Outlined are three books I feel are essential to understanding historical grievances that center around the Black Lives Matter movement.

The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade 1440-1870

by Hugh Thomas (1997)


The Slave Trade is not a bedtime read or a book one reads on the train ride to work. In all honesty, I do not think Hugh Thomas ever believed people would read The Slave Tradecover to cover. It is more so a research reference, a book that you skim the index more than the actual pages. If you want learn about the intersections of the Slave Trade, the Spanish Kingdom, and Cuba, The Slave Trade has forty-two pages’ worth of information on the topic. If you need to find what the House of Commons in Great Britain thought of the slave trade, there are over seventy pages of information on the topic.

The language is not overly academic and anyone interested in the topic can pick it up and understand the narrative. Thomas has chosen to organize his work into five different categories, which he calls books. Each book has chapters, totaling at thirty-six. In the introduction Thomas says the research took him over thirty years and sent him to Madrid, Boston, New York, and Cambridge. The sheer time and effort put into the research is amazing enough.

What Thomas does wonderfully is take the Slave Trade out of the North American narrative and look at it from a global perspective. The eleven million people that were captured during the slave trade are given a broad story and traced. And it is important to remember this 11 million is solely people transported in the slave trade between 1492-1870, this number does not count their children who were also born into slavery.

The reason I started the list of with a book on slavery is not because history began with slavery; there are many books that explain pre-slave trade Africa. The reason is, this was a major disruption in the history of Africa, West and Central Africa to be specific. The African Diaspora unlike many other diasporas, is a result of slavery/forced migration. The lands in which they found themselves were never meant to serve the former slaves.  When we see the emergence of a movement like Black Lives Matters, there is certain history that is passed down from generation to generation; the horrors of the Middle Passage journey and the confinement of chattel slavery.  The only value black life had for the global structure during chattel slavery was economical based. Once chattel slavery was outlawed, what worth did black lives have in not just the United States but, globally?

The Wars of Reconstruction: The Brief, Violent History of America’s Most Progressive Era

by Douglass Egerton (2014)

The irony of the title is what drew me to The Wars of Reconstruction, using “violent” and “progressive” in the same sentence like that peaked my curiosity. The title sparked my curiosity but, the prologue drew me in even further. Egerton starts Wars of Reconstruction with telling the story of the fall of Charleston, one of slavery’s hotbeds and a Confederate stronghold. Egerton writes; on March 29th 1865, black Charlestonians took to the streets in the largest parade in the city to date. Second only to the parade that was held after the death of John C. Calhoun, a fierce abolitionist. Black military men marched through the city armed and proud, while citizens dragged a coffin draped with a black cloth with the words “Slavery is Dead” written on it.  A few weeks later the mood would shift because on April 15th 1865, President Lincoln and his plan for Reconstruction would die.

This is where Egerton picks up his narrative, a White House occupied by Andrew Johnson, a former slave owner who over time saw the negative impacts of slavery. The issue was he was sympathetic towards the former Confederate states and made it very easy for readmission to the Union. Reconstruction policies, and racism hidden under the guise of nationalism in southern states. Egerton, makes a point to discuss the 1866 Civil Rights Act which allowed black men in South Carolina and Mississippi to become the majority of registered voters. By 1872, fifteen percent of former Confederate states’ public officials were black. For the Southern elites who never signed a formal surrender after the Civil War this was blasphemy. People who less than ten years ago were not legally people were now combat veterans, police captains, and congressmen.

The Wars of Reconstruction deals with the policies that were promised under a Lincoln administration that came to a halt when Andrew Johnson became president after Lincoln’s assassination. One issue that Egerton narrates is the contra very over the Freedman’s Bureau. This branch of the government was responsible for, not just helping freed blacks after the war, but also poor whites too. Food, housing, medical help, education was all under the Freedman’s Bureau jurisdiction to some degree. Many blacks but, more whites benefited from the Freedman’s Bureau.  The newly readmitted Southern states did not enjoy a federal agency working in their states and pressured congress and President Johnson to disband the organization, which happened in 1872.

The reason I decided to add The Wars of Reconstruction is because at times bad choices by the government are seen a simple mishap and momenst of ignorance. The Wars of Reconstruction proves that racism in the government was a well thought out plan from the local, state, and federal level. It was no accident that legal segregation, separate but equal, and Jim Crow laws swept through the South to maintain a social order similar to the days gone by of slavery.

The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House

by Jesse Holland (2016)

Jesse Holland produced a work in The Invisibles that touches on a part of history that makes many people unconformable, federal government use of slavery. First Lady, Michelle Obama famously stated that she wakes up everyday in a house built by slaves, which is the truth no matter how uncomfortable it may make some people feel. I gave this book special attention because a lot of the research was done in my hometown area, Maryland and D.C.

Holland’s thesis is clear; this is a book about the enslaved people who worked behind the scenes of the President. Expanding on this thesis, Holland makes it clear in the introduction that certain Presidents owned slaves and some did not. One of the most famous or infamous slave owning presidents was Thomas Jefferson. Holland creates a narrative around certain aspects of history, epically the saga between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings that read more like a novel.

One of these stories is the tale of Thomas Jefferson and James Hemings, older brother to Sally Hemings. When Jefferson was elected President, he had the idea he wanted to bring some of his slaves, as the federal government did not provide domestic labor. Jefferson wanted a chef who he trusted and enjoyed, this is where the story gets interesting.

In July 1784, Jefferson took the then enslaved James Hemings with him to France. In France slaves where legally free the moment they stepped on French land and could not be captured in France. Jefferson trusted that Hemings would not flee and sent him on a mission to secure housing for the Jefferson, Hemings, and Jefferson’s entourage. Hemings returned to Jefferson not only completing the mission of finding housing but, also brought Jefferson back his change. While in France Hemings would enjoy French culinary lessons paid for by Jefferson and French language lesson paid for out of his own pocket. In 1789 Hemings became the head chef at Jefferson’s plantation/estate Monticello. In 1793, Hemings negotiated his freedom and Jefferson complied with the stipulations, James Hemings would be free if he trained a replacement. That replacement would be Peter Hemings, James Hemings brother who would serve Jefferson for at least four years, I use the term “serve” loosely.    

At times, one can forget that Jefferson actually owned Peter, Sally, and James Hemings. Holland writes about the special treatment that the entire Hemings family played on Jefferson’s plantation. The Hemings men were allowed to come and go as they pleased but, needed to be available if Jefferson needed them. The Hemings women enjoyed house positions as seamstress and cleaners. It is easy to see Jefferson as a benevolent slaveowner, but it is important to  remember no such thing exists. Jefferson owned the Hemings family, and in terms of sexual relations with Sally Hemings, she legally could no say no. In Jeffersons mind and in the eyes of the law, the Hemings family were property no matter how well Jefferson treated them.

            The Invisibles, is full of intersectional history stories such as this and very well written. Holland gives life and a narrative to an entire part of United States history that is forgotten. There were slaves that gave their life for this country, albeit such a destiny was forced upon them. One can read The Invisibles in less that two weeks if you’re ambitious but, it will be impossible to not highlight interesting facts. The twelve chapters are engaging and by my accounts a true page turner.

Published by Amir Webb