10 Books About Slavery and Racism

10 Books About Slavery and Racism

I’m not a reader who by nature gravitates towards dark, difficult books. Every time I pick up something that I suspect is going to show me things that I’d rather pretend don’t exist, I do it with reluctance (the other thing I hate as much as the feeling of pain is the feeling of embarrassment, so neither tragedy nor comedy is my natural habitat). But even I realise that only reading about how a gang of precocious, witty teenagers pulls off an impossible heist using magic will in the end not be what I want from reading. I’m therefore always very grateful, when I find devastating books that are also so good that they make it it possible for emotional cowards like me to read them.

Slavery and racism are not fun subjects; they are also subjects I don’t know well. Something needed to be done, and recently I have gone through a few books that I’ve found either extremely moving or enlightening or both. I’m listing them below, in case you find it helpful.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
This was the book that started it all: it wasn’t chronologically the first, but affected me the deepest and I still want to tell everybody that they should read it. Homegoing was on many best-of lists of 2016 and you’ve probably heard of it: an epic story that begins in 18 Century West Africa and ends in contemporary US, following two sisters and their offspring through generations. It covers all the horrors of the slave trade and its legacy, but somehow manages not to be entirely bleak. Don’t be fooled though, it’s a tough read – but also beautiful. I cannot believe it’s a debut: it’s so ambitious and very well written. While I agree that the second half of the book was weaker than the first (s many say), it didn’t change my overall opinion much.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Another book on many best-of lists (and recommended by Obama!), this is in some ways similar to Homegoing. They share the topic of slavery and there are structural similarities, too. Although Homegoing covers a much longer time-span (and larger, there is also a generational aspect to The Underground Railroad. And then there’s the horror of the slaves’ stories – and some hope. Where they differ is the tone. Homegoing is an emotional epic, it’s colourful and intimate. The Underground Railroad is more restrained, maybe even detached. I found it an easier read (although by no means easy), mostly because of this feeling of distance. Both books are masterfully written and meticulously researched. I preferred Homegoing, but would recommend both.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie brings us to the present day US and Nigeria, dissecting topics like racism and immigration with great skill. It’s much less harrowing than the first two books on the list, but can still be an unsettling read. I did not like it quite as much as some other people – although I did like it -, but I found it extremely enlightening for someone who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and has no close black friends. Sometimes it’s not enough to mean well, you also need to be informed to understand and empathise. Adichie is very good at educating and moralising, she is both sincere and (I hope) effective.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Where Adichie lectures, Coates rages – in a very intelligent, devastating manner. Between the World and Me is a collection of essays written to his son, about the black experience, the historical and current fucked-upness of the US when it comes to race. It’s a chilling read and if you’re allergic to any kind of sugar-coating, this is for you. Not all the elements in the book spoke to me equally, but it’s irrelevant, as this isn’t about me. It’s powerful even if you don’t agree with everything.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.
I wonder if Coates was inspired by Baldwin when choosing the form of his book? The Fire Next Time comprises two letters, one of them to Baldwin’s nephew. Written in 1963, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, this is a classic and what a classic this is. Baldwin talks about his growing up in Harlem and through his own life, about race and racism in general. It is as clear-eyed as Coates, but less angry, almost gentle. And it’s written with such insight and eloquence that I wonder how anyone could believe in white superiority after reading this man. Unfortunately, the book is still relevant and highly recommended.

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah.
This memoir by The Daily Show host is a gem. It is funny, it’s terrifying, but mostly it’s just incredible: South African history, Noah’s childhood and his mother’s story make for a very readable mix. Even though it’s the lightest read on the list, it still packs a punch. And in the end, possibly conveys the absurdity of racism better than any of the others.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor.
This may seem like a strange addition, as it’s a small science fiction novella, and not quite in the same league with Baldwin or Gyasi. What SF often does incredibly well, however, is to illustrate how arbitrary it is what we consider normal, desirable or natural. Binti does that, too, and my favourite parts of the text were the ones that described her Himba heritage and the cultural/social set-up of the galaxy in general.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I have only read about 30 pages of this book, but wanted to include it anyway – in case it has slipped your radar somehow. It’s a heavily satirical take on race and slavery that won the 2016 Man Booker Prize. I have a feeling I’m not going to love it – you might, however.

Racism: A Very Short Introduction by Ali Rattansi.
I’m a huge fan of the very short introductions and even though this one isn’t among my favourites, it’s useful. Race is a difficult topic to make sense of and especially if you’re new to it, Rattansi’s book can help. Just don’t expect straightforward answers.

The Fortunes of Africa by Martin Meredith.
Strictly speaking not (only) about slavery or racism, it’s another book I haven’t finished (and maybe will not – I don’t feel too bad about that with big non-fiction books, I sometimes only read chunks). I’m including this in case you want to have a solid historical framework when reading the other books on the list. You could do worse than Meredith.

What is the best thing about race/and or slavery you’ve ever read? And To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t count 🙂


Add yours
  1. 1

    Roots and The color purple were two books I read when I was younger,they were amongst my parents books. I’ve read a few non fiction obviously; lately The good immigrant. And Coates.

    • 2

      I think I will not read anything on this topic for a while now, but all your suggestions will be on my list for the future.

  2. 3

    I will add The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and Small Island by Andrea Levy. Both fiction and both excellent. I live in South Africa and your list reminded me i really need to get off my ass and read Trevor Noahs book.

    • 4

      Thank you for stopping by and commenting! I read Roy so long ago that I only remember liking the book, almost nothing else. Never read Levy, though. Noah’s book is not as profound as some others, but I thought it was unique and wonderful and something that might reach people who’d never read Whitehead.

  3. 5

    Letter from a Birmingham Jail by MLK is powerful as is the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. I read an excerpt of Coates’ book in the Atlantic magazine and was emotionally stirred by it (felt it was universal in its conclusion and implications). I keep forgetting that you have the experience of growing up at the end of the Soviet era and behind the Iron Curtain…
    Do you ever read about this subject matter or is it too close to home and painful?

    • 6

      Thank you for the books, Maya – both unread and now added to the list. Coates’ book is great and pretty much essential reading. Regarding the Soviet Union: I haven’t read that much, to be honest. Not because it’s painful (it is, but not more than many other things that have taken place), more because I’ve been more interested in other stuff. I’m relatively – and I stress the word “relatively” – well informed about USSR, because I’ve studied it at school and it’s still a constant topic in the society. We also have a tendency in Estonia (although probably people elsewhere do it, too) to focus on our own suffering on the expense of others’ and I dislike that.

  4. 7

    I was overwhelmed by the new James Baldwin documentary recently and want to read some of his work, and have also had my eye on Beatty and Coates for a while, so thank you for this timely post. If anyone is interested in earlier writers I can recommend the extraordinary autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, who freed himself from the slave trade (he mainly worked on merchant ships but was also traded as a slave on them) and became an abolitionist in the late-eighteenth century in Britain. He’s deeply compassionate and moving but writes in a rational and logical way (the 18th-century style is a bit hard to get into, but look him up anyway, he’s truly heroic). Also Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – again, an autobiography, this time from the 1850s in America. The way her story explores how religion and law both supported racism and slavery is terrifying. And it continues.

    • 8

      On the list they go. That Baldwin documentary sounds amazing, I’ll have to see if I can get access to it somehow.

Comments are closed.