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Jesmyn Ward’s Let Us Descend follows a young enslaved woman, Annis, on her harrowing journey from the Carolinian rice fields to a New Orleans slave market and on to a Louisiana sugar plantation. While you may have read about American slavery before, this book is different. As Oprah says, “I promise you this story is unlike anything you’ve ever read about this time in our nation’s history.”
Part of what makes this story so unique is the way Ward weaves in true stories that aren’t told in most history books—from St. Malo’s community of self-emancipated slaves, living as fugitives deep in Louisiana’s swamps, to the Dahomey warrior wives to the spiritual traditions of West Africa and the American South.
As the author explains in the video, she was inspired to write the novel after learning a story she had never heard in history class. On an NPR program about the history of New Orleans—a city Ward knows intimately as a professor of English at Tulane University—the host described how there are only two markers in all of New Orleans to commemorate the sites of former slave auctions, and that one of them is in the wrong location. “I realized that all that history had been erased,” Ward says, and at that moment, the character of Annis was born in her imagination.
Ward spent two and half years researching before she began writing Annis’s story. When she was just a few chapters in, her partner died of acute respiratory distress syndrome—just as Covid was beginning to spread across the United States. Watch the video above to learn how Ward’s personal grief influenced her narrative centered around the collective grief of American slavery.
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