Tag Archives: slavery

** Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal

There were many times while I was reading Accounting for Slavery: Masters and Management when I had to take a pause because the discussion was horrifying. Not because the author describes particularly violent incidents, but for exactly the opposite reason: because she discusses the business of slavery, and the management of slaves, as if it were a perfectly legitimate, mundane set of tasks that lend themselves to spreadsheet and pre-printed log books. And we are not talking only about credits and debits, or even records of job assignments. There are special pages for calculations of “capital”, which very much includes human capital. If you must know, old women weren’t worth much in that world…

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** They Were Her Property by Stephanie Jones-Rogers

They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South is a professional historian’s account of the role of women in slavery, concluding with the perhaps obvious statement that they (or at least some of them) were eager and often sophisticated actors in slavery. To make her argument, she cites legal records showing gifts of slaves to women (even girls), lawsuits between wives and husbands for control of slave ownership, and sales records proving that women were active and savvy traders. The details are stomach turning.

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** Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

 

Homegoing is an ambitious novel, blending stories from eight different generations of a family from modern-day Ghana, one branch sold into slavery and ending up in the United States, the other one staying behind. The story is heavily, ponderously articulated around historical themes, and I often wished that it would show more than tell: we readers can easily tell that slavery is a horrible system by reading of the characters’ misadventures; we don’t need an harangue to explain. And why the emphasis on royal roots? The story would have been just as good with non-royals, I think.

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*** Sugar in the Blood by Andrea Stuart

Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire is not just the story of the author’s family, but an ambitious history of the island of Barbados, complete with plantations, immigrants’ stories, both impoverished migrants from England and slaves from Africa, both of which are represented in the author’s genealogical tree,  hurricanes, and the economics of the sugar business that shaped island life. The author does a masterful job of covering a wide range of historical topics in the context of her family and is able to transition gracefully from one to the other. Highly recommended, even if you do not like history!

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The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House is that of a plantation with a “good” master with an unstable wife and a troubled son, who soon enough will take over and create trouble. It also has a large group of devoted slaves who run the place while the master travels, in an uneasy peace with a brutal overseer. Enough cliches for you yet? The only twist is the story is the introduction of an orphan white girl who never seems to grasp the fundamental slave/owner division, marries the troubled son although she could have and should have married someone else, and causes many deaths and much destruction as a result, while she is rescued at every turn by the slaves. Pitiful.

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** American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen

American Uprising tells The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt, per its subtitle, a revolt that took place in Louisiana in 1811, and one that is very little known despite its size. I found the story of the revolt itself and the society in which it took place, a Louisiana very recently purchased from Napoleon, fascinating despite the obvious lack of historical sources that severely restricts the author’s ability to provide details. With that, and even with the gory details of how the insurgents were punished, we are only about midway through the book and the author then embarks on an ambitious survey of how the revolt contributed to the Civil War, and the way Native Americans were treated, and many other historical trends that seem just a tad removed from the revolt itself. I would have prefered a more slender and focused book.

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The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

Do we need The Book of Night Women, in which the slaves speak like this, “All them leave me was me mouth. And me become a good-behaving nigger.”, while the owners use standard English syntax? Do we need another story full of brutal killings, rapes, and marvelously complex torture scenes told in exquisite details? Do we need another story in which slaves use voodoo-like magic or are terrified by the power of those who do? And do we really need another story in which the author, like the rapist-overseer, actually believes that the raped slave will turn around and love the overseer when he starts treating her kindly?

I think not.

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