Many historical fiction authors have confronted our nation’s cruel, inhumane past by crafting books about slavery.
In the early 17th century, Dutch traders first captured Africans for forced labor in tobacco fields and planted the seeds of slavery in America. All Thirteen Colonies legalized slavery, but it was particularly important to the South’s economy. Large cotton plantations below the Maxon-Dixon line used and abused slaves sold through the Atlantic slave trade.
After the bloody Civil War ended in 1865, slavery was formally abolished in the United States. However, slavery is still practiced today with an estimated 30 million living enslaved worldwide.
Books about slavery don’t shy away from this traumatic social justice issue; they follow characters living through its brutal effects. Even in the fiction genre, authors pull our attention and heartstrings by portraying historically accurate accounts on the reality of slavery. Readers connect with dehumanized slaves who are severed from their African homeland and forced into unspeakable acts. Certain scenes can be tough to witness, but books about slavery also celebrate the ingenuity and bravery of slaves who fought for freedom. Back-breaking work and deprivation lead to stories of triumph over great adversity.
Gain a better appreciation for African American history by picking up the following books about slavery.
#1 – The Glory Field
Walter Dean Myers
Spanning nearly 250 years, The Glory Field is an emotionally charged YA novel about the ongoing turmoil of one African American family. The story begins with young Muhammad Bilal who’s captured in Sierra Leone and sent to the Americas on a slave ship. Readers then meet one of Muhammad’s descendants, Lizzy, who works on the Live Oaks plantation in South Carolina. After the Civil War ends, Lizzy’s son Elijah struggles for freedom in Chicago.
#2 – The Confessions of Nat Turner
Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron’s controversial novel tells a first-person narrative about a Black slave named Nat Turner. In 1831, Nat leads a slave revolt that causes the deaths of dozens of white people in Virginia. After capture, he’s urged by a smug attorney, Thomas Gray, to “confess” his crimes. Nat Turner tells his story through flashbacks from a jail cell while awaiting execution.
#3 – The Book of Negroes
Adapted into a television mini-series, The Book of Negroes introduces an 11-year-old Aminata Diallo as she’s captured from her West African village in 1750. She’s shackled aboard a slave ship and sent to a cruel master, Robinson Appleby. But Solomon Lindo, an Indigo grader, helps Aminata escape to New York. There she’s recruited by the Black British Loyalists and makes a tension-filled passage with 1,200 former slaves back to Africa.
#4 – Beloved
Toni Morrison’s spell-binding novel tells the harrowing tale of Sethe, a young mother who escapes slavery at the Sweet Home plantation. After just 28 days of freedom in Ohio, a posse hunts her under the Fugitive Slave Act. Fated for abuse and torture, Sethe kills her two-year old daughter before her capture. But years later when the Civil War ends, the child’s ghost appears to haunt Sethe’s home.
#5 – Nightjohn
One of Gary Paulsen’s most popular books about slavery is Nightjohn. Set in the 1850s on the Waller plantation, this YA novel is narrated by a young female slave named Sarny. She witnesses a scarred man being dragged and beaten in chains. Sarny learns that the man, John, was an escaped slave who returned to teach others to read. John begins teaching Sarny the alphabet, despite threats of dismemberment.
#6 – Copper Sun
Sharon M. Draper
As a National Book Award finalist, Copper Sun is a multi-faceted story painting the shocking reality of the Atlantic slave trade. 15-year-old Amari is happily living in an Ashanti village when slavers invade and murder her family. With her beloved Besa, Amari’s shackled and sent to auction in the Carolinas. Percival Derby purchases her as his son’s 16th birthday present. Amari’s systemically raped and stripped of everything, except hope.
#7 – Roots: The Saga of an American Family
Published in 1976, Roots is perhaps one of the most well-known books about slavery in America. Kunta Kinte, a young Gambian man, is captured and sent to Maryland on a British slave ship. After being bought by John Waller, Kunta tries to escape four times. Hunters eventually cripple him by amputating his right foot. Kunta marries Waller’s cook, Bell, and the saga follows the enslaved lives of their descendants.
#8 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Noted as the 19th century’s second best-selling novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a literary masterpiece centered on Uncle Tom, a long-suffering Black slave. To pay master Shelby’s debt, Tom is sold and sent down the Mississippi River. Thus begins Tom’s plight of being traded to several brutal slave masters. Despite unbearable anguish, he remains dedicated to inspiring fellow slaves and preaching the Word of God.
#9 – Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn gives insights into pre-Civil War culture in the Mississippi River Valley through the eyes of a curious 13-year-old boy. Raised by the town drunk, Huck is placed in Miss Watson’s guardianship. However, his father kidnaps him and takes him to Jackson’s Island. Here Huck is reunited with Watson’s slave, Jim, who has escaped auction. Together the pair venture towards freedom in Illinois.
#10 – Gone With the Wind
Most identify Gone With the Wind for the love story between Rhett and Scarlett, but the Southern fiction novel also offers perspective on slavery. Scarlett O’Hara is the spoiled young daughter of a wealthy slaveholder in Georgia. As Civil War sparks, the plantation’s men rush off to battle. Union soldiers soon loot her home in Sherman’s March to the Sea, leaving Scarlett desperate and penniless.
#11 – Invisible Man
Ralph Ellison’s debut bildungsroman novel introduces a young, nameless Black man whose color renders him invisible. Once his high school’s valedictorian, the narrator has been expelled from his Southern Negro college for showing the reality of Black life to a white trustee. Puzzled, he moves north to New York City to seek truth. He finds a mixed-race “Brotherhood” and joins the fight for equality tracing back to slavery.
#12 – The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman
Ernest J. Gaines
Dramatized on TV by actress Cicely Tyson, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a realistic fiction novel depicting a Black woman who has lived 110 years. Jane was born into slavery on a Louisiana plantation. Orphaned, she works in the Big House until she’s freed under the Emancipation Proclamation. From Ohio to Texas, the story follows Jane’s legendary life through the Black Power movement of the 1960s.
#13 – The Book of Night Women
Though fiction, Marlon James’ novel explores the real, cruel practices of slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation in the 18th century. Lilith, a daring green-eyed orphan, was born into slavery. As she matures, her beauty draws unwanted attention and Lilith must fight off rape. She’s then placed under Homer’s care at the Big House. Here Lilith learns that Homer leads the Night Women, a female slave group plotting revolt.
#14 – Mandingo
Mandingo centers around a fictional Alabama plantation called Falconhurst that’s owned by Warren Maxwell and his son Hammond. The slaves are treated as animals and forced to breed to produce enslaved children for auction. When traveling to his Cousin Beatrix’s plantation, Hammond purchases a virile Mandingo slave named Ganymede. The Maxwells soon capitalize on Mede’s unparalleled strengths by forcing fighting matches and wagering their bets.
#15 – Cane River
Touted among the best books about slavery by Oprah’s Book Club, Cane River follows five generations of African American women. The story begins in 1834 with nine-year-old Suzette, a house servant for a Creole planter. Her life dreams are dashed when a Frenchman makes her his mistress. Suzette’s daughter, Philomene, faces a similar fate in Narcisse Fredieu’s “side family.” But can her light-skinned daughter, Emily, find hope after the Civil War?
#16 – Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons
Belonging to Ann Rinaldi’s Great Episodes series, this historical fiction novel portrays the life of Phillis Wheatley. Born in Senegal, she recounts her capture by African slavers and her horrendous journey on the Middle Passage. In America, Phillis’ is sold to John Wheatley in 1761. The prominent master educates her and encourages her to write. Soon Phillis stuns the nation by becoming the first published Black poet.
#17 – Absalom! Absalom!
Absalom! Absalom! is a Southern Gothic novel focused on Thomas Sutpen, a poor white man from West Virginia. Thomas travels with some slaves to Jefferson, Mississippi, with the goal of gaining wealth. He purchases spacious land from a Native American tribe and erects Sutpen’s Hundred. Soon Thomas Sutpen is married to Ellen Coldfield and a powerful plantation patriarch. But his dynasty could fall into decadence as the Civil War rages.
#18 – The Good Lord Bird
Among the books about slavery to win the National Book Award for Fiction, The Good Lord Bird tells the story of Henry Shackleford, a young slave in the Kansas Territory. One day, Henry accidentally meets the legendary abolitionist John Brown in a tavern. Disguised as a girl, he escapes with Brown’s help. Soon Henry finds himself joining the anti-slavery crusade and beginning the cataclysmic raid on Harpers Ferry.
#19 – Kindred
Octavia E. Butler
Kindred is a wildly popular time-travel tale centered on a young Black writer, Dana, who lives in California in 1976. While celebrating her 26th birthday, Dana’s abruptly snatched and transported back to the Antebellum South. Here she meets her ancestors: a spoiled white slaveholder and his enslaved concubine. Dana’s summoned to save Rufus, the owner’s drowning son. Each time she’s forced to return, the more dangerous her journey becomes.
#20 – The Kitchen House
Unlike most books about slavery, The Kitchen House focuses on a young, white girl named Lavinia who’s orphaned on her voyage from Ireland. She’s sent to a 19th century tobacco plantation in Virginia. Belle, the master’s illegitimate Black daughter, takes her under her wing. Lavinia begins caring for the opium-addicted mistress. She attempts befriending the slaves, but finds her skin color leaves her straddling two different worlds.
#21 – Sacred Hunger
Taking placed in England during the Age of Enlightenment, Sacred Hunger is a historical novel following Matthew Paris, a physician. His wife Ruth died while he was imprisoned for writings contrary to the Bible. Left with nothing, Paris accepts a job on the Liverpool Merchant, a slave ship owned by his uncle William Kemp. But as the ship sets sail with its African cargo, disease strikes and threatens mutiny.
#22 – I Thought My Soul Would Rise and Fly
Within the Dear America series, this YA novel presents the diary of Patsy, a shy 12-year-old slave living in South Carolina in 1865. After teaching herself to read and write, Patsy secretly records her observations of slave life. She offers glimpses into the changing politics as the Civil War ends and Reconstruction begins. Readers watch as Patsy determines what freedom means to her.
#23 – A Respectable Trade
Taking place in Bristol in 1787, A Respectable Trade introduces Frances Scott, a wealthy, well-connected English woman. She agrees to a mutually convenient marriage with a merchant, Josiah Cole. Together they develop a respectable fortune by trading sugar, rum, and slaves. Mehuru, a former priest from Yoruba, is among their newest slaves. Drawn to his warm, caring nature, Frances finds an intimate bond with Mehuru that sparks forbidden love.
#24 – A Million Nightingales
Starting the Rio Seco trilogy, Susan Straight introduces Moinette Antoine, a beautiful, self-taught slave of mixed race. At age 14, she’s taken from her mother at the Bordelons’ sugarcane plantation in New Orleans. Despite escape attempts, Moinette is sold to Laurent de la Rosiére. She becomes pregnant by rape and gives birth to a boy, Jean-Paul. With the help of a lawyer, Julien Antoine, Moinette seeks freedom for her son.
#25 – Our Nig
Harriet E. Wilson
Our Nig beautifully fuses two types of books about slavery: the slave narrative and sentimental novel. Harriet E. Wilson is credited with being the first African American novelist published in North America in 1859. In this landmark work, she portrays Frado, a mulatto girl abandoned by her white mother after her father’s death. Frado grows up enslaved on a plantation in 19th century Massachusetts.
#26 – Property
Named with the “10 best historical novels” by The Observer, Valerie Martin’s writing weaves the story of Manon Gaudet and her servant, Sarah. As the master’s wife, Manon lives on a thriving sugar plantation in Louisiana. She’s been given Sarah as a wedding present, but resentment of the slave soon grows. Sarah has become her husband’s unwilling mistress. Audiences are drawn into a dramatic triangle set against the backdrop of the Civil War.
#27 – I, Dred Scott
Shelia P. Moses
Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia in the late 18th century. Growing up with the master’s family, he traveled to several free Northern states. Reaching adulthood with his wife Harriett, Dred learns that the Missouri Compromise’s stipulations would end his slavery. With abolitionist lawyers, he decides to sue for freedom. What ensues is an 11-year legal struggle with the Supreme Court that’s immortalized in U.S. history.
#28 – Sweetsmoke
Sweetsmoke is a meticulously researched historical mystery novel following the life of Cassius Howard, a secretly literate slave. He’s learned that Emoline, a freed Black woman who served as his mentor, has been murdered. Cassius risks everything, including his life, to uncover the answers of her brutal death and avenge her loss. His investigation leads to Underground Railroad conspirators, Northern spies, and an unlikely friend, Quashee.
#29 – Flash for Freedom!
George MacDonald Fraser
George MacDonald Fraser’s historical series continues with Flash for Freedom! In this fifth book, a game of cards causes Harry Flashman to forfeit his ambition for the House of Commons. Instead, he settles for the West African slave trade under the command of Captain John Charity Spring. Traveling up the Mississippi River, Flashman finds himself as a plantation slave driver and then a slave stealer assisted by Congressman Abraham Lincoln.
#30 – Chains
Laurie Halse Anderson
As the American Revolution begins, 13-year-old slave Isabel is waging her own war for freedom. Upon their master’s death, Isabel and her sister Ruth were promised escape from the brutal bonds of slavery. However, a sudden twist of fate makes them the property of the malicious Lockton family. Isabel connects with a fellow slave, Curzon, who has secret ties with the Patriots. Will she risk becoming a spy to cast off her chains?
These top 30 fiction books about slavery allow readers to view one of America’s most painful periods through the eyes of courageous, inspiring characters seeking to overcome their bondage for liberty.
See also: Top 30 Books About Slavery (Nonfiction)