Sunday, September 17, 2017

William Wells Brown: First African American Novelist

William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky in 1814. His mother, known only as "Elizabeth," was the slave of a prominent physician there named Dr. Young. Elizabeth had a total of seven children: Elizabeth, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Solomon, Milford, and William. Bought and sold several times before the age of twenty, William Wells Brown spent much of his young adulthood in St. Louis, where he was forced into work in the slave trade along the Missouri River. Finally in 1834, Brown escaped slavery and headed North. After gaining his freedom, Brown married Elizabeth Schooner and the couple had three children. Between 1834 and 1845, Brown relocated to Buffalo, New York where he served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He worked as a steam boatman on Lake Erie, where he would ferry escaped slaves to Canada (1).

By 1849, Brown traveled abroad to England, where he became a prominent speaker on the issue of Prohibition, and later, abolition. In keeping with the popular moral attitudes of the time, Brown often favored the tactic of moral suasion over violence to change the public's attitude. This approach for Brown was effective to denounce the U.S. definitions of democracy as they pertained to African Americans. He attended the International Peace Congress, bringing his three daughters with him. By 1854, he and his wife had separated, and later divorced: an event that drew some negative attention from critics. Nonetheless, despite his personal difficulties, Brown continued his abolitionist campaigning. He delivered over one thousand anti-slavery speeches and published the first travelogue--and the first novel--to have been published by an African American author. His own narrative of his life in slavery, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave was outsold by only one competitor, Frederick Douglass. A contemporary of Douglass's, the two shared a tense, even rancorous relationship throughout their respective careers (1).

Clotel, Brown's 1854 fictionalized account of the biracial daughter of Thomas Jefferson, is a significant work for a number of reasons. As mentioned above, it is considered the first novel to have been written by an African American. In Clotel, Brown introduces the figure of the 'tragic mulatta/mulatress': a woman who was "distinguished by her beauty, her idealism, her barely traceable African ancestry" who "proves herself an active and combative figure by the end of her story" (317). A marked consequence of the tragic mulatta's social positioning is that her disappointments in life and in love drive her to suicide.

*From Documenting the American South (
One may extrapolate that Brown, among others, engaged such a character to appeal to a broader range of readers that included the civic-minded and reformist society matrons of the North, as did such writers as Harriet Jacobs, to further the cause of abolitionism. The "Tragic Mulatta" exudes the characteristics of physical beauty that is designed to mirror her interior virtue, moral purity, and religious piety. Brown's employment of such a literary tactic, one concludes, is that this figure serves to underscore the multitude of ironies and hypocrisies of the slave trade. One notes this passage from "The Negro Sale" in which Clotel is waiting on the auction block to be sold, that the narrator observes, "There she stood, with a complexion as white as most of those who were waiting with a wish to become her purchasers; her features as finely defined as any of her sex of pure Anglo-Saxon; her long black wavy hair done up in the neatest manner; her form tall and graceful, and her whole appearance indicating one superior to her position" (Brown 329). In such a passage, Brown emphasizes that the woman situated on the auction block is no different in manner, physical aspect, or demeanor, than the daughters of the slave-traders themselves; yet because of her tenuous ties to African slavery, she is reduced to human chattel.

The Tragic Mulatta

The term is associated with the system of concubinage--or 'placage'--in which mixed race women of color would be placed in common-law marriages with males of European descent. Some who were fortunate might be later freed by their male purchasers. Quadroon balls were prevalent across the lower South, but mostly in New Orleans, LA., where the planter aristocracy had thrived well enough to support this system of "placement" (1). The term placage was derived from the French term placer, or 'to place.' Though the system did not last long (only from approximately 1760s to 1803), the system did allow women of mixed parentage to maintain some measure of control over their destinies and economic freedom; however the race- and gender-based exploitation of this tradition were obvious.

In some cases, women involved in placage were able to acquire significant social standing within their respective societies. One such woman was the noted 'voodoo queen' of Louisiana, Marie Leveau.

Despite the occasional success of 'mulatto' and 'quadroon' women who parlayed their circumstances as placees into lucrative careers, the literature that appeared later in the century would lead one to believe that the system was a deleterious one. The figure of the "Tragic Mulatta" was, since Brown, and a recurring theme in African American literary tradition. She reappears in such work as Francis E.W. Harper's Iola Leroy; Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, and in Nella Larsen's novellas Quicksand and Passing; and in Jean Toomer's Cane as an instrumental figure through which the author examines the nature of race and racial construct in the American imaginary. As with many literary tropes that assume the nature of convention, the "Tragic Mulatta" has evolved to convey some or all of the following traits:

-Exceptional beauty
-She suffers early separation from her mother and family
-She is sold to a gentleman, either through slave auction or ‘fancy girl’ ball
-She is abandoned by her purchaser shortly after she gives birth
-She is neither accepted fully by black or white society
-She passes for white for a time, but when her true parentage is revealed, she is disgraced

Other works in popular culture that feature the Tragic Mulatta:
“The Quadroons” (1842), a short story by Lydia Marie Child

“Slavery’s Pleasant Homes” (1843) also by Lydia Marie Child
The Marrow of Tradition a novel by Charles Chesnutt
Clotel: Or, the President’s Daughter, a novel by William Wells Brown
Iola Leroy (1892) a novel by Frances E.W. Harper
The House Behind the Cedars (1900) a novel by Charles Chesnutt
Passing (1929) a novel by Nella Larsen
Light in August (1932) a novel by William Faulkner
Imitation of Life (1933) a novel by Fannie Hurst
“Mulatto” a poem by Langston Hughes
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) a novel by Harper Lee

As we read the excerpted text from Clotel and then other, later works, think about how this figure comments on, critiques, or challenges the contemporary conceptualizations of race--and gender--in 19th century society.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Literature of Slavery and Freedom

"The engendering impulse of African American literature is resistance to human tyranny. The sustaining spirit of African American literature is dedication to human dignity. As resistance to tyranny and dedication to human dignity became increasingly synonymous with the idea of America itself in the latter half of the eighteenth century, early African American writers identified themselves as Americans with a special mission. They would articulate the spiritual and political ideals of America to inspire and justify the struggle of blacks for their birthright as American citizens. They would also demand fidelity to those same ideals from whites whose moral complacency and racial prejudices had blinded them to the obligations of their own heritage" (Gates et al. 151).

In his introduction to "The Literature of Slavery and Freedom," Gates pinpoints many of the key issues facing the earliest African American writers of the eighteenth century, who were courageous enough to commit their stories to the page. During this time, the young nation was gradually becoming unified under the philosophies of the Enlightenment and Christian Humanism, while gathering momentum toward a War for Independence from Britain. Meanwhile, those who had been subjected to chattel slavery were summarily left out of this bid for independence and were denied unanimous recognition of their innate humanity.

This was the task facing the earliest writers of what has now come to be known as the Slave Narrative: the assertion of one's humanity. From the inception of slavery in the Colonies, slaves (and former slaves) were not only discounted from regular citizenship, but mass movements toward Christianizing slaves surged and ebbed due to the lack of consensus as to whether slaves had eternal souls. These twin philosophies of self-determination and independence; and the claim to a soul worth saving were the driving forces behind the early slave narratives of such writers as Olaudah EquianoVenture Smith, Jupiter Hammon, David Walker, and Phyllis Wheatley. Each of these writersto one extent or the other, engages Enlightenment philosophies of self-determination and humanity; or a devotion to his or her Christian faith as an exemplar of one's intrinsic value.

Olaudah Equiano's Narrative, as Smith's recalls the protagonist's early childhood in Africa, tracing his earliest memories of parents, community values and traditions, to the horror of capture and enslavement. Such narratives create an allegory--or signification--of the biblical Eden, and the individual's transition from innocence to experience.

Later narratives that retold the horrors of slavery, such as Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave and William Wells Brown's Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave were published and promoted to advance the cause of the Abolitionist Movement which was framed around Christian principles of morality and righteousness. These later narratives evolved to become identified as 'traditional' slave narratives, because they often bore many of the same conventions. Because the subject of The Narrative of Sojourner Truth was illiterate, her biography was written expressly by an amanuensis, or ghost-writer. Other slave narratives, such as that of Harriet Jacobs, were introduced by an authenticating letter. These authenticating letters were often penned by a person of great stature and influence who was well known within Abolitionist circles, such as Lydia Marie Child, who sponsored Harriet Jacobs.

Of course, the discussion here so far concerns literary slave narratives--those that were written, compiled, and later published by former slaves. The execution of the narrative was not as simple for ex-slaves as it was for white authors, obviously: many who did publish had the good fortune of developing ties with abolitionists in the North, as did Harriet Jacobs and her supportive friend, Lydia Marie Child.


The popular demand for slave narratives grew around the 1830s, as the rise of the Abolitionist Movement demanded these first-hand testimonies of slavery from those who lived it. Narratives written by Jacobs, Douglass, and William Wells Brown evolved as more than mere biography: they became propaganda pieces for the Abolitionist cause

Characteristics of Slave Narratives:

From James Olney's "I was born: Slave Narratives, Their Status as Autobiography and as Literature" and other essays in The Slave's Narrative, ed. Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York, 1985). 

The conventions for slave narratives were so early and so firmly established that one can imagine a sort of master outline drawn from the great narratives and guiding the lesser ones. Such an outline would look something like this

A first sentence beginning, "I was born...," then specifying a place but not a date of birth

The author offers a vague remembrance of his or her parents; usually a white father 

The author (or amanuensis) describes the first whipping received and others that followed; descriptions of particularly brutal whippings involving women

The author recalls an "extraordinarily strong, hardworking slave--often 'pure African'" who refuses whippings

The author describes "the barriers raised against slave literacy and the overwhelming difficulties encountered in learning to read and write"

The author recalls a "Christian" slaveholder and asserts that often self-professed "Christian" slavers were more cruel than those who had no religion

The author describes the food, clothing, housing of slaves and the work they were expected to do. Usually there is a description of the typical slave calendar involving times of work and rest 

The author describes a slave auction, the separation of families, and the horrors of being sold as human chattel 

The author gives an account of patrols and 'slave-catchers'

The author describes the successful escape of a slave to the North, the benevolence of northern abolitionists

The author takes a new name (sometimes one suggested by a white abolitionist) or one that honors a famous figure known for his humanity or bravery

The author recalls his early literacy and conversion to Christianity, citing abolition as the true Christian cause

Excerpted from

Meanwhile, there existed a majority of slaves who, having survived years in bondage, made no move to publish their stories until a group of scholars, aided by grants from the Works Progress Administration, collected and transcribed first-hand accounts from former slaves concerning their lives on the plantation. These transcribed narratives are now bound and held in the Library of Congress. In 2003, HBO featured a documentary, Unchained Memories, in which these narratives came to life through dramatic recitations. Actors such as Roscoe Lee Brown, Robert Guillaume, Jasmine Guy, Oprah Winfrey, and Angela Bassett reenact these narratives, infusing each one with the personality, pathos, anguish, and humanity felt by each of the original narrators. As we watch this documentary, think about how the spoken-word performances of the actors differ from the published, literary narratives we are presently considering. In what ways do the transcribed narratives of illiterate former slaves recall the early vernacular traditions?

The video is available on Youtube: