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...

(The entire section is 439 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The story has no one certain setting since it consists of a series of separate narratives, many of which are attributed to anonymous sources....

(The entire section is 122 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

As Lester explains in an introductory note, To Be a Slave sprang from his research of slave narratives, documented in the nineteenth...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although To Be a Slave depicts conditions of blacks during a time that has long passed, it raises many questions about the treatment...

(The entire section is 92 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

2. Was Christianity a positive factor in the lives...

(The entire section is 137 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the Reconstruction period of American history (the twenty years following the end of the Civil War). Explain its significance,...

(The entire section is 148 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974. Survey of black autobiography...

(The entire section is 278 words.)