Of African-Americans who have written on slavery from the perspective of having been born slaves, lived as slaves, suffered as slaves, and at last escaped from slavery, no one has written more movingly and more persuasively than William Wells Brown (circa 1814–1884), an abolitionist and reformer whose last book, My Southern Home; or, The South and Its People (1880), is a forerunner of W.E.B. Du Bois’s magisterial The Souls of Black Folk (1903).
Less acclaimed than Du Bois and Frederick Douglass, less a rallying iconic figure than Sojourner Truth, Brown would seem to have been a remarkable man. Though he came relatively late to the cultivation of what the nineteenth century called belles lettres, after an activist involvement in the Underground Railroad and the Western New York Anti-Slavery Society, Brown is credited with having written the first African-American novel, Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter (1853); the first African-American travel book, Three Years in Europe (1852); the first African-American drama, The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858); one of the first African-American autobiographies, Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave (1847), which went through numerous American and British editions before 1850 and made its author internationally famous; two volumes of history, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863); and the first military history of African-Americans in the United States, The Negro in the American Rebellion, His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867).
Brown’s most comprehensive African-American history is The Rising Son; or, The Antecedents and Advancements of the Colored Race (1874), containing biographical sketches of more than 110 prominent African-Americans. Yet Brown himself remains relatively unknown to contemporary readers. His listing in the encyclopedic Black Saga: The African American Experience by Charles M. Christian (1995), for example, is minimal, and he isn’t included at all in Gerald Early’s massive two-volume anthology Speech and Power (1992–1993).
Like Clotel, Brown’s bravura mix of reportorial history and romantic fairy tale, Brown’s life story would seem to have been partly invented along mythic lines. The tradition of “authenticating” one’s authority to speak of, and against, slavery obligated the former slave to narrate his or her life in convincing detail; to make one’s experience seem representative, archetypal, dramatic was the goal. To this end Brown provides several versions of his parentage and early life and in successive versions his story became more emblematic. In the first edition of the Narrative, Brown is born of slave parents in 1814 on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky; in the second edition, Brown is stolen as an infant by a slave trader; in the second revised edition, Brown is born of a slave mother and a white slaveholding father, and his “mulatto” mother’s father was “the noted Daniel Boon.” In this way, Brown as abolitionist-author-visionary is aligned with a mythic-historic figure of white America, much like his romantic heroine Clotel, whose alleged father (Thomas Jefferson) is even more elevated.
This claim not merely of white blood, but of aristocratic white blood, is another means of authenticating one’s right to speak intimately of race, with a suggestion too that the figure of mixed-blood ancestry “knows” more than ordinary African-Americans and Caucasians. The most self-aware and idealistic characters in Clotel are “mulatto”; while ordinary black slaves speak a sort of sage, comic dialect (“I don’t like to see dis malgemation of blacks and mulattos, no how”). Clotel, her sister Althesa, and her daughter Mary speak a dialectless, self-consciously literary English reminiscent of the elevated speech of the heroines of best-selling romances by Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth and Susan Warner. (“If the mutual love we have for each other, and the dictates of your own conscience do not cause you to remain my husband, and your affections fall from me, I would not, if I could, hold you by a single fetter,” Clotel tells her lover, who is also her master.)
Moreover, Brown’s aristocratic mulattoes are abolitionists by nature (i.e., by “blood”):
The infusion of Anglo-Saxon with African blood has created an insurrectionary feeling among the slaves of America hitherto unknown. Aware of their blood connection with their owners, these mulattoes labour under the sense of their personal and social injuries; and tolerate, if they do not encourage in themselves, low and vindictive passions.
Yet “low and vindictive passions” are missing from Brown’s mixed-blood characters, who are too genteel (too “white,” too literary) to rise against their oppressors. By contrast, Brown speaks in passing, with obvious admiration, of the martyred insurrectionist Nat Turner (“a full-blooded negro”), and another escaped slave of legend, named Picquilo, who has reverted to African custom in his exile in the Dismal Swamps of Virginia (“a large, tall, full-blooded negro, with a stern and savage countenance; the marks on his face showed that he was from one of the barbarous tribes of Africa, and claimed that country as his native land”). These bold, black negroes may be heroic; but they are not the heroes of William Wells Brown’s terrain.
For the “tragic mulatta” the erotic attractions of a light skin and Caucasian features don’t confer power but constitute a fairy-tale curse of the sort suffered by Cinderella and Snow White:
Every married woman in the far South looks upon her husband as unfaithful, and regards every quadroon servant as a rival…. However painful it was to [Clotel], she was soon seen with her hair cut short as any of the full-blooded negroes in [her master’s house in Vicksburg, Mississippi].
In a surprising alliance, the jealous and vindictive white woman joins forces with her black-skinned female servant to punish Clotel’s daughter, Mary, by forcing her to work bare-headed in the sun and, when the child collapses, allowing her to lie there and “broil.” White mistress and black servant gleefully conspire as in a cruel melodrama:
“[Mary] is lying in the sun, seasoning; she will work better by and by,” replied the mistress. “Dees white niggers always tink dey sef good as white folks,” continued the cook. “Yes, but we will teach them better, won’t we, Dinah?” “Yes, missus, I don’t like dees mularter niggers, no how; dey always want to set day sef up for something big.”
The only violence of which the refined Clotel is capable is finally against herself: fleeing white would-be captors, she throws herself off a bridge into the Potomac, within view of the President’s house; her death is bitterly ironic, emblematic of the betrayal by white patriarchs of their unacknowledged children. Clotel is an American fairy tale in which the royal-blooded Cinderella isn’t claimed by her royal destiny but “deposited” into a beggar’s grave.
Clotel was revised in 1867 by Brown and given a new title, Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, and in this more upbeat, post–Civil War version Clotel escapes from slavery, survives and becomes free, and heads a school for freedmen and -women at the end of the war. It’s the earlier, 1853, edition which has now been reprinted by the Modern Library, with footnotes and commentary and an introduction by the black memoirist Hilton Als notable for its prickly antagonism to his subject. Far from inflating the worth of his assigned text, like most commentators in his position, Als doesn’t disguise his scorn for this “first novel by an African-American”; he dismisses it as trashy, clichéd, and “pornographic,” and compares it to the 1992 TV miniseries Queen, which was based upon an uncompleted biographical story by Alex Haley. (Much of Als’s introduction is about the long-forgotten Queen.) While allowing that Brown’s Narrative is “engaging,” Als also sees in Clotel “a kind of autoerotic writing, in which Brown projects his nobility of purpose, his ‘blacking’ of [Harriet Beecher] Stowe.” It’s a “pornography of self, informed by the props of a most brutal history, both worthy of TV…. Clotel is Brown’s guilty pleasure.”
Provocative as Als’s introduction to Clotel is, his commentary on the novel is debatable. Most readers will find nothing remotely “pornographic” about Brown’s cobbled-together prose; the mild description of the heroine quoted by Als is all there is of eros in the novel, and Brown’s prose seems to be no more “auto-erotic” than Als’s. The flaws of Clotel are those of nineteenth- century romances generally, read in the clinical, critical light of our time in which, as in a photographic negative, the womanly virtues of one era (chastity, piety, self-abnegation, quivering emotion, subordination to males and elders and family, unflagging idealism in the face of tragedy, sympathy, and forgiveness for all) are held up, if at all, only to scorn; while the “bad” womanly traits (pride, self-assertion, sexual autonomy, independence of family, skepticism in the face of received wisdom and custom, etc.) have become virtues. Who could have predicted such a cataclysm in 1853? So, too, the elevated rhetoric of nineteenth-century “good” characters has become unreadable; or if readable, unpalatable. Yet a contemporary reader might still find fascinating those lengthy passages in Clotel in which modestly educated women deliver speeches of the sort William Wells Brown probably delivered to white abolitionist audiences in the North and abroad. Here is eighteen-year-old Georgiana, a white Mississippi parson’s daughter with a dislike of slavery:
We must try the character of slavery, and our duty and regard to it, as we should try any other question of character and duty. To judge justly of the character of anything, we must know what it does. That which is good does good, and that which is evil does evil. And as to duty, God’s designs indicate his claims. That which accomplishes the manifest design of God is right; that which counteracts it, wrong.
And so on, at considerable length.
Yet more fascinating, and far more vividly narrated, are the scenes in Clotel that have nothing to do with romance or rhetoric, but with quotidian life in the slaveholding South. Here, Brown’s prose is more supple, and urgent; there’s an ugly, compelling brief chapter titled “The Negro Chase,” which is about the pursuit of two fugitive slaves by specially trained “negro dogs,” and ends with a laconic account of a lynching in a Natchez newspaper:
…The torches were lighted, and placed in the pile, which soon ignited. [The negro] watched unmoved the curling flame that grew, until it began to entwine itself around and feed upon his body; then he sent forth cries of agony painful to the ear, begging some one to blow his brains out, until the staple with which the chain was fastened to the tree… drew out, and he leaped from the burning pile. At that moment the sharp ringing of several rifles was heard: the body of the negro fell a corpse on the ground. He was picked up by some two or three, and again thrown into the fire, and consumed, not a vestige remaining to show that such a being ever existed.
Worthy of Mark Twain at his most bitterly funny is a scene from the chapter “Life and Escape” in which William Wells Brown, writing of himself in the third person, describes the trickery of slave traders before an auction:
[William] was ordered to shave off the old men’s whiskers, and to pluck out the grey hairs where they were not too numerous; where they were, he colored them with a preparation of blacking with a blacking brush. After having gone through the blacking process the slaves looked ten or fifteen years younger.
Twain in the most inspired satirical pages of Huckleberry Finn couldn’t have outdone this “rare specimen of poetical genius” by a Mississippi parson, which begins:
MY LITTLE NIG.
I have a little nigger, the blackest thing alive,
He’ll be just four years old if he lives till forty-five…
His lips bulge from his countenance—his little ivories shine—
His nose is what we call a little pug, but fashioned very fine:
Although not quite a fairy, he is comely to behold,
And I wouldn’t sell him, ‘pon my word, for a hundred all in gold.
Nor could Edgar Allan Poe in one of his grimly jokey tales have imagined anything more gruesome than this ad from the Natchez Free Trader:
TO PLANTERS AND OTHERS.—Wanted fifty negroes. Any person having sick negroes, considered incurable by their respective physicians,…and wishing to dispose of them, Dr. Stillman will pay cash for negroes affected with scrofula or king’s evil, confirmed hypochondriacism, apoplexy, or diseases of the brain, kidneys, spleen, stomach and intestines, bladder and its appendages, diarrhoea, dysentery, &c. The highest cash price will be paid as above.
The advertiser is a medical school instructor looking for specimens to dissect: “They keep them on hand, and when they need one they bleed him to death.”
However offensive to those sensible people for whom mere lightness of skin and Caucasian features don’t signify a special destiny, whether blessed or doomed, the “tragic” mulatta/mulatto has been irresistible as symbol; the archetype more closely resembles the childlike thinking of fairy tale and myth than the common-sense subtleties of realistic literature. (We know we’re in the realm of myth when heroines are the “fairest” in the land and there are no plain, unspectacular protagonists.)
Though far more realistic than William Wells Brown’s Clotel, Nella Larsen’s Passing, published seventy-six years later, also ends with the falling death of its mulatta figure, the blond, light-skinned, and spectacularly beautiful Clare Kendry.* Where Clotel is a romantic figure, however, Clare Kendry is a complex, convincing woman capable of “passing” in the white, moneyed world (she’s married to a white racist, in fact) yet at ease only in the Negro world she has left behind. It’s Clare’s loneliness and her longing for this world that will destroy her: “You can’t know how in this pale life of mine I am all the time seeing the bright pictures of that other I once thought I was glad to be free of….”
Passing is a meticulously composed Jamesian work in which a self-revealing narrator (herself light-skinned enough to “pass” but remaining in the Negro world) obsesses upon Clare Kendry’s “incredibly beautiful face,” her “ivory” complexion, and “softly chiselled features”; her “pale gold hair” and “magnificent dark, sometimes absolutely black, always luminous” eyes, and the “absolute loveliness” of her being. Yet Clare is more than these superficial attributes, and will die an ambiguous death: a mulatta sacrifice, but not a self-sacrifice. Passing is a shrewdly conceived and finely executed novella that raises questions not only of racial identity in a realistically rendered middle- and upper-middle-class Negro society (in Harlem and Chicago, 1927) but of the murderous rage one woman might feel for another who has “passed” beyond her.
The most notable of “tragic mulatto” figures of twentieth-century American literature is Faulkner’s Joe Christmas of the dithyrambic Light in August (1932), with his heavily symbolic name and ominous “parchment-colored skin.” Unlike Clotel and Clare Kendry, constrained by their sex, Joe Christmas is driven by “the courage of flagged and spurred despair” to commit an irrevocable act of violence. Of “mixed” parentage, Joe Christmas is obsessed with defining himself in terms of race. Living with a woman who resembles an “ebony carving,” he wills himself to become black:
He would do it deliberately, feeling, even watching, his white chest arch deeper and deeper within his ribcage, trying to breathe into himself the dark odor, the dark and inscrutable thinking and being of Negroes, with each suspiration trying to expel from himself the white blood and the white thinking and being. And all the while his nostrils at the odor which he was trying to make his own would whiten and tauten, his whole being writhe and strain with physical outrage and spiritual denial.
In time, Joe Christmas enacts an obscene ritual of denial: the virtual decapitation of his white lover, the spinster Johanna Burden, a daughter of Northern abolitionists. (Joe Christmas’s sexual appropriation of Miss Burden, and his murder of her, might be read as a demonic parody of the desire of the American South to take revenge upon Northern reformers by way of the very beneficiaries of this reform, the disenfranchised Southern Negro.) At the novel’s orgiastic conclusion, Joe Christmas is hunted down by a posse headed by the rabid white racist Percy Grimm, who castrates him (“Now you’ll let white women alone, even in hell”). The confused nature of Joe Christmas’s identity is presented as crude allegory by Faulkner’s spokesman, Gavin Stevens:
…The black blood drove [Christmas] first to the Negro cabin. And then the white blood drove him out of there, as it was the black blood which snatched up the pistol and the white blood which would not let him fire it. And it was the white blood which sent him to the minister…. Then I believe that the white blood deserted him for the moment. Just a second, a flicker, allowing the black to rise in its final moment and make him turn upon that on which he had postulated his hope of salvation. It was the black blood which swept him by his own desire beyond the aid of any man…. And then the black blood failed him again, as it must have in crises all his life.
This certainly makes for painful reading, a doggedly literal Faulknerian prose indistinguishable from self-parody. Perhaps the very attempt to speak in such metaphorical terms of “blood”—“race”—is doomed, no matter the writer’s genius and the ferocity of his vision. Only through the thoughtful depiction of characters in recognizably “real” worlds, with a respect for the myriad possibilities of the individual (in contrast to the allegorical), can the novelist hope to express anything like the complexities and ambiguities, ever-shifting and rarely predictable, of what we presume to call “life” but which is, in fact, a socially determined phenomenon. And when we attempt to enter the nineteenth century, we must learn to decode its language to discern what truths, bitter or enlightening, may be hidden within it.
June 21, 2001
Of interracial parentage (her father was black, from the Virgin Islands, her mother Danish), Nella Larsen (1891– 1964) is the author, in addition to Passing, of the highly regarded short novel Quicksand (1928). One of the most promising writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen grew up in a white world, attended an all-black high school associated with Fisk University, and married Elmer Samuel Imes, a prominent black research physicist. Larsen was the first African-American woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, in 1930, but after a highly publicized divorce and accusations of plagiarism she never published another novel and spent the last twenty years of her life working as a nurse in Manhattan hospitals. ↩