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Probing the dark side of the US

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Probing the dark side of the US

Alex Haley’s ‘Roots: The Saga Of An American Family’, published in 1976, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Although Haley was blamed for embellishing the truth (he admitted that it was ‘faction’ and not non-fiction) it created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue. The book remains one of the all-time classics of slave literature even today.

The institution of slavery marked America’s landscape for more than 240 years. A nation that prides itself on the ideals of freedom and liberty, tolerated one of the most inhuman acts based on the colour of one’s skin. While the days in which African Americans were enslaved and considered property is long behind us, it is important to read about the practice of slavery to reflect upon and understand not just its impact on the trauma it left in its wake, but also what it means to be human.

Here are some of my favourite narratives that give a complete picture of one of the darkest eras of American history. Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup; Up from Slavery by Booker T Washington; The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois; Harriet Tubman by Ann Petry; 1619 Project; and The Underground Railroad are essential reading in this genre.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe published in 1852 had a profound effect on attitudes toward African Americans and slavery in the U.S., and is said to have “helped lay the groundwork for the American Civil War”. The novel became the second best-selling book of the 19th century after The Bible, although the character ‘Uncle Tom’ gave rise to the term associated with an excessively subservient person.

Who better to explain the lasting scars of slavery than former slaves themselves? Twelve Years a Slave (the story that inspired the Oscar-winning movie) is an 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Northup was born free in New York State but was tricked into going to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He was in bondage for 12 years in Louisiana before he was able to secretly convey his whereabouts to friends and family in New York, who in turn secured his release with the aid of the state. Northup’s account provides extensive details on the slave markets in Washington, DC and New Orleans, and life on major plantations in Louisiana.

Two pioneering African Americans whose books are essential to understand race relations are W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black person to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University, and Booker T. Washington, the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), a historically black college in Alabama. While Du Bois advocated for civil rights and equality, Washington believed that African Americans should focus on building their own communities rather than fighting for political rights.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a Pulitzer-winning alternative-history novel published in 2016. The Underground Railroad was a term used for a clandestine network of people who helped slaves escape to Free States. The novel visualises a network of underground tracks and tunnels that lead to safe houses for the slaves.

The 1619 Project (named after the year 1619 when the first African slaves were brought to the United States) is a New York Times Magazine initiative. Through a series of essays, poems and photographs, the project tries to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the centre of the national narrative.

It is an exceptional feature of the US that it lays itself open to honest probing of its past, however dark it may appear. And what better time to do so than now, when the race divisions are acute and there is an urgent need for healing!

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