January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a month dedicated to bringing awareness about human trafficking nationally and internationally, including how to spot and prevent human trafficking-related crimes. More information on the United States’ efforts for National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month can be found here.
For this week’s Three to Read, we’ve chosen stories that feature narratives that explore slavery and human trafficking in America’s history. The books listed below are as powerful as they are gutting and are necessary reads that emphasize humanity in times of darkness.
Content Warning: This article includes content about books that feature enslavement, death, violence, and trafficking. Please exercise personal care when reading.
Let Us Descend by Jesmyn Ward
Triggering Warning: This book contains mentions of enslavement, human trafficking, sexual violence, physical violence, torture, confinement, and kidnapping. Please exercise personal care when reading.
Annis’s mother always insisted that Annis carried the same strength of the West African warrior women they descended from. Still, Annis feels anything but strong after her mother is sold South to the slave market. Grieving, Annis finds love with Safi, but the two are wrenched apart when they are both also sold South to the slave market in New Orleans. Along the journey from the fields of the Carolinas to a sugar plantation in New Orleans, a spirit bearing her grandmother’s name tries to help, guide, and protect Annis as she searches for her version of freedom.
Jesmyn Ward weaves a story that pulls no punches. As the main character, Annis is the guide through the brutal and often unfathomable landscape of slavery in 19th-century America. The story is heightened by an enriching touch of magical realism as Annis’s ancestors and other spirits bring her protection and guidance. Ward’s novel is a testament to the power that family and lineage give us.
In The Upper Country by Kai Thomas
Trigger Warning: This book contains mentions of enslavement, human trafficking, graphic violence, and death. Please exercise personal care when reading.
Set in the 1800s, Lensinda Martin works for a crusading Black journalist in a small Canadian town. The town, settled by people escaping enslavement in the American South, is disrupted when a recent arrival shoots a slave hunter dead. The old woman, who came to the town via the Underground Railroad, refuses to leave before the authorities arrive. The farmer urges Lensinda to get the woman’s testimony before she can be taken away, but the old woman offers a different solution: a story for a story. Her deal starts an amazing exchange of stories between herself and Lensinda, revealing an interconnected history of Black and Indigenous peoples throughout North America.
Thomas makes an important point about the interconnectedness of separate histories, especially those of marginalized communities in the United States. Readers travel along the Underground Railroad from Virginia to Michigan on a tour of the communities that formed around the survival and love of people escaping enslavement, providing a map of hope as a guide through dark history.
Yonder by Jabari Asim
Trigger Warning: This book contains mentions of enslavement, human trafficking, dehumanization, graphic violence, and death. Please exercise personal care when reading.
On a plantation somewhere in the American South, enslaved men Cato and William meet at Placid Hall, bonding in their mutual terror of their cruel captor, Cannonball Greene. Always at risk of beating or losing a loved one in a sale, the men are constantly dehumanized at every turn. Despite these traumas, Cato and William build meaningful and loving relationships with not just each other but with others as well. But their ritual of living in quiet protest to the idea Black people are incapable of love is disrupted by a mysterious preacher. This preacher encourages them to choose freedom in small choices and tries to lead them into the unknown, a massive risk that has Cato and William’s relationships beginning to fray.
Jabari Asim explores a difficult question: how does one find love while enslaved? Asim’s novel is about how enslaved people prove to themselves they are human and just as capable of love, despite everyone else telling them otherwise. The power in Asim’s novels lies in how love and hope bloom in a place of darkness even when it seems unlikely to grow.
Thanks for tuning in to this week’s article; check out last week’s Three To Read on self-betterment resources here.
Find these books and more on our Bookstr Three to Read Bookshop.org bookshelf.