To Be a Slave fills a void in the documentation of American history by providing a concrete illustration of the culture and history of blacks in the Americas, particularly in the United States. The book focuses on the plight of blacks: their brutal capture in Africa, their confined passage to America in slave ships, and their subsequent servitude. Rather than offering a dry summary of these events, Lester brings history to life, presenting the testimony of former slaves who describe their experiences in visceral detail. Because most slaves were illiterate, their stories were passed along orally, but most written historical accounts of slavery ignore this oral tradition, focusing instead on how slavery as an institution affected the white, mainstream society. Hence, Lester fills a historical gap by providing a black perspective on the same situation. The quote from an ex-slave that begins Lester's book indicates the significance of To Be a Slave: "In all the books that you have studied you never have studied Negro history, have you?...If you want Negro history, you will have to get it from somebody who wore the shoe..."

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