recommend this book!

AREAS FOR TEACHING: compare/contrast Thomas Jefferson and George Washington’s slave houses (page 62-63), visualization, reading letters, reading a diary, & reading a poem

TOUCHY AREAS-PAGES: the use of the “N” and “B” word is prevalent throughout the text, slaves are referred to as “things” throughout the book

RELATED BOOKS: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Red Badge of Courage, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Sojourner Truth Ain’t I a Woman, The Glory Field, Wanted Dead or Alive The True Story of Harriet Tubman, & Frederick Douglass Fights for Freedom

MOVIE & TV CONNECTIONS: “Amistad” (1997), “Glory” (1989), “Roots” (1977 – TV miniseries), “Gone With the Wind” (1939), & “The Red Badge of Courage” (1951)


REVIEWED BY: Kevin Stratton

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