Lester’s first trip to Mississippi was in 1964; he stood alone in a field and tried to know what his slave ancestors felt standing there 150 years before. That experience was the genesis of To Be a Slave, Long Journey Home (1972), and This Strange New Feeling (1985). Clearly, these are personal stories for him.
The most moving aspect of the book are the accounts of former slaves. Their narratives are compelling beyond description, impossible to ignore or forget—whether in their own words or those of an abolitionist. There is no fictionalizing. Physical, emotional, and socioeconomic truths are raw; little is spared or softened. Through Lester’s meticulous selection of the former slaves’ narratives, his own commentary, and the artful compression of time, the strong character and resilience of those enslaved is realistically and dramatically shown, as is the willful inhumanity of those who enslaved them.
The accounts relate the slaves’ experiences, from their abduction from Africa through their presence on slave ships, auction blocks, and plantations. They relate their efforts to escape and their experiences with the Civil War, emancipation, and the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the accounts are wrenching: babies drowned by mothers not wanting them enslaved, babies drowned as a result of the greed of plantation owners, beatings, suicides, and brainwashing.
Without mitigating the slaves’ horrors and...
(The entire section is 594 words.)