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First African-American Novel Written by Fugitive Slave Resurfaces

Reported by Ashley Naples

It is not a secret that the literary works of many African-American authors, especially those born into slavery, have been lost and/or outright destroyed. The work of Lucy Parsons, a radical activist who was described by Chicago Police (CPD) as “more dangerous than 1,000 rioters” in the 1800s, was seized by CPD and presumably destroyed after she died in a house fire in 1942.

In 2013, a doctoral student discovered unpublished works by Jupiter Hammon, the first published African-American poet. Hammon was born a slave in 1711 and died a slave in 1806. Although his father, who was also a slave, knew how to read and write, it is believed that his slaveowners were the reason why he learned how to read and write himself. They encouraged him to go to school. Lastly, William Wells Brown, author of a novel titled Clotel, was the first African-American to write a novel. When Brown published Clotel in 1853, it was solely distributed in London, where he resided as a fugitive slave at the time. It wasn’t until more than 100 years later that his work reached the United States. Even then, it took several more decades for it to receive the recognition it has today.

Here’s more information about Brown, Clotel, and how the African-American novel almost never received the recognition it deserves:

Perhaps so stridently partisan a novel would have had limited appeal in antebellum America. Intending to shock, Brown made the callous president in the title Thomas Jefferson. More to the point, he made its central character Jefferson’s unacknowledged slave daughter, Clotel, who along with her mother and sister was auctioned off, one by one, in Richmond and sold into the depths of southern slavery. In conceiving this earliest African-American novel, Brown drew on rumors circulating among abolitionists and rife throughout the African-American community about Jefferson’s relations with his slave woman “Sally.” But Brown, unacknowledged son of a white father, would not have needed such rumors to know a thing or two about abandonment by white fathers of black progeny. What made Jefferson special to Brown was that he could be cast as father also of the ill-matched American twins, liberty and slavery. That distinction gave Clotel symbolic heft.

After addressing the British public in 1853, Brown turned back to the American public in the three revised versions of the novel he published over the next 14 years. Each time, he addressed a different audience, recalculating his bearings to keep pace with radical societal shifts brought about by the Civil War and its aftermath. He published the earliest American edition, retitled Miralda, as a weekly serial running from November 1860 to March 1861 in the leading black journal of the time, the New York Weekly Anglo-African. Blackening his central characters and intensifying their racial solidarity, he addressed that version primarily to African American readers — a calculated move that coincided with the events redefining their civic standing as the nation plunged into sectional war.

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