The brilliant and diverse African-American literary scene of the 1800s is ripe for exploration.
When one thinks of 19th century America, slavery and the Civil War come to mind. American slavery, as we know, was a heinous, painful institution characterized by terrifying acts of violence. Whether it was the systematic rape of black women, the sale of black children away from their parents, squalid living conditions or enforced hard labor, slavery was designed to break the spirits of black people who built individual and national white wealth, which quickly made young America a global economic superpower.
A central aspect in the oppression of black slaves was the deliberate mission of white slaveowners to keep their slaves in ignorance. With knowledge, comes power—the power to think, to communicate and to take one’s freedom back by any means necessary. Thus, it was a severe crime to teach any slave to read or write. And yet, black Americans found a way to triumph even in such agonizing conditions.
Although largely ignored in the canon of Western literature, free black Americans educated themselves and published novels as early as 1853. States scholar Dr. Gregg Hecimovich, “William Wells Brown’s novel Clotel was published in London in 1853, making Brown the first African-American novelist.” Wells, like many early black American novelists, drew from his personal experiences of slavery and racial violence in the United States, attempting to process these horrific experiences and regain selfhood through the act of finding his voice and speaking his truth on the page
Now, a new discovery has come to light: the work of black novelist Sarah E. Farro. Farro published her novel, True Love: A Story of English Domestic Life in 1891, but had been widely forgotten untilscholar Gretchen Gerzina, author of the books Black London and Black Victorians/Black Victorianafound a passing mention of Farro in an 1893 edition of the British Daily Telegraph. This chance discovery led Dr. Gerzina on a quest to find out more about Farro’s life and work.
Dr. Gerzina writes of Sarah E. Farro’s novel: “Surely those writers owe her a debt of gratitude, just as we have an obligation to bring her back into the fold of African-American and women novelists and to think about how these discoveries change our views of the African-American experience.”
In celebration of Dr. Gerzina’s discovery, here are 12 other black writers who wrote novels during the 19th century.
1. Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, by William Wells Brown
First published in England in 1853, later versions were published in 1861, 1864 and 1867 under the various titles Miralda: or, The Beautiful Quadroon; A Romance of American Slavery; Founded on Fact, Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States and Clotelle: or, The Colored Heroine. Loosely based on the rape of Sally Hemmings by Thomas Jefferson—and the lives of their children—this novel is unique in its value not just as a historical artifact but also for the quality of its literary craftsmanship. William Wells Brown, a former slave, established himself as an immensely talented writer, creating not just novels but also poetry, essays and plays.
2. The Heroic Slave: A Thrilling Narrative of the Adventures of Madison Washington, by Frederick Douglass
The abolitionist and former slave whose best known literary work is The Narrative of Frederick Douglass also wrote this novella. Published in 1853, it is based on the real-life mutiny led by Madison Washington onboard the slave ship Creole in 1841.
3. The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts (also known as Hannah Bond)
Discovered by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Hannah Crafts is the definite first female black American novelist of known record. States Dr. Hecimovich who helped authenticate the text: “Forensic details related to paper and ink, as well as internal evidence, demonstrate that the novel was begun in 1857 and completed in 1858.” The novel, however, remained unpublished until 2002. Here, Crafts, an escaped slave, writes a fictional account of a young girl who escapes from slavery for freedom in the North, dodging slave catchers and other perilous trials along the way.
4. The Garies and Their Friends, by Frank J. Webb
This 1857 publication is the sprawling, epic story of two mixed race families, one living in the North and one living in the South. Fearing for the safety of her biracial children, black slave Emily convinces Clarence Garie, her white owner and father of her children, to move North as well. However, racial prejudice is just as bad in the North and they must navigate continual violence that threatens their lives.
5. Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, by Harriet E. Wilson
First published in 1859, Our Nig is the story of Frado, an abandoned half-black, half-white girl who grows up as an indentured servant to an abusive white family in 19th century Massachusetts. Although based on Harriet E. Wilson’s real-life, Wilson later overcame her harsh childhood and became Spiritualist and an advocate for children’s rights and labor reform. The first novel ever published by a black woman, Gates discovered and authenticated it in 1981, and republished it in 1982.