Slavery, Abolition, Rebellion: A Reading List

All of these books should provide some correctives to the deep misunderstanding -- or desperate ignorance -- of this extremely important chapter in American History.
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Every so often, news stories and other events converge to create a "teaching moment." This is one of those moments when you can curse the darkness or light a candle. I will try and shed some light.

Patrick Buchanan's recent "White men built America" rant on MSNBC (subject of an earlier post; the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Gates in his home and the President's reaction to it; and my own research on a current writing project have all focused my attention on African-American History.

So here is a brief -and certainly not exhaustive--list of some excellent titles about ante-bellum African-American history, the slave trade and abolition. All of these should provide some correctives to the deep misunderstanding -- or desperate ignorance -- of this extremely important chapter in American History.

New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan by Jill Lepore (Vintage) tells the story of the hysteria over an alleged slave conspiracy in New York in 1741. It examines the role that slavery played in New York, the northern city with the largest slave population before the Revolution.

The Slave Ship: A Human History by Marcus Reddiker (Viking). With incredible detail and documentation, Reddiker puts readers on the decks and in the holds of slavers in this work that examines the incredible "efficiency" of the slave business and the fortunes it created. With personal accounts of the people involved in every facet of the slave trade, it is at times deeply disturbing -as it should be.

Rough Crossings: The Slaves, the British, and the American Revolution by Simon Schama (Harper Perennial). A fascinating look at what happened when thousands of slaves accepted an offer of freedom from the British if they would fight against their owners, the American "patriots." Another eye opening book that opens up a hidden chapter of our history.

Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and Into Legend by Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina (Harper). History on a smaller scale, this is the story of former slaves who purchased their own freedom and lived in New England (not far from my home in Vermont).

Perhaps the most famous slave in American history and her family are the focus of the prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family by Annette Gordon-Reed (Norton) which tells the complete story of the family that enjoyed a special relationship with Thomas Jefferson.

Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves by Adam Hoschschild (Houghton Mifflin). Although this book focuses on the incredible rise of the British abolitionist movement, it is still very significant in terms of American slavery. It also addresses the fascinating question of how a small group of people changed history and invented the modern tools of protest. A wonderful book by the author of King Leopold's Ghost, one of the best historical works I have ever read.

John Brown Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds (Vintage). Reynolds offers fresh insights into the life and times of one of the most mythologized -- and demonized -- men in American History. Reynolds is also the author of the recent prize-winner, Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson (Harper).

While I have focused on a handful of more recent titles here, two authors of older works should also be noted, as both recently passed away and they were both giants in this particular field of history.

John Hope Franklin, who died in March 2009, was the dean of African-American historians. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (Knopf), first published in 1947, is a groundbreaking classic, as is Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (Oxford University).

The late Kenneth Stampp, who died earlier in July 2009, transformed the study of American slavery with his landmark book, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South (Vintage) among many other important works.

This is, of course, an abbreviated list, meant as a starting point with some recent titles of note, along with a few classics. There are, of course, many more significant and valuable works about the African-American experience. Let's not leave them until February when Black History month next rolls around.