May 16, 2008

To Be a Slave by Julius Lester (and Six Random Things Meme)

“To be a slave. To be owned by another person, as a car, house, or table is owned. To live as a piece of property that could be sold—a child sold from its mother, a wife from her husband. To be considered not human, but a “thing” that plowed the fields, cut the wood, cooked the food, nursed another’s child; a “thing” whose sole function was determined by the one who owned you.
To be a slave. To know, despite the suffering and deprivation, that you were human, more human than he who said you were not human. To know joy, laughter, sorrow, and tears and yet be considered only the equal of a table.”
In To Be a Slave, Julius Lester tells the history of slavery in America. His own narrative is alternated with slave testimonies – some from nineteenth century slave narratives, some taken down by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930’s. The result is an incredibly sad, powerful and informative book.

The structure works really well, and I was impressed with how well-rounded the book is. I won’t say it shows the good and the bad because that makes no sense when it comes to slavery, but it does show the various types of experiences that existed within slavery: being born a slave versus being dragged from your homeland and cast into slavery, despising your owners versus identifying with their ideas, helping others escape versus betraying them, different reactions to the end of the Civil War, etc. As with everything, there were probably as many different ways to experience slavery as people who experienced it.

As I said, the book is incredibly well-structured, with chapters on how slaves were captured, the auction block, life on the plantations, resistance to slavery, emancipation, and life after the end of the War. The only problem, if I can call it that, is that at 156 pages the book doesn’t provide a lot of detail. But this is, after all, a book for children, and one of the best, if not the best, non-fiction children’s books I have ever come across. The book works as an introduction to the topic, and there’s a bibliography at the end that is very useful to those who want to read more.

Despite having written the book with children in mind, Julius Lester doesn’t shy away from showing the horror of slavery. As he says in the introduction, my underlying and hidden purpose was simply this: If a child could experience slaves as human beings, then it might be possible for that same child to look at the descendants of slaves and also see another human being, no more, no less. And to experience slaves as human beings, one has to be shown the consequences of what they were put through. There were countless horrific episodes in the book, but I think this was the one that affected me the most:
Mother, she give out on the way, ‘bout the line of Texas. Her feet got raw and bleeding, her legs swoll plumb out of shape. Then massa, he just take out his gun and shot her, and while she lay dying, he kick her two, three times, and say, 'Damn a nigger what can’t stand nothing.' You know that man, he wouldn’t bury Mother. Just leave her laying where he shot her at.
I hadn’t even heard of this book until recently, and I can’t thank Debi enough for bringing it to my attention. Just recently I also acquired Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember via Bookmooch, a book that does pretty much the same as To Be a Slave, but aimed at adults and in more detail. I’ll let you know about it after I read it later this year.

Other Blog Reviews:
Words by Annie
Nothing of Importance

I’m finally going to do the Six Random Things About Me Meme! I apologize to Mrs S for the delay.
  1. Something I’ve been meaning to share: I have a new dog! He’s a Portuguese Mountain Dog, about one year old, gorgeous and very very friendly. He’s already huge, but he still acts like a puppy, lol. He constantly wants to play. He was a stray even though he’s purebred, and the vet says that the reason why he was abandoned was probably the fact that he suffers from canine hip dysplasia. Whoever had him before probably wanted him for breeding purposes. Since the condition is hereditary, once they realized he had it they got rid of him. There is no cure for hip dysplasia, but with treatment he can have a comfortable life, and we’re determined to give him one. The other dogs like him, fortunately, but the cats are not amused. He’s completely harmless, though, so hopefully they’ll eventually realize there’s no danger and get used to him. Here’s a picture:

  2. Still on dogs, I had a dog of that exact same breed from ages 7 to 19. He was named Pluto, and one of the scariest moments of my life was when he came running towards me and knocked me down. My fall was so violent that I couldn’t breathe for about 15 seconds, and lying there gasping for breath was one of the scariest things ever. I seriously thought I was going to die.

  3. I love the word “shenanigans”, and I’m beginning to suspect that its presence in a book (or other piece of fiction) is a sure sign I’m going to like it. For example, Tigerheart by Peter David, which I love so far, has it on page four. Voice of our Shadow by Jonathan Carroll had it on the first chapter as well. Another example is the movie Juno. My boyfriend and I have an ongoing private joke with that word. I’ll spare you the details, but it started with this lolcat.

  4. I’m going to spend this summer in Brazil - I booked my flight last week! I'm leaving on the 7th of July and staying until late August. I’m taking my laptop, so although I will post considerably less, I won’t disappear completely. The 7th of July is, very interestingly, the day after the Paraty Literary Festival ends, a festival where Neil Gaiman is going to be, and which is more or less in the same area where I'll be. Sigh.

  5. I have a bizarre habit that even fellow booklovers consider weird. Sometimes – not often – when I’m reading a book and there’s a paragraph or a line I really love, or it suddenly hits me how incredible the book is and that it will surely become a new favourite of mine, I kind of stop reading and hug the book and stroke the cover. And then I catch myself and glance around surreptitiously to make sure nobody’s seen me.

  6. I am unreasonably scared of moths. Winged things in general make me shudder, especially if dead. And, ironically, I seem to have an uncanny ability to spot dead birds before anyone else sees them and warns me to look away.
Tagging time: My chosen victims are Valentina, Lightheaded, Jean Pierre, Chris, Debi, and Tanabata. I don’t want any of you to feel like you have to do it, but I’d love to learn more about you, so if you feel like it, please do.


  1. You've been reading some heavy subject books lately! I put this one on my list after Debi's review and I'll bump it up a notch after yours.

    Your new dog is so damn cute! I love dogs so much. I've always been a huge dog fan and have had one my whole life. I think it's great that you take care of animals that are in need of help. I remember you writing about some of your other pets awhile ago.

    Brazil sounds great! I'm sure you'll have an amazing time's just too bad you can't get there a few days earlier! I hope you two have a great month or so together and enjoy your shenanigans!

    And I can certainly relate to your love of books to the point where they almost become living beings. I too get the warm fuzzies sometimes with certain books and can relate to that. That's quite sad that you spot dead birds easily :( Thanks for the tag....I"ll do this one soon!

  2. I was unaware of this but its on the list - my 12 year old niece has been studying the history of slavery in Texas, so I think I'll get a copy for her as well.
    ...Your new dog is beautiful! fortunately, we love dogs as well - there's a few people who like to take their unwanted dogs out to the country and just drop them off, so we usually have a pretty motley crew romping around our farm (we try and get the license plate number of the dog's former owner and turn them in).

  3. Sorry, I'm feeling pouty...I just typed a really long comment here and somehow lost it :(

    Anyway, I'm glad you weren't disappointed in To Be a Slave. I'm looking forward to hearing about Bullwhip Days...I'm sure it will be another powerful read. You know the account that really haunts me? When the big thunderstorm came and drowned all the babies in the "trough" because their mamas couldn't get to them. I just can't get that out of my head. And for Annie it's how the mamas threw their babies overboard trying to save them when they were kidnapped and forced onto the ships. A little book that definitely packs a punch. I really wish it were required reading in schools.

    But on to a happy subject...congratulations on your new baby! He is just the most adorable doggie ever! (But don't tell Baker I said that.) I'd never heard of a Portuguese Mountain Dog before. My goodness, I just want to crawl through this screen and go snuggle up beside him!

    And I must admit you had me laughing twice during your list...first with 'shenanigans' just because it's such a popular word around this house (I don't know, somehow little boys and shenanigans just seem to go together) and second with your affectionate ways with good books! Don't worry, I don't think you're weird at all though...just cute!

    And Brazil...oh man, I'm jealous! But I will forgive you for not taking us along if you promise to post lots of pictures :)

  4. great review as always. I'll keep this on my list for when my son is a bit older. He's 6 right now, and gets upset over stories where bad things happen to people's families ... so we'll have to give this book a few more years. But it sounds like the perfect book to teach a child about the true horrors of slavery. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  5. Thanks for posting the six things! Your dog is beautiful and looks like such a sweetheart. Brazil, huh? My sister is in Argentina right now, so she's traveled a little bit in Brazil. I'm green with envy at the both of you. She is trying to convince me to go visit her before she comes back to the states in August, but I can't take hubby (because of his work) and can't go without him. Dangit!

    Ha ha...really, stroke the book? :) Sometimes I'll put the book down and sigh a little in pleasure, but that is too funny. Picked up Light Fantastic last night at the bookstore, but not sure when I'll be able to fit it in...hopefully soon! (Also picked up Lolita, In Cold Blood, and Ender's Game). Yay!!

  6. HA! 'Shenanigans' is a HIlarious word, especally when you're already pregnant, so you're not sure how many more shenanigans you can get up to in your current state.

    I also hug books when I get really excited, not usually during the reading, but before or after. Sometimes they're just so much my best friend, you know?

    Moths are deadly freaky. I don't even want to talk about it.

    I see from your sidebar that you're reading a book of fairy tales! I bought myself a book of fairy tales a few years back, because they're just so hilarious! If your collection includeds 'The Straw, the Coal, and the Bean,' or 'The Mouse, the Bird, and the Sausage,' I demand that you stop what you're doing and read them immediately.

  7. Another great review, Nymeth!!! You know, I always enjoy reading your reviews because not only you describe the book really well but you always give us your honest opinions and views about the book. :)

    The trip sounds exciting! I wish I can go on a vacation!!! And your doggie is adorable!

  8. Aww, such a lovely dog! I love dogs as well (cats too, but we don't have cats anymore). That's a pretty scary experience, being knocked over by your dog! Goodness!

    Enjoy Brazil!

    And I laughed at this part a lot:

    And then I catch myself and glance around surreptitiously to make sure nobody’s seen me.

    It's weird but it's not at the same time. Booklovers get it. Hahaha!

  9. I LOVE your dog! He's so gorgeous.

    And the Brazil sounds amazing! I wish I could go! :)

  10. My husband laughed at me one night when he came to bed and found me asleep cuddling one of my books! Glad I'm not the only one :o)

    Have a great time in Brazil!

  11. I take books off the shelf and stroke the covers and, like you, give them a hug. Glad I'm not the only weird one. LOL.

    I think I've seen To Be a Slave in the library so I'll grab it next time it's there. Thanks for an excellent review.

  12. To Be a Slave definitely sounds like a worthwhile book to read. I think it's good that there are books for children out there that tell the truth as opposed to prettying up history as it was so often done when I was in school.

    Congratulations on the addition to your family! I am so glad you were able to take him in.

    I am glad you are enjoying Tigerheart! Hopefully I will get to it soon too and then we can compare notes. I told my husband I might make him read it too.

    I love that you hug your book when you come across an especially moving passage! I do something similar, only more subtle. I'll close the book and stroke the cover all the while smiling very contentedly. I don't think I've gotten caught yet. :-)

    I hope you are enjoying your weekend!

  13. Thanks for the wonderful review! I added this one to my TBR.

    What's your dog's name? He is so cute, but I do fall in love with every dog I see.

    Have a great time in Brazil!

  14. Aww what a cutie!

    Brazil hey? That will be a fabulous summer - I hope you'll write and tell us all about it.

    Seems your book hugging confession has caused some others to open up too - I admit to closing the book and smiling - haven't got to the stroking or hugging bit yet though - maybe I just need to find THE ONE before I do ;)

  15. This book sounds like a must have for my shop! I'll try and get it!

    I liked your answers especially the one about stroking books :P
    Your new dog is adorable! big and cuddly! how many dogs do you have in total? do you live in the country? I'm jealous.

    Thanks for tagging!! I will definitely play but I don't know when cause this week I will be in Italy and next week my mum will come here but I'll do it at some point!

  16. Chris: I definitely need a break for a while...Bullwhip Days will have to wait until the second half of the year. And yeah, it is too bad :( The worst bit is that I could have gone earlier, but now that I booked my flight I can't change it (stupid restrictive economy fares). When I heard about it I called my boyfriend and said "But we couldn't go anyway, right? Because Paraty is on the other side of the country, right?". A pause, and then the feared word: "Actually..." But I know I'll have a great time anyway. I shall enjoy my shenanigans :D

    Ken: It will be perfect for your niece, yes! A lot of people abandon dogs around here too, and most of the time they just get away with it :(

    Debi: Gah, I hate it when that happens :( Oh god, the thing with the babies...well, both things with the babies. Those were absolutely horrifying too. And yes, this book really should be required reading! lol, shenanigans is popular in your house, eh? I keep saying your family rocks, and now I have a new reason :P Worry not, I will post pictures!

    Heather Johnson: Yes, 6 is a bit young, but in a few years it will definitely be a good book for him to read.

    Trish: A friend of mine lived in Argentina for 6 months, and he got to travel through all of South American. I was in awe of his pictures - especially of Patagonia. What a gorgeous place. That's too bad that you won't be able to visit your sister :( Those are some great purchases! I can't wait t see what you think of them all.

    raych: lol, I laughed so hard at that part of Juno :P And I know, I really do know. The book does have those two fairy tales, and they are two I haven't read before. I will at some point today, I promise!

    Melody: Awww, thank you :) I can say the same about your reviews!

    Lightheaded: The scariest thing was realizing my lungs had simply stopped working. Thankfully it was temporary, but wow. It made me imagine what drowning must be like.

    Andi: Isn't he? :) And I will post pictures so you can all at least come along virtually :P

    Terri b: lol! I'm glad *I'm* not the only one :P

  17. Cath: lol, I do that too :P And sometimes I am tempted to do it at bookstores, which is even worse :P

    Literary Feline: Yes, unfortunately that is done much too often. For example, Portugal, along with Spain, was very much responsible for start of the business of taking African Slaves to American, and yet the version of events I was taught in school still tried to glorify it somehow. I look forward to comparing notes on Tigerheart! I finished it last evening and I enjoyed it a lot :) And I'm relieved that so many of you understand my odd little habit :P

    teddy rose: We're still at that stage where the name is a matter of debate, and each household member calls him a different thing :P I currently call him Churro, Churrilho, Churrasco or Churrinho :P

    Mrs S: I will, I promise. And I'm glad I'm not alone in my habits, even if you haven't gone as far as hugging a book yet. I predict that some day you will :P

    Valentina: I have 3 now, plus 4 cats. I live in the outskirts of the city, in one of those undefined areas where you still see sheep about but where there are already big buildings being constructed. But the house has a large backyard, so the dogs have lots of space. Have a safe journey and enjoy your time with your family! And worry not, there's absolutely no rush.

  18. Congrats on the new addition to the family! And wow, Brazil! I hope you have a fabulous time and take lots of pictures to share with us.
    I'll do the random things but it might take me a few days. :)

  19. haha! i can definitely relate to your book hugging and stroking!

    i do a very similar thing. i hold it out in front of me and look at it with an expression that says something like "i'm so glad i've found you" and then i fondle it. stroke it. turn it over. trace the lines of the pictures on the cover, the writing, slowly page through the first few pages...

    and then just look at it in wonder, thinking how lucky i am to have found it. and how happy i am.

    and then dive back in with a broad grin on my face!

    so i can certainly relate, and i'm very happy to know someone else does this too!

    i like the fact that you hug yours. thats very cute! i must admit, i do feel like hugging it, but there are somethings my wired-in male ego would not seem to allow me to do... ;)

    ah! and brazil. i hate/love that feeling when one goes to a place when someone else is there. especially if you know they might (have) be(en) right around the corner!

  20. That sounds like a really interesting book, definitely one to look out for. I love your dog and that his face is a different colour from his body! I tried to pursuade Alex to let me get a puppy when we were in Wales but he is being stubborn, I think I can wear him down though given more time! Have a great time in Brazil. Oh and I do the same thing when I read a bit I love and walk over to my husband hugging the book and proclaiming how much I adore it!

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Tanabata: I will, I promise! And don't worry, take your time :)

    JP: lol, wired-in male ego :P But stroking and fondling is good (or is it bad? :P) enough!

    Rhinoa: that's one of the characteristic of this breed, black heads and beige bodies. It would be lovely if you had a puppy! Well, Morgaine and Merlin would probably disagree with me :P But yeah, as much as I love cats, there's something to dogs that is just unique. I'm still a cat-person at heart, but dogs are cool in their own way.

  23. Wow, cute dog! That is so great that you guys are able to give him a better life when he was thrown out by his original owners.

    I liked your answers to the question. I have never hugged a book, but it sounds like a holiday. National Hug a Book Day!

  24. What a great dog! He looks so friendly! I love the '6 things about me' meme, too - dead birds always make me think of the bird flu! but they don't creep me out, I just feel sad for them. I have to admit that I like bats, though. Alot. (still like me?)
    - I always touch the texture of the pages and covers. You're not alone! I think I remember even kissing a book once or twice! (I was younger, I swear I was!)
    -'re going to BRAZIL? wow. Oh wow. It sounds fantastic, except for missing Neil by one day!Please send us some pics, but most of all, we'll miss you and hope you have a wonderful time!!! wow. Brazil.

  25. Kim: lol! National Hug a Book Day...I love it :D

    Susan: Yes, I still like you :P I don't mind bats - they're mammals and they're associated with associated with vampires, so I forgive them :P I probably would freak out if one actually flew at me, though. lol, kissing a book...I don't feel alone anymore :P I promise lots of pics of my trip :)

  26. Oh Nymeth your dog is so cute! He seems so sweet. I bet he enjoys his new home too!
    And, how wonderful that you get to spend the summer in Brazil! Yet another country I long to visit one day. You have to promise to post a lot of pics for us :)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.