by Julius Lester
I was led to this book as I searched for a book to possibly read with my daughters, whom I homeschool, as part of our exploration of U.S. History. I’ve been reading A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zimmerman with them (an excellent book), and detouring to other books when we want to delve more deeply into certain aspects of the history we’re reading about. Slavery in America is one of those aspects. I want to somehow convey to my kids the depth of horror of slavery, and to really try to imagine what it must have been like to be owned as a piece of property, like a table or a dog or an iPad, by another human being, to have no rights, and to spend one’s entire life doing the bidding of another person or people. It’s hard even for me to imagine, obviously, being a white woman.
In any case, my query online for books for youth regarding slavery led me to Julius Lester’s To Be a Slave, which was originally published in 1968. It opens thus:
“It was the late forties. I was not yet ten years old. One day there came in the mail a letter addressed to my father in which a company promised – in big and bold letters – to research the Lester family tree and send us a copy of our family coat of arms. I was excited, but when I saw my father fold the letter as if to discard it, I asked anxiously, ‘Don’t you want to know our family history?’
“He laughed dryly. ‘I don’t need to pay anybody to tell me about where we came from. Our family tree ends in a bill of sale. Lester is the name of the family that owned us.'”
I was chilled by this stark, but obvious information. I had never thought about it before – but of course nearly every black American’s family tree would end in a bill of sale.
Many years later, Lester began delving into black history, and he came upon a book by B.A. Botkin called Lay My Burden Down, which was a compilation of interviews with the last living former slaves undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project of the Depression. The book angered Lester, who says, “The slaves depicted there were too reminiscent of the stereotyped blacks of the movies of the forties and fifties – happy, laughing, filled with love for while people.” Believing that the interviews with former slaves were cherry-picked in order to produce a record of slavery that (white) people could feel good about, Lester went to the Library of Congress and spend weeks pouring through all of the interviews undertaken by the Federal Writer’s Project himself, gleaning from them exactly what he had gone there to find: true, emotional, harrowing, courageous, horrifying, heart wrenching firsthand accounts of slavery from those who were slaves themselves and lived to tell about it. To Be a Slave is Lester’s compilation of those interviews, along with his notes.
I’ve read numerous books about slavery, both fiction and non-fiction, and this book has touched a deeper never probably than any other I’ve read, mainly for its raw and unvarnished truthfulness. It’s actually aimed at young people – probably no younger than middle school, but something adults would benefit from reading, too. This should be required reading; highly recommend.