To Be a Slave Analysis

Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Decades after its publication in 1968, To Be a Slave remained among the relatively small number of books that draw heavily from primary sources to provide young people with history of the African American experience.

The dedication, a brief note quoting an unnamed former slave, a table of contents, an author’s note, and a prologue precede a text which is so moving that readers who skipped these introductory features will probably be compelled to go back and read them as well. Similarly, the epilogue is also likely to be read and the bibliography studied. All these components contribute greatly to the text itself by providing background, authenticity, and documentation.

In seven chapters, To Be a Slave presents verbatim transcripts of disclosures made by Africans and African Americans who were enslaved in the antebellum South and a few others who were firsthand observers of slavery. All these contributors are specifically identified when possible, immediately after their words are presented. Background information and commentary are offered by Julius Lester and are presented in italics so that they are easily distinguishable from the transcripts. These vivid threads of history are woven into a most revealing tapestry made more compelling by the fact that these are the first-person narratives of minor figures who were, in the view of Lester, the true movers of history, the bedrock of black history—those whose actions are...

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To Be a Slave Setting

The story has no one certain setting since it consists of a series of separate narratives, many of which are attributed to anonymous sources. But because Lester arranges these selections in chronological order, beginning with the initial capture of the slaves and ending with their emancipation, the story begins in Africa in the early seventeenth century, when Europeans are in quest of black people whom they can capture. After a sea voyage to such places as South Carolina or Virginia, the slaves are auctioned and dispersed to various plantations across the South. Lester follows the destiny of his characters as they experience personal upheavals, and as America faces tremendous change through the 1860s and 1870s with the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.

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To Be a Slave Literary Qualities

As Lester explains in an introductory note, To Be a Slave sprang from his research of slave narratives, documented in the nineteenth century by abolitionists, and from interviews with ex-slaves, recorded in the 1930s by members of the Federal Writers' Project. Lester's voice mingles with those of the slaves as his commentary, woven throughout the book, sets the historical context for the narratives. He arranges the stories chronologically, dividing the book into chapters that tell the history of slavery from a black perspective, from the capture of blacks in Africa to their emancipation and continued persecution years later in the United States.

Lester's narration is deliberate and powerful, and his understated style underscores the dramatic effect of the slave narratives. The words of those who actually experienced the anguish of slavery create a vivid, wrenching historical account. These narratives contain most of the book's symbolism and imagery. In the following passage, for example, an ex-slave describes the frustration experienced by newly emancipated slaves—who faced restrictive laws, economic oppression, and the Ku Klux Klan—in terms of a metaphor: Two snakes full of poison...The snake called slavery lay with his head pointed south and the snake called freedom lay with his head pointed north. Both bit the nigger and they was both bad." Lester's own voice never overwhelms such moving statements. He conveys his message through the words...

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To Be a Slave Social Sensitivity

Although To Be a Slave depicts conditions of blacks during a time that has long passed, it raises many questions about the treatment of minorities in contemporary society. To Be a Slave shows the tragic effects that ensue when a society discriminates against people because of race, religion, or gender. To Be a Slave is a cry for equality and justice for all. If the injustices vividly depicted during the time of slavery threaten readers because they parallel injustices committed in modern times, then Lester's themes and techniques have accomplished their purpose.

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To Be a Slave Topics for Discussion

1. What were the most difficult aspects of being a slave, according to Lester?

2. Was Christianity a positive factor in the lives of the slaves? What were the differences between the Christianity preached by the slaves' owners and the religion fashioned by the slaves themselves?

3. What aspects of African culture did the slaves bring to the plantations, and what measures were employed by the slave owners to destroy this influence?

4. What is meant by the expression "Jim Crow"? How does it apply to the period after the emancipation of the slaves?

5. Why did Thomas Jefferson believe blacks were inferior?

6. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) protests flying the Confederate flag or singing "Dixie" because these are symbols of slavery. Explain your position, drawing on what you have learned from reading To Be a Slave.

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To Be a Slave Ideas for Reports and Papers

1. Research the Reconstruction period of American history (the twenty years following the end of the Civil War). Explain its significance, both positive and negative, to blacks in America.

2. Rhody Holsell, a slave in the book, says that if President Lincoln had lived, there would have been no violence perpetrated against blacks after the war. He thinks that Lincoln would have separated blacks from whites and given them their own nation. How do you think that this solution would have worked?

3. Read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and explain what the term "Uncle Tom" means to that book. Thomas Hall, an ex-slave quoted in To Be a Slave says of Stowe, "I didn't like her book and I hate her." Why might Hall have this response to the book?

4. Research and report on how the "underground railroad" functioned.

5. Write a rebuttal to Thomas Jefferson's doctrine of "natural inferiority."

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To Be a Slave For Further Reference

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974. Survey of black autobiography from the slave narratives to modern times. Includes detailed descriptions of the most important autobiographies, including those of Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and George Jackson.

Davis, Charles T., and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Slave's Narrative. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. A useful collection of critical works on the slave narratives as literature and history, written by notable scholars. Includes a chronological list of all published narratives and a bibliography.

Huggins, Nathan I. Key Issues in the Afro-American...

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