Gyasi Reading List
It’s no surprise that many great American novels have examined slavery, its damage and its aftermath. Here are five of the best, all by prize-winning African American authors:
The first is a work of science fiction by Octavia Butler, a great talent who unfortunately died relatively young, at age 59. Published in 1979, Kindred is still considered a science fiction classic. Part time-travel story, part slave narrative, it is still taught in many literature classes and has been the focus of numerous “community reads” programs.
Kindred is narrated by Dana, a young African American writer living in California in the 1970s. She is transported back to a Maryland slave plantation before the Civil War and meets several residents, including a cruel and self-centered plantation owner and a black woman who starts out free but is forced into slavery and a sexual relationship.
Dana is drawn back again and again, and eventually realizes that some of these people are her ancestors. Her choices as she tries to survive in a slave society become tougher and tougher, as are those of her partner, a white man who travels with her. Kindred is a tough but very interesting book – its time–travel structure enabled Butler to look both at the brutality of slavery and its legacy. Though Dana has terrible experiences, she gets to return to the 20th century. Others aren’t so lucky.
Beloved by Toni Morrison, a Pulitzer Prize winner in fiction, is one of the most harrowing and moving books I have ever read. It’s the story of Sethe, a woman who flees from the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. She is tracked down in Cincinatti by a posse who wants to return her and her two-year-old daughter to slavery.
Sethe does a shocking thing – rather than return her two year old daughter to a life of slavery, she kills her. The ghost of Sethe’s daughter haunts Sethe and her family throughout the book.
This is a story not just of slavery, but of its aftermath in the era of Reconstruction. Morrison shows how vicious slavery was, not just physically, but in its corrosive effect on families. The daughter’s ghost is more than just a ghost – she’s a metaphor for the curse of slavery, even after people have been declared “free.” The book is all the more powerful for the fact that Toni Morrison is a gorgeous writer; she makes you see the beauty and the horror of everything.
Charles Johnson was an English professor at the University of Washington when he published Middle Passage, a story that takes its readers into the bowels of the slave ships that took Africans to America. It’s told from an interesting point of view – that of Calhoun, a free black New Orleans American man who, fleeing a forced marriage, stows away on a ship that’s headed to Africa to pick up slaves.
What happens next, once the slaves are captured and taken on the ship, is surreal and harrowing, including a slave revolt, death by disease and brushes with the supernatural. It forces Calhoun to confront hard truths about other human beings and about himself. It won the National Book Award in 1990.
The Known World by Edward P. Jones is one of my favorite novels of all time. It examines slavery through a unique device – it tells the story of black people who owned slaves. It won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
The story opens with the death of Henry Townsend, an owner of 33 slaves. Henry is black. He intended to be the most humane slave owner ever, but as Henry learns, slavery is an utterly corrupting institution that eventually perverts the best of intentions.
This book is based on historical fact – some black people did own slaves in the pre-war South. Because the novel takes race out of the equation, the reader is able to look at slavery from other angles – that the economy of the South was utterly dependent on slavery, that people selectively read the Bible to justify the notion that slavery was sanctioned by God. The Known World is an unforgettable novel that illuminates what happens when human beings hold absolute power and control over other men and women.
Finally, I want to mention a more recent novel – The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, an impossible book to pigeonhole, so I’ll just tell you what it is about.
The Good Lord Bird tells the story of a young slave who winds up, against his will, in the company of John Brown, the American abolitionist. Henry Shackleford is a boy, but he soon finds that it’s much more to his advantage to pass as a girl. As he tries to figure out how to escape from Brown’s band of fire-breathing anti-slavery zealots, Henry has to confront a number of truths about his own nature.
This story of a mixed-up teenager entangled in the affairs of one of America’s most controversial figures is hilarious, sad, and always entertaining. McBride, a gifted writer and musician, is a genius, in my opinion, and there’s some evidence for that – The Good Lord Bird won the National Book Award for fiction.