They Found Their Voice Through Their Writing

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When we think of 19th century America, the Civil War and slavery come to mind. American slavery was designed to break the spirits of black people even as they worked to make America a global economic superpower. A key in the oppression of black slaves was the slave-owners’ deliberate attempt to keep their slaves in ignorance. They knew knowledge was power—perhaps the power to take one’s freedom back. It was considered a crime to teach any slave to read or write.

Despite the blatant efforts of their owners, many black Americans still found a way to triumph over their horrific conditions. Free black Americans educated themselves and wrote about their personal experiences as slaves and illuminated the racial violence in the United States. They found their voice by speaking their truth on the written page.

Below are twelve of these 19th century Black American writers and their books. This list was compiled by Hope Wabuke and published in The Root in 2016. If you have read any of these titles, I invite you to share your review and reflections.

1. Clotel: or,The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, by William Wells Brown

It was first published in England in 1853, but 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 Hemings 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 on board the slave ship Creole in 1841.


3. The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts (also known as Hannah Bond)

Discovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Hannah Crafts is the definite first female black American novelist of known record. States 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, too. 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 it is based on Harriet E. Wilson’s real life, she later overcame her harsh childhood and became a spiritualist and an advocate for children’s rights and labor reform. The first novel ever published by a black woman, it was discovered and authenticated by Gates in 1981 and republished it in 1982.


6. The Rise and Progress of the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness, by Lorenzo D. Blackson

First published in 1867, Lorenzo D. Blackson’s novel is characterized as a Christian utopia exploring his deep Christian beliefs. Blending romance, family drama and philosophy, he crafts a picture of a better, more just society.


7. Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way, by Amelia E. Johnson

In 1890 Amelia E. Johnson published the first of her novels, Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way. In an experimental use of textual artifacts within the book, Johnson explores the story of alcoholism and addiction that destroys a family and renders two young children orphans.


8. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, by Frances Harper

A founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Frances Harper was also a lecturer and poet. Here, Harper pens the fictional story of Iola Leroy, a young biracial woman raised as white, only to be sold into slavery after her white father’s death. Iola, however, embraces her blackness and triumphs over adversity. This novel, published in 1892, became one of the best-selling African-American novels of the 19th century.


9. The Hazeley Family, by Amelia E. Johnson

The second of Amelia E. Johnson’s novels, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, again draws heavily on religious and domestic themes that characterized Johnson’s work. Here, Johnson focused less on fictional drama and more on portraying Christian domestic values.


10. The Uncalled, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Although best known for his acclaimed poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar first published The Uncalled, one of his five novels, in 1898. Here we are introduced to Freddie Bent, abandoned in an orphanage after the death of his mother. Adopted by Miss Hester Prime, who vows that young Freddie will become a preacher, Freddie struggles to come of age and gain his independence. Here is a master of language at work.


11. Imperium in Imperio, by Sutton Griggs

Eerily prophetic, Griggs’ novel explores the friendship between two young men: one is biracial and a black power militant along the lines of Malcolm X, while the other is a black man who embraces the more nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. Together the two men form a political movement for black empowerment. This is still a timely, powerful read that had immense success when it was first published in 1899.


12. Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars, by Charles Chestnutt

While Charles Chestnutt’s novel Mandy Oxendine was written in 1897, it was not published until 1997 because of its content: an exploration of two biracial lovers, one who lives in the black community and one who lives in the white community. It was his novel House Behind the Cedars, another story of biracial identity and passing between white and black worlds, that was first published just after the turn of the century in 1900.
 

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Pat Young

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#2

When we think of 19th century America, the Civil War and slavery come to mind. American slavery was designed to break the spirits of black people even as they worked to make America a global economic superpower. A key in the oppression of black slaves was the slave-owners’ deliberate attempt to keep their slaves in ignorance. They knew knowledge was power—perhaps the power to take one’s freedom back. It was considered a crime to teach any slave to read or write.

Despite the blatant efforts of their owners, many black Americans still found a way to triumph over their horrific conditions. Free black Americans educated themselves and wrote about their personal experiences as slaves and illuminated the racial violence in the United States. They found their voice by speaking their truth on the written page.

Below are twelve of these 19th century Black American writers and their books. This list was compiled by Hope Wabuke and published in The Root in 2016. If you have read any of these titles, I invite you to share your review and reflections.

1. Clotel: or,The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, by William Wells Brown

It was first published in England in 1853, but 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 Hemings 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 on board the slave ship Creole in 1841.


3. The Bondwoman’s Narrative, by Hannah Crafts (also known as Hannah Bond)

Discovered by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Hannah Crafts is the definite first female black American novelist of known record. States 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, too. 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 it is based on Harriet E. Wilson’s real life, she later overcame her harsh childhood and became a spiritualist and an advocate for children’s rights and labor reform. The first novel ever published by a black woman, it was discovered and authenticated by Gates in 1981 and republished it in 1982.


6. The Rise and Progress of the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness, by Lorenzo D. Blackson

First published in 1867, Lorenzo D. Blackson’s novel is characterized as a Christian utopia exploring his deep Christian beliefs. Blending romance, family drama and philosophy, he crafts a picture of a better, more just society.


7. Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way, by Amelia E. Johnson

In 1890 Amelia E. Johnson published the first of her novels, Clarence and Corinne, or God’s Way. In an experimental use of textual artifacts within the book, Johnson explores the story of alcoholism and addiction that destroys a family and renders two young children orphans.


8. Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted, by Frances Harper

A founding member of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Frances Harper was also a lecturer and poet. Here, Harper pens the fictional story of Iola Leroy, a young biracial woman raised as white, only to be sold into slavery after her white father’s death. Iola, however, embraces her blackness and triumphs over adversity. This novel, published in 1892, became one of the best-selling African-American novels of the 19th century.


9. The Hazeley Family, by Amelia E. Johnson

The second of Amelia E. Johnson’s novels, published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, again draws heavily on religious and domestic themes that characterized Johnson’s work. Here, Johnson focused less on fictional drama and more on portraying Christian domestic values.


10. The Uncalled, by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Although best known for his acclaimed poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar first published The Uncalled, one of his five novels, in 1898. Here we are introduced to Freddie Bent, abandoned in an orphanage after the death of his mother. Adopted by Miss Hester Prime, who vows that young Freddie will become a preacher, Freddie struggles to come of age and gain his independence. Here is a master of language at work.


11. Imperium in Imperio, by Sutton Griggs

Eerily prophetic, Griggs’ novel explores the friendship between two young men: one is biracial and a black power militant along the lines of Malcolm X, while the other is a black man who embraces the more nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King Jr. Together the two men form a political movement for black empowerment. This is still a timely, powerful read that had immense success when it was first published in 1899.


12. Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars, by Charles Chestnutt

While Charles Chestnutt’s novel Mandy Oxendine was written in 1897, it was not published until 1997 because of its content: an exploration of two biracial lovers, one who lives in the black community and one who lives in the white community. It was his novel House Behind the Cedars, another story of biracial identity and passing between white and black worlds, that was first published just after the turn of the century in 1900.
I have 11 new books to read.
 



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