Time's Memory by Julius Lester
Lester is a fantastic author, and this book, with a blending of fantasy elements (based on African spiritual beliefs) and a setting in the late days of slavery in the south, was truly stunning. The book opens from the perspective of a slave ship master who doesn't have the heart for cruelty that his competitors do. A brutal storm is gathering outside the ship when the voice of his deceased wife tells him to promise to rescue one of the slave women when the voyage is done. As soon as he agrees, the winds die down. And Lester moves from there immediately to a next chapter written from the woman Amira's perspective. She is pregnant, carrying a spirit-child who was miraculously conceived from the breath of her dying father and the group's spirit leader. The spirit-child, Ekundayo (Joy out of Sorrow), goes through several transformations, but finally comes to be in the body of a young boy named Nat or Nathaniel, a slave on a plantation in Virginia, and he struggles with what the right way might be to eliminate the insanity of slavery: resistance or violence? Anything but acceptance. "Slavery was a kind of chaos, a confusion of mind which distorted everyone's vision by making skin color an object of worship." (p. 138)
Without giving it all away, it's worth mentioning another moving moment in the narrative, on p. 182, when the plantation owner Samuel tells his wretched story of betraying himself and his beloved to stay in power as a slave owner. After he tells the story to Nathaniel and his guardian Harriet (both slaves), the man says:
"'You may think there is nothing worse than physical slavery, and maybe there isn't. But at this minute, I would swap places with you. The question is: would you swap places with me?'
Neither Harriet nor I spoke, but we didn't have to. Samuel Chelsea saw the pity for him on Harriet's face and the contempt on mine.
'I don't blame you,' Samuel said finally. 'I don't want to be me either.'
The three of us sat in silence for a long while. What could we say to a life that had been lived poorly and without honesty? Samuel Chelsea had failed to be a decent human being, which was a failure of the most elemental kind."
The last we hear of Samuel, he is still scheming, still dishonest, imagining wealthy widows upon whom he could prey next. What Lester does is show the decency and indecency, the kindness and the cruelty, that human visit upon one another for the most flimsy of reasons, skin color. He also gives us glimpses of deep love that defy social strictures around skin color. Lester paints a picture of a kind of strength that considers but then rejects violence for the cycle it creates. Oh, and there's a central love story between Nathaniel and Ellen. It is profoundly touching; the characters come to be separated but, at long last, reunited in their spirits. The epilogue about Lester's dream of African/Dogon spiritual architecture is fascinating too.
Black & White (previously Naughts & Crosses) by Malorie Blackman
Blackman creates a pseudo-British imagined world in which the dark-skinned Crosses rule society, and light-skinned Naughts (meaning zero) or, in derogatory slang, "blankers," were historically slaves and are only beginning to make any civil rights progress. Sephy is the daughter of a wealthy Cross politician, but her best friend, Callum, is a Naught. Callum's mother works for Sephy's mother when the novel opens, and the two have grown up together. Even after Callum's mother is fired, they meet at the beach, and Sephy is thrilled when Callum is one of the few Naughts to pass the entrance exams to attend a Cross school. She's very excited to have him at her school, but in her naivete she fails to see all the forces aligned against them. It takes most of the novel for her to come to accept the cruelties that Callum cannot avoid. Sephy says: "I used to comfort myself with the belief that is was only certain individuals and their peculiar notions that spoiled things for the rest of us. But how many individuals does it take before it's not the individuals who are prejudiced but society itself?" (p. 367)
With a hanging, a kidnapping, alcoholism, and other drama, the latter half of the book has soap-opera potential, but the overall premise makes all of the 489 pages worth it.