READ THIS: A Haunting Collection of Eyewitness Accounts of American Slavery

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The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery by Noel Rae

Overlook Press, 592 pp.

Delia Garlic, an enslaved woman on a Virginia plantation, saw the master’s wife using charcoal to blacken her eyebrows, and one day she decided to do the same.  The master’s wife caught her, and screamed at her for mocking her "betters.”  Then she picked up a piece of firewood and hit Garlic over the head with it, knocking the young woman unconscious.

Garlic recalled that horrific incident as an old woman, in the 1930s, talking to an interviewer from the Federal Writers Project, which set out to capture the memories of the nation’s last living former slaves.  Garlic’s recollections are only one of an extraordinary array of first-hand accounts of American slavery -- from enslaved people, masters, slave traders, and reformers, among others -- collected by Noel Rae in his powerful work of history, The Great Stain

There are accounts of the slave trade, and of slave ships’ terrible journeys through the Middle Passage, many of which are difficult to read.  Enslaved people were physically abused in sadistic ways, babies were wrenched from their mothers' arms, and the journey over was so barbaric that many members of the human cargo never made it.  (“The place allotted for the sick Negroes is under the half-deck, where they lie on the bare planks.  By this means those who are emaciated frequently have their skin, and even their flesh, entirely rubbed off by the motion of the ship.”)  There are heroic stories of slaves who fled their servitude, and of ones who resisted.

Many histories have been written of slavery in America, but far too few have let the participants, and particularly the victims, speak so directly for themselves.  Rae has helped to fill that historical vacuum in this important work, and the voices are intense, eloquent, and haunting.