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on April 8, 1999
1968 School Library Journal Best Book of the Year In an intensely personal new introduction written for this thirtieth anniversary edition, Julius Lester states that at age ten, when his father told him his family's history went back to a bill of sale and no further, the words were one of the defining moments of my life. Approximately fifteen years later he began compiling the words of ex-slaves--a good portion of which had never been previously published--and establishing the structure for To Be a Slave. The ease and speed with which this structure came made him realize that this book was one of the things [he] had been put on earth to do. In an equally eloquent, new introductory note Tom Feelings expresses a similar sentiment regarding the personal impact of his work for To Be a Slave and his belief in doing work that mov[es] us so emotionally, it makes all of us feel its truth way down deep inside. For thirty years American readers of all ages and walks of life have been affected by the truth of To Be a Slave, which remains one of the few works to present what it felt like to be slave in America in the words of black men and women who lived it rather than filtered through the eyes of others. Paired with Mr. Lester's historical commentary and powerful and soulful paintings by Mr. Feelings, To Be a Slave makes the clear and moving distinction between the generalizations made about slaves and what the emotional reality was for human beings [whose] condition was slavery. I am grateful to the parents, teachers, librarians, and booksellers who have found [To Be a Slave] to be of value. Most of all I am grateful to all those who have read it, to all those who read it. History is not just facts and events. History is also a pain in the heart, and we repeat history until we are able to make another's pain in the heart our own. -- Julius Lester The truth can stretch children's minds, stimulate their imaginations in a creative way, and strengthen their spirits.
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As noted in the description of this work, "To be A Slave" was a 1969 Newbery Honor Book, An ALA Notable Book, a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year and a Smithsonian Magazine Best Book of the Year. Seldom have I read a book that was actually deserving of these awards more than this work, and in my opinion, so many, many more!

I must note right up front that even though this work was and is targeted for the 9 to 12 age group, it is applicable and fitting for just about any age group over the age of 9. I strongly suggest that this age group, or many in it, may not be ready for this particular read. In my opinion the age grouping probably should start at about 15 or 16 at the earliest. Younger readers should probably have some adult guidance. Folks, we are talking pretty brutal here. Rarely have I read an "adult" work covering this subject which held the dignified impact this book offers. It is profoundly upsetting, and rightfully so. The author, Julius Lester, pulls no punches throughout the entire work and gives his readers a dreadful dose of reality. I must admit that many passages in this work; many of the firsthand accounts (more about that later) of former slaves in the United States, made me literally physically ill. This is a good thing as it is like a cold splash of water (or more accurately...acid), in the face, bring the reader from a compete state of sleep into full and painful wakefulness and awareness.

Many of the stories told here were either suppressed or more or less ignored until the 1930s when the Federal Writers Project was organized. One of their tasks was to interview as many former slaves as possible and record as accurately as possible their story. The author is quick to point out that due to the times, much liberty was taken in rewriting in reference to dialect as it was felt that the average reader simply would not understand the words written and also due to the fact that it was feared that by using the dialect of many individuals interviewed would place in the hand ammunition for those that were trying to prove the inferiority of the Black Race. So sad, but the authors or interviewers did a wonderful job and to a certain extent I must agree with their decision to do this. I have noted that the youth of today have great trouble if reading various dialects and it turns them off a book quite quickly. This is a pity, but we must face the reality of the situation.

This work is a collection of actual interviews with former slaves, not only from the Writer's Project, but documents dating back to the founding of the nation. Most of these interviews and accounts can be found in the Library of Congress. This work covers every aspect of the life of a slave, from their capture in Africa, their trip through the Middle Passage, and then their life of servitude in their new "home." The author addresses the extreme mental and physical cruelty involved, the daily life of a plantation slave, the slave breeding farms of Virginia, the deplorable living condition that the vast majority of these people were forced to live in, the tearing apart of families, diet, clothing, working conditions...and on and on.

I was absolutely delighted in the fact that through this collection of first hand accounts and the authors side comments, that the myth of the "happy darkie" who was content in his or her lot in life and that the vast majority of slaves were quite devoted to their masters. This is a myth that still lingers to this very day in some quarters.

The author is quick to point out that the United States, of all the slave holding countries in the Western Hemisphere, was probably the most brutal and efficient in the effort to stamp out all cultural identity. Various methods were used from the extremely brutal to a rather sophisticated (for that time) brain washing. Religion was used as an effective weapon by the slave holders, which is pretty disgusting when you stop to think of it.

Now readers take warning! There are aspects of this work that are upsetting to the extreme! Accounts recorded during the Middle Passage of babies being thrown over the side of the ship, the deliberate drowning of infants in front of their mothers on Plantations, the tearing apart of families at auction and the sever savagery of the beatings and torture of many of these unfortunate individuals makes for some very grim reading. The simple act of making it through a work day on a typical plantation was an absolute horror. And this went on day after day after day for an entire life time for many of these individuals.

This is classified as a YA but is a rather hardcore YA but that being said, it is probably one of the most useful, effective and truthful books of this genre I have read in years. I cannot imagine a more effective teaching tool. Our country went through two major blights, very dark areas in our history, which are still with us today...slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. We need to be aware of both of these horrors least we forget. Works such as this go along way in the education process and to be quite frank, we need more of this caliber.

This work needs to be at the head of any young persons reading list, and I must say that it should be at the head of any adults list too. I highly recommend this work but do be prepared to be shocked if you have neglected your readings in the past addressing this subject. For the adult reader, I might suggest further reading and the work This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South (Galaxy Books)

Don Blankenship
The Ozarks
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on February 21, 2000
I first read this book when I was in seventh grade. I had been in history classes for five years and untill I began to read this book, I did not know what realy happened. I am now 21 years old and have a even better understanding of the subject, yet I still continue to read this book time and time again. It not only contains a wealth of knowldge, but is brought to you in a way that is understadable. When I first read this I was 13 years old and had a learning disibility. Not only that but I also had Atention Deficit Disorder. I did not read much or want to read much. I first found this book because I had to do a report. It hooked me right away. It is something in the way it is writen and what it is about that even at the tender age of 13 I colud understand and even think about. I recomend that parents let their children experience this book. But only after you have read it your self.
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on February 27, 2007
"Here is a collection of the memories of ex-slaves, ranging in subject from capture in Africa to plantation life; and from early resistance to life after freedom. We learn about the hierarchy of plantation life and come to understand that the black slave fought against enslavement through music, religion--and in every way possible" (from book).

This informational black history book will grab and keep your attention from beginning to end.

The Creative Teacher: Activities for Language Arts (Grades 4 through 8 and Up)
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on November 11, 2012
My 12-year-old son, who is in 7th grade, selected this book from his English teacher's personal class library. It had a huge impact on our African-American son. He as well as his older brother are black and adopted. My wife and I are white. We spent quite a few hours talking about the nature of prejudice and how it manifests in many different ways. I promised "To Be a Slave" was the next one on my list after completing the book I was currently reading. The paradigm for our family is anything goes when it comes to topics we discuss: race, drugs, sex, religion, profanity etc.

Mr. Lester's compilation and descriptions cover the full extent of slavery in America. In their own words, the former slaves describe being abducted from their African homeland; the brutality endured during their arduous trek to North America; the slave auctions; the horrible separation of families to different slave buyers; beatings; plantation life; religious beliefs; Uncle Toms; efforts at resistance; Emancipation and Jim Crow laws. The blunt nature of the stories left a pit in my stomach. Mr. Feelings' accompanying black-&-white drawings add another level of gloom to the work.

Mr. Lester's book is outstanding. It may be tailored for young teens, but the interviews and descriptions supplied by the author are also extremely useful for adults. I seriously question the criteria used for designating certain books as "young reader" material. I read a great deal of nonfiction work and "To Be a Slave" holds up well compared to other books deemed "adult fare." You won't step away from this book without thinking about the darker aspects of the human condition. Educational and riveting stuff packed between this small work that will help anyone understand the true evils of slavery. It's no wonder "this peculiar institution" has left lasting generational scars even up to today.
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on March 9, 2010
A book of letters, personal testimony from slaves, interspersed with editorial comments from the author. The narratives are prefaced with a fascinating note on how sources were obtained, and how that information was used, both before and after the Civil war.
There is nothing more powerful or educational than experiences told in a person's own words. I was often stunned at how effectively the horrors of the slaves' reality were brought home by their words, understated and matter of fact:

One letter told how they had to take their babies to the field with them so they didn't lose time walking back & forth to nurse. All the babies were deposited in a long wooded trough at the end of the field every morning. There was a sudden heavy rain and when the mothers were able to go to the end of the field the trough was filled with water and every baby in it was floating round in the water, drowned. When this story is told, you are able to grasp some of the horror of how uncaring and cruel the situation was...their grief was not only of no concern to the master, but was not allowed, being forced to continue to work as if nothing had happened, any hesitation in work being a serious cause for a brutal whipping..

Over and over again their stories emphasized that they were things, possessions, like a table. Again and again after each account I wondered how a human body and mind could possibly survive having to endure what they had to endure. Imagine having to walk across 2 states in the snow without shoes, sleeping on the ground scarcely clothed.

This book has won numerous children's awards, including "Newberry Honor", however it should be emphasized that this is a book for every age. It touched me profoundly, much as "Night", Elie Wiesel's account of his imprisonment in a concentration camp. I very highly recommend.
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on May 27, 2007
I've been reading about slavery for many years and this book is one of the greatest for young readers. Lester is able to convey what these people were feeling and thinking at the time and after slavery quite well. This is a great read!
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on August 25, 2000
I had to read this book for a college class, and I was really moved by it. It's such a powerful read. This book will give the reader a first hand experience of what it was like to be a slave. What makes this book so good is that it's the words of the slave. It's their stories and their words. The reader will learn how they were beaten and how their families were split up...sometimes for life. If you have a interest in reading about slavery, then you must add this to your collection.
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on September 18, 2005
No single book in children's literature offers such a comprehensive and devastating look at slavery in the US. This book pounds the reader with a tightly knit patchwork of horrifying firsthand testimony, and will stir keen readers to see cultural and psychological residue that many in the African American community have passed down through the generations. As you finish the last testimony in the book, it will make you see that the wounds from slavery are far from healed.

Amazon has listed this book for kids aged 9-12. I would say the majority of kids that age are not mature enough to handle this book.
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on June 13, 2014
To Be A Slave by Julius Lester is a short book using the words of slaves and former slaves to describe the life of human bondage. Everyone understands, more or less, the concept of slavery, but sometimes people are not aware of all that slavery entailed.

Slaves worked six days a week (with Sundays off) and had a week-long holiday at the end of the year. Slaves had to be ready to work by 7am and worked at least 12 hour days, but were sometimes pushed by slave drivers to work until midnight. The South equated their labor system to wage laborers in the north, who also had long work weeks and similar days off.

One might ask how is this different from the unskilled laborers in the north who worked for wages. Read the accounts of the slaves and you will find out. If a laborer had a bad day or arrived late to work, he might get his pay docked. If a slave had a bad day or arrived late to work, he or she would get whipped.

The advocates of slave labor claimed their slaves were happy and healthy. Slaves did sing a lot, but if you listen to the words, they do not paint a happy or satisfied condition. Some of the accounts also point out that the words to songs changed, depending upon who might be listening.

Jackass stamped
Jackass humped
Massa hear slave, you sho' get whipped.

As for the health of the slave, all studies that compare the quality of life for a slave versus a northern wage earner show decidedly that slaves had the more spartan lifestyle, even with layoffs and downtime included. Slaves were given clothes, but of poor quality and hardly sufficient to withstand a summer's labor, although the clothes were expected to last a year. Slaves were provided with food, but not much, and they were often as hungry as the northern tramp. Nor were slaves in theory allowed to have any possessions.

According to Professor David Blight, American slavery was also the only slave system among the five great slave societies where people were born into slavery. Here is an extract from the third lecture of his Open Course on Slavery and Reconstruction: "the other great slave societies in history where the whole social structure of those societies was rooted in slavery, were Ancient Greece and Rome; certainly Brazil by the eighteenth and nineteenth century; the whole of Caribbean--the Great West Indies sugar-producing empires of the French, the British, the Dutch, the Spanish, and a few others--and the American South. There were other localized slave societies... But the five great slave societies were those five. All were highly profitable in their primes. All tended to hinder technological innovation in those societies. All tended to have a high slave-to-free ratio of population. All of those slave societies had a population of slaves that was from one-quarter to one-half, and sometimes more, of the total population. In those slave societies, slaves--as an interest, as an interest--were both a political and a great economic institution that defined ways of life."

By the way, you can listen to that lecture, and all of Professor Blight's lectures for the course on Civil War & Reconstruction, on the internet for free. You won't find that kind of analysis here, because this book is targeted for children. It is short in length (160 pages) and omits mention of the sexual coercion of slave owners on their female slaves that was a part of slave society. The Civil War diarist Mary Chesnut spoke critically of the latter point.

The portrayal of slavery in To Be A Slave is accurate and may illuminate. There are also some references to slave narratives of the 1850s that sound interesting in their own right. Twelve years a Slave by Solomon Northup might be a good book to read on its own. The story by Josiah Henson also sounds interesting, because Henson is a model for Uncle Tom in the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Considering that the book is not very long and it does not take much time to read, this book is also good for a quick review of slavery for someone who is trying to learn about features of the antebellum Southern society. You have to understand slavery to understand the antebellum Southern slave society that Professor Blight spoke of.
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