Although this project was motivated by a recent statistic reported from the 2020 election in the United States, I’ve been reading about slavery since I was a kid. But, first, I watched Cicely Tyson in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1974) and A Woman Called Moses (1978) about Harriet Tubman (twice!). Although I was too young to stay awake through a whole episode of the mini-series Roots (1977), I tried (and fell asleep on the couch, every night).

By then, I’d visited Uncle Tom’s Cabin so many times that the visits blurred together, once on a school trip but mostly with family—all before I knew anything about Harriet Beecher Stowe. (Although my mother’s copy of the book came from the museum’s gift shop.) Uncle Tom was a confusing figure for me (as an adult, I see how that could make for a whole ‘nother reading project within a reading project) and I didn’t understand how the man who had lived in the cabin I’d visited was also part of the movie The King and I. (I’m still unclear on this! Heheh)

All of that to say, what I learned about slavery didn’t come from books, not first off. But, eventually, I discovered Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada. Originally published in 1977, it’s also been published around the world, under different titles. It came into being because the author worked as a children’s librarian in Ontario and decided to write the book in response to students’ requests for project research. And, since, some have criticized the caution she exercised in depicting the horrors of slavery; others (like Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes) have noted that it’s written for young readers.

It mustn’t have been very scary, because I was an anxious young reader and I remember staying up late more than once to finish rereading this book, right before bed. (Then again, maybe I stayed up BECAUSE I was scared, and I needed to have the tidy resolution before I went to sleep!)

When I started reading for #280898 in mind, I thought I might go back and reread some favourites on the subject—like Barbara Smucker’s and Lawrence Hill’s—but, instead, I’ve been overwhelmed by new fiction and non-fiction.

Like Keisha Bush’s debut novel No Heaven for Good Boys (2021), which considers the lives of two young boys in Senegal, six-year-old Ibrahimah and his slightly older cousin, Etienne. These Talibé are away from their families, ostensibly to study the Koran with Marabout Ahmed for one year; in reality, they have entered a cruel cycle of begging in the streets by day to support Ahmed’s luxurious lifestyle and servicing his every need and whim by night. (Check out Empire des enfants for more information.) This was all new information to me, and presented in the context of story, I was swept away in these boys’ lives.

While reading Claudia Rankine’s Just Us, I came across this quote from Saidiya Hartman’s memoir, Lose your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route, which succinctly offers another reason for exploring and examining the legacy of slavery:

“If slavery persists as an issue in the political life of black America, it is not because of an antiquarian obsession with bygonedays or the burden of a too-long memory, but because black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery-skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment. I, too, am the afterlife of slavery.”

Cicely Belle Blain’s Burning Sugar (2020) is doing this kind of math too. This is their first collection, presented in three parts: Place, Art, and Child. There’s talk of family history, art and activism, loss and discrimination. They attend Kahlil Joseph’s art exhibit, write verse-letters to MLK and Philando Castile, and refer to other Black artists and thinkers like Faith Ringgold, To-Nehisi Coates and Tracy Chapman. Beneath the surface, the legacy of slavery: in one poem, “we are nothing more than shells trying to fill ourselves with meaning / tears, salty like the waters that brought us here / ships passing in the night we once were” and, in another, “I felt cotton between my bare toes.” (Another work that fits with this project, discussed in the most recent issue of Quarterly Stories—Jacqueline Crooks’ 2018 collection The Ice Migration.)

And Saidiya Hartman’s latest focuses on young women, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019). She was “hungry for images that represented the experiments in freedom that unfolded within slavery’s shadow” and the photographs in the text reminded me of Sebald’s, uncaptioned and striking. She considers how the “plantation extended into the city”. Her short piece musing on the idea of wayward appears more than two hundred pages in, by which time you’ve experience wayward enough times that you wonder at the need for a definition. Then her definition makes you wonder how you did without it. It begins with situating the term etymologically, in the family of “errant, fugitive, recalcitrant, anarchic, willful, reckless, troublesome, riotous, tumultuous, rebellious, and wild” and ends: “It is the untiring practice of trying to live when you were never meant to survive.”

Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire (2013) knits the bygonedays with the present. Her style is immensely readable, occasionally poetic, and she offers succinct explanations of complex matters (from the distinctive features of sugar cane to the reasons that Barbados was the most popular choice for English colonization centuries ago). Although her personal connections to the island are interesting, and the waterfall of ‘greats’ does bring a human side to the history—Sugar in the Blood is a story of global significance. We are reminded that sugar was once “so precious it was bought by the ounce instead of the pound”, that Barbados was the ”first society that was entirely organized around its slave system”, and helped to “invent the concept of ‘whiteness’ and the privileges intrinsically connected with it”.

Punching the Air (2020) by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam (of the Exonerated Five) is a YA verse novel about Amal, who’s wrongly convicted and sentenced at sixteen years old. One of Omar T. Pasha’s illustrations, brushstrokes in the shape of like Africa, underscores Amal’s realization that the doorway out of the courtroom is like the Door of No Return: “It’s where slaves had to go through / to get on a ship sailing to America / It’s where African people lost everything / and stepped out into a future they didn’t know.” The artistic touches in this volume are a pleasure to discover, like the recurring motif of chains (whether the linked arms in a classroom of prisoners who are discovering the essential power of expressing themselves through art or the author’s discovery of literature, “each idea is a link on a chain / that we are breaking / one by one / and two by two”. And I particularly loved sharing in Amal’s discovery of books and stories that would help him break free.

John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015) landed on my stack thanks to the David Naimon “Between the Covers” interview. These stories and pieces recast a few hundred years of history in a few hundred pages and, particularly in the beginning (with works like “An Outtake from the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution”) they felt integrally connected to this reading project. He reminds me of George Saunders (for the sharpness and eye askance, exposing the irony at work) and Clarice Lispector (for some elements of strangeness and a sense of maybe-he’s-too-smart-for-me) and James McBride (for his capacity to situate readers so deftly in other times and places). In “Rivers” he writes: “Yet the mere mention of that boy’s name, one I seldom think about, not even in dreams or nightmares, retrieves the sole two times since those years that I saw his face.” That boy is Huckleberry Finn, and you’ve likely heard a mention of his name, but this is Jim’s story with a grown Huck and a grown Tom, and this is no raft-ride down a waterway.

In Ana Isla’s Climate Crisis, I learned how the indigenous populations in Peru resisted the devastating effects of Pluspetrol’s oil production practices, and how companies like this routinely force these people to work as indentured servants just to continue inhabiting their homelands, while forcing them to contribute to their environment’s degradation. The essay “Indigenous Andoas Uprising focuses on a 2009 judicial case; it’s detailed and occasionally technical, but I focused on the resilience and courage.

Amelia Pang’s Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods (2021) exposes China’s laogai system of labour camps, first opened in the 1930s and still operating as prisons, camps, and various extralegal detention centres. From the building of the Great Wall to the Grand Canal, the legacy of slavery in China is longstanding. Today the residents of these camps include political prisoners, ethnic minorities (like Tibetans, Uyghurs, and Kazakhs), petitioners, migrant workers, juvenile offenders, adult criminals (including petty criminals and sex workers, 14 years of age and older), and practitioners of outlawed religions. In the last decade, The Laogai Research Foundation (no longer in operation) identified more than fourteen hundred camps and prisons in operation, factories producing the cheap giftbags and decorations, household goods and toys, clothing and gadgets. “When we are standing in the familiar space of a store or in front of the gentle glow of a computer screen, we don’t feel the agony of the workers who made our products as deeply as we feel our desires.” Gang rape, 24-hour-long shifts, prolonged and unmitigated exposure to toxic materials, whippings, starvation, water deprivation, organ harvesting: you won’t want to believe it, but nearly fifty pages of supporting documentation demands that you do believe.