Slavery: Past and Present, Here and Elsewhere

In the 2020 American election, one state’s residents voted not only on the presidency but on a bill to change a statute, which allowed for people to be enslaved if they had committed a crime.

Apparently a valid question, in 2020–whether slavery is acceptable.

32% of the residents voted to keep it on the books, in this context.

Good news-the legislation shifted with the majority.

Bad news-votes like this are not uncommon (which is why I haven’t mentioned the state specifically) and sometimes, even within the last decade, they go the other way.

Worse news–we are all complicit.

I’ve got 280,898 new reasons to read more books about slavery, historical and contemporary, non-fiction and fiction.

(That’s how many individuals in this particular state think slavery is appropriate in some fashion. But millions of people are supporting the institution of slavery and not necessarily in favour of legislation like this: through the shrimp on their plates, the elements in their mobile devices, the coffee and chocolate consumed ubiquitously, and the throwaway fashion and denim in closets and drawers. These 280,898 people are not alone.)

Over the holidays, I read Kevin Bale’s Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World, which was both fascinating and inspiring.

Colson Whitehead’s novel considers the engine of slavery running beneath many flourishing economies, past and present. I don’t want to broach spoilery territory, but Whitehead’s story has a timeless element that urges readers to peer more closely.

But it’s the work of Angela Davis and bell hooks and Audre Lorde who have influenced me most lastingly. I bought their books off the shelves of feminist bookstores when I was a young reader and their work still stands.

Audre Lorde’s “Learning from the Sixties” offers this series of questions:

“Each one of us here is a link in the connection between antipoor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people. I ask myself as well as each one of you, exactly what alteration in the particular fabric of my everyday life does this connection call for? Survival is not a theory. In what way do I contribute to the subjugation of any part of those who I define as my people? Insight must illuminate the particulars of our lives: who labors to make the bread we waste, or the energy it takes to make nuclear poisons which will not biodegrade for one thousand years; or who goes blind assembling the microtransistors in our inexpensive calculators?”

This year, I’m going to be looking for works that consider the reality and legacy of slavery, in the Americas and globally, and I hope to have 32 books listed below these paragraphs in twelve months’ time.


Elizabeth Alexander’s poems, including Praise Song for the Day (2008)
Afua Cooper’s The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery (2006)
Afua Cooper’s We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up (1994)
Afua Cooper and Wilfried Raussert’s poems and photographs Black Matters (2020)
Michael Fraser’s poetry collection To Greet Yourself Arriving (2016)
Sylvia Hamilton’s poetry collection And I Alone Escaped to Tell You (2014)
Antoinette Nwandu’s play Pass Over (2019)
Olive Senior’s Shell (2007)


Barbara Smucker’s Underground to Canada (1977)
Keisha Bush’s No Heaven for Good Boys (2021)
Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother: A Journey across the Atlantic Slave Route (2005)
Cecily Belle Blain’s Burning Sugar (2020)
Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019)
Andrea Stuart’s Sugar in the Blood (2013)
Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam’s Punching the Air (2020)
John Keene’s Counternarratives (2015)
Ana Isla’s Climate Chaos (2020)
Amelia Pang’s Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of Cheap (2021)