Books About Slavery - by Dakotah Jennifer
“Tolbert Major woke at dawn on his last day in America.”
Susan Lindsey’s first chapter opens with Tolbert Major, a freed slave, whispering his sons awake. Her recently released book, Liberty Brought Us Here, tells the story of the colonization of Liberia through the story and correspondence of the Major and Harlan families. The book, thoroughly researched through, “…years of digging through academic journals, books, courthouse documents, family records, private collections, archives, old newspapers, and online resources, as well as multiple trips to universities, museums, cemeteries, and dusty attics,” is a nuanced story that history has nearly left behind.
Susan Lindsey’s journey began when she stumbled upon letters from a former slave owner Ben Major to people he had freed for migration to Liberia. “I was stunned to learn that they had corresponded across the Atlantic Ocean for years, and—even more astonishing—that the letters from Africa still existed,” Lindsey wrote. The dichotomy of Ben and Tolbert Major’s relationship sparked her interest. “Their surviving correspondence seems to indicate that Tolbert and the others who went to Liberia respected and perhaps even cared for Ben and his family. Was such a relationship possible between formerly enslaved people and the man who had held them in bondage?” Lindsey asks. And this is a question that we ask ourselves throughout the book, but it is the humanity of the characters— their authenticity and presence in the piece that is unique and expertly done.
Through more than six years of research, Lindsey put together a historical narrative that follows the Majors and Harlan’s in the “colonization” of Liberia. The story is one of freedom, hardship, and a sort of inverted view of colonization. The migration brought disease and battles with indigenous people— all aspects of the migration movement we often don’t hear about— and the same colonialism that affected the black people who migrated is turned around in interesting, untold ways. But through this rare story, Lindsey also emphasized the importance of language in a way that is almost implicitly political in the same way she skillfully infuses humanity into her black characters. “Language changes over time; what is considered correct in one decade may be inappropriate in another. I’ve used 'black people' to refer to people of African descent and avoided 'Negro' or 'colored' except when quoting another source. I’ve avoided 'African American' because one definition for the term is a citizen of the United States who is of African ancestry. Enslaved people were denied citizenship,” Lindsey wrote. “I’ve also avoided terms such as 'natives' and 'savages' to describe the indigenous people of Africa, except when quoting other sources.”
This piece is not only an artful historical narrative, but it is also a political statement in its execution— Lindsey takes a history that is two dimensional and makes it come to life, in a very human way. Even on the very first page of the first chapter, you can feel how human the characters are— characters that are traditionally not portrayed as humans, but property, survivors, bundles of fear and oppression. They feel real and alive, and as people, we could’ve known in a past life, in a way that is rarely executed effectively. Lindsey’s depictions imbue Tolbert, his family, and all of the other people who migrate to Liberia as human beings who are turning a new page— the primitive fear commonly associated with enslavement is barely present, and because of this, the story is richer, more vivid, and wholly free to read.
The piece opens, with a description of Tolbert Major waking up the morning his ship sets sail for Liberia. It’s not only the language and serenity that breaks away from the trope of fear and adrenaline associated with slave narratives, but the drawn-out scene— the time taken with Tolbert and his thoughts, which are not on escaping or dying, and in this way, Lindsey gives humanity to Tolbert and his family— they are like everyone else, waking at dawn, stretching their legs, hoping for a better life. “Ultimately, this is the story of a search for peace, security, and liberty,” Lindsey writes. Somehow, under the surface, Lindsey’s piece becomes an argument for the humanity of enslaved people— all because she depicts them as human beings that found new freedom instead of people growing out of being property. The book is not only a rare, forgotten perspective of history but also an engaging piece of accessible scholarship.
The piece, “Beautifully written and meticulously researched,” as Alan Huffman calls it, is nuanced, poignant, right on time. An entertaining, heartfelt, cleansing, and educational piece.
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