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To Be a Slave

A book by Julius Lester

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  • Jan 28, 2010
As noted in the description of this work, "To be A Slave" was a 1969 Newbery Honor Book, An ALA Notable Book, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and a Smithsonian Magazine Best Book of the Year. Seldom have I read a book that was actually deserving of these awards more than this work, and in my opinion, so many, many more!

I must note right up front that even though this work was and is targeted for the 9 to 12 age group, it is applicable and fitting for just about any age group over the age of 9. I strongly suggest that this age group, or many in it, may not be ready for this particular read. In my opinion the age grouping probably should start at about 15 or 16 at the earliest. Younger readers should probably have some adult guidance. Folks, we are talking pretty brutal here. Rarely have I read an "adult" work covering this subject which held the dignified impact this book offers. It is profoundly upsetting, and rightfully so. The author, Julius Lester, pulls no punches throughout the entire work and gives his readers a dreadful dose of reality. I must admit that many passages in this work; many of the firsthand accounts (more about that later) of former slaves in the United States, made me literally physically ill. This is a good thing as it is like a cold splash of water (or more accurately...acid), in the face, bring the reader from a compete state of sleep into full and painful wakefulness and awareness.

Many of the stories told here were either suppressed or more or less ignored until the 1930s when the Federal Writers Project was organized. One of their tasks was to interview as many former slaves as possible and record as accurately as possible their story. The author is quick to point out that due to the times, much liberty was taken in rewriting in reference to dialect as it was felt that the average reader simply would not understand the words written and also due to the fact that it was feared that by using the dialect of many individuals interviewed would place in the hand ammunition for those that were trying to prove the inferiority of the Black Race. So sad, but the authors or interviewers did a wonderful job and to a certain extent I must agree with their decision to do this. I have noted that the youth of today have great trouble if reading various dialects and it turns them off a book quite quickly. This is a pity, but we must face the reality of the situation.

This work is a collection of actual interviews with former slaves, not only from the Writer's Project, but documents dating back to the founding of the nation. Most of these interviews and accounts can be found in the Library of Congress. This work covers every aspect of the life of a slave, from their capture in Africa, their trip through the Middle Passage, and then their life of servitude in their new "home." The author addresses the extreme mental and physical cruelty involved, the daily life of a plantation slave, the slave breeding farms of Virginia, the deplorable living condition that the vast majority of these people were forced to live in, the tearing apart of families, diet, clothing, working conditions...and on and on.

I was absolutely delighted in the fact that through this collection of first hand accounts and the authors side comments, that the myth of the "happy darkie" who was content in his or her lot in life and that the vast majority of slaves were quite devoted to their masters. This is a myth that still lingers to this very day in some quarters.

The author is quick to point out that the United States, of all the slave holding countries in the Western Hemisphere, was probably the most brutal and efficient in the effort to stamp out all cultural identity. Various methods were used from the extremely brutal to a rather sophisticated (for that time) brain washing. Religion was used as an effective weapon by the slave holders, which is pretty disgusting when you stop to think of it.

Now readers take warning! There are aspects of this work that are upsetting to the extreme! Accounts recorded during the Middle Passage of babies being thrown over the side of the ship, the deliberate drowning of infants in front of their mothers on Plantations, the tearing apart of families at auction and the sever savagery of the beatings and torture of many of these unfortunate individuals makes for some very grim reading. The simple act of making it through a work day on a typical plantation was an absolute horror. And this went on day after day after day for an entire life time for many of these individuals.

This is classified as a YA but is a rather hardcore YA but that being said, it is probably one of the most useful, effective and truthful books of this genre I have read in years. I cannot imagine a more effective teaching tool. Our country went through two major blights, very dark areas in our history, which are still with us today...slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. We need to be aware of both of these horrors least we forget. Works such as this go along way in the education process and to be quite frank, we need more of this caliber.

This work needs to be at the head of any young persons reading list, and I must say that it should be at the head of any adults list too. I highly recommend this work but do be prepared to be shocked if you have neglected your readings in the past addressing this subject. For the adult reader, I might suggest further reading and the work This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South (Galaxy Books)

Don Blankenship
The Ozarks

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January 25, 2011
Sounds like a very thought provoking read of one of America's most tragic time periods. Great review. I like that you suggest that parents or someone older guide youth through this reading.
More To Be a Slave reviews
review by . October 27, 2010
 Slavery will forever be a blight on the United States, born as a nation of free men based on radical political ideals; those ideals were not initially applied to all men. The phrase, “that all men are created equal” was not applied to black slaves. While some would rather this dark chapter be ignored or rationalized, sunlight is still the best disinfectant, so openly explaining the consequences of slavery is without question the best policy.    This book is an excellent …
About the reviewer
Don Blankenship ()
Ranked #228
Retirement does not suit me and I now substitute teach in our local schools system. I spent twenty years in the military, twenty years in health care as a consultant and have taught in various colleges … more
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About this book


To be a slave. To be owned by another person, as a car, house, or a table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be sold...

This book is about how it felt. The words of black men and women who had themselves been slaves are here, accompanied by Julius Lester's historical commentary and Tom Feelings's powerful and muted paintings,To Be a Slavehas been a touchstone in children's literature for over thirty years.

"It is rare to find a book that enables children to identify as compellingly with slaves as this one does." -Publishers Weekly

"From history-and for our time-there's nothing better thanTo Be a Slave." -The New York Times Book Review


A 1969 Newbery Honor Book
An ALA Notable Book
ASchool LibraryJournal Best Book of the Year
ASmithsonianMagazine Best Book of the Year
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ISBN-10: 0141310014
ISBN-13: 978-0141310015
Author: Julius Lester
Genre: Children's Books
Publisher: Puffin
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