Best Novels about Slavery From Both Sides

What do I mean, “slavery from both sides”?  In America, slavery–that “peculiar institution”–was not only a crime perpetrated against a large group of people over hundreds of years, it was also a crime committed by another group of people.  In a very real way it was–and is–two sides of a single horrific coin.  Both sides, whites and African-Americans, must come to a reckoning of what it meant and means to have been victim or victimizer, slave or slave holder.  Because of this white writers, as much as black writers, have an obligation and a responsibility to write about it from their unique perspectives.

Below are some of the novels I found most compelling on the subject from various points of view–both white and black.

1. The Confessions of Nat Turner William Styron

A great and controversial novel—aren’t great novels always controversial?–The Confessions of Nat Turner takes as its starting point the mind of a slave, Nat Turner, as he awaits his execution for leading a failed slave rebellion in 1831. Even when it was published in 1967, the novel inspired a strong backlash from the African-American community, who were upset, in part, because of the portrayal of a black man lusting after a white woman. Written by a Southern white, the novel is a powerful story, powerfully told, one that remains as relevant today as it did when it was first published.

2. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead

The reason I so love this novel is that it seamlessly blends the horrific elements of a realistic portrayal of slavery, with a beautifully rendered fantasy/symbolic element. The two merge flawlessly to form a world that is at once brutal and appalling with another that is highly symbolic, fantastical, and lyrical in its beauty. The most obvious and compelling examples of the latter element is that referred to in the title itself—the mythically depicted underground railroad. Unlike the real one (run by heroes like Harriet Tubman), Whitehead’s symbolic railroad develops on an imaginative and magical level, which suggests the “underground” reality of a slave’s rich psychical and imaginative world.

  1. Beloved, Toni Morrison

In both raw and densely poetical language, Morrison’s novel sets out to shock readers, especially white readers, about the horrors of the South’s “peculiar institution,” as well as the North’s often quiet complicity. It sets up a mythical, almost Sophoclean tragedy: namely, how far will an escaped slave mother go to prevent her child from suffering what she had to. The answer lies at the heart of this powerful novel.

  1. The Known World, Edward P. Jones

This novel takes for its premise the little-known fact that freed slaves in the South sometimes themselves owned slaves. While slavery was and is primarily a white institution, Jones wants to focus on larger questions of human trafficking, human dignity, and the broad culpability of slavery. But what I find most interesting about this novel is that it brings the question of slavery into a modern context, where its exists not just as a historical fact but as a contempory plague that haunts us today. The multiple characters—white and black—force us to question what each of us would do if slavery still existed.

5. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks

What makes this immense novel (768 pages) so engrossing is that we get a very inside view of the great (or demonic—depending on your perspective) figure of John Brown. Told by his son Owen, the novel gives us both a panoramic view of Brown, his vision of slavery, his tumultuous times, and his quest to eradicate slavery by any means, as well as a very intimate portrait of the myth of John Brown as opposed to man and father.