It’s been roughly 150 years since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery. 150 years may seem like both a large sweep of time and, in the case of slavery, shockingly recent. Regardless of how long ago or recent it seems, the fact remains that slavery’s impression on our cultural consciousness is still very much alive and is a continued subject of interest in contemporary literature. Though some of our country’s best loved literature is about slavery (such as Beloved by Toni Morrison, Roots by Alex Haley, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass to name a few) we thought we’d compile a list of lesser-read, contemporary novels about slavery.
Though these eight books are all unified in their focus on slavery, each approaches this subject in unique and inventive ways. Each is an achievement in a very important vein of literature. Of course, these aren’t the only great contemporary novels about slavery, so be sure and let us know which of your favorites we’ve missed.
Jones’ debut novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, is set in Virginia twenty years before the Civil War. Its premise is built on slave owners who, like their slaves, are black. But to reduce this book as such would be an injustice to the moral complexities of slavery Jones is able to investigate in a multi-layered novel. The novel’s structure is as complex as its theme, jumping around in time and encompassing a large cast of characters. It is the type of book that, as soon as it was released, became an instant classic.
Butler is a science-fiction author, and though she tackles a subject that is very real, she manages to stay true to her sci-fi roots in Kindred. The novel follows a black woman named Dana, who, through the invention of time travel, is able to move back and forth between 1976 California and pre-Civil War Maryland. She meets her ancestors—a cruel slave owner and the black woman he has forced into slavery—and becomes more and more entangled in their world, leading to complications Dana must overcome in order to ensure her own future.
While Butler uses inventive devices to access the past, Gaines’ novel is very much grounded in reality. It is narrated by its eponymous protagonist, who tells the story of her life all the way to the Civil War. Its first-person, documentary style is made even realer by the mention of actual historical events and figures, such as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Booker T. Washington. In fact, when the publisher first sent out galleys, they neglected to put “a novel” on the cover, which aided a lot of confusion as to whether or not the character and her story were real.
Straight’s novel also features a character telling her own story. Moinette Antoine narrates her story in a rich stream-of-consciousness that begins with her being taken away from her mother at 14 and ends with her gaining her freedom and becoming a self-educated, strong, and successful businesswoman. Antoine is very insightful throughout, and she offers an interesting perspective of the harsh and brutal conditions to which she, as a woman of mixed race, is subjected.
McBride’s novel is also very true to reality, beginning with the discovery of the memoirs of Henry Shackleford, a Kansas slave. Throughout Shackleford’s story, he encounters many real figures in history, such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and John Brown. The Good Lord Bird, which won the National Book Award in 2013, has been compared to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for, among other reasons, taking a very heavy subject and injecting it with many moments of humor.
Hannah Crafts is widely accepted as the pseudonym of a runaway slave (perhaps the first female African-American novelist) sometime in the mid 1800s. The novel recounts the experience of Hannah, a house slave in North Carolina, whose difficult life not only sheds light on the plight of blacks under slavery, but of whites, who, on a significantly different level, can also be victims of slavery.
Though Jamaican author Marlon James sets his story in his country of birth, the novel’s investigation of the environment of slavery is very relevant to America. James (recent winner of the Man Booker Prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings) tells the story of a young, orphaned slave girl, who at first tries to win her owner’s affection until she becomes recruited by The Night Women, a group of female slaves planning to revolt. The novel is at times brutal and unflinching, which is perhaps very much called for in a story such as this.
In Cane River, Lalita Tademy blends fact and fiction as she relates the story of four generations of her slave-born female ancestors. The novel spans about one hundred years (roughly 1830-1930) and gives a very rich portrait of slavery as it stretched through time and through families.
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