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.