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...
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To Be a Slave, one of Julius Lester’s first books for young people published by a major publisher, is a milestone. Prior to its publication, few books on the subject that provided such documentation existed for young people. With it, Lester became one of the few African Americans writing for young people in the 1960’s to enjoy mass marketing and high literary acclaim.
In 1968, when To Be a Slave was published, Lester also had published Look Out, Whitey!: Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama!, a history and explication of the Black Power movement in the United States, and was serving as the field secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), an organization about which the Establishment and much of the American public had strong reservations.
Attesting the veracity of the literary community, critical response to To Be a Slave was good. In 1969, it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. Major textbooks on literature for young people and literature reference sources have consistently praised the work. It is often described as forceful, well constructed, and important.
Subsequent works by Lester continue to illuminate the African American experience in varied ways. In Long Journey Home, which tells the stories of six slaves and freedmen, Lester again drew from primary sources, interviews, and such footnotes to history as letters, bills of sale, and marriage registers. Lester’s work for young people conveys much about the African American experience, and his sense of morality speaks to all.
In an educational context, Lester’s To Be a Slave and Long Journey Home correlate beautifully with Paula Fox’s Newbery Medal-winning The Slave Dancer (1973), Feelings’ profoundly moving wordless book The Middle Passage, and the volume of Milton Meltzer’s trilogy In Their Own Words: A History of the American Negro (published in 1964, 1965, and 1967, respectively) that covers the years from 1619 to 1865. Also worthy of note is that Caedmon produced a sound recording derived from To Be a Slave, with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis in the roles of various slaves telling their own stories and Lester himself presenting the narrative framework to make the work whole.