Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Clotel: or, The President's Daughterby William Wells Brown
The first novel published by an African American, Clotel takes up the story, in circulation at the time, that Thomas Jefferson fathered an illegitimate mulatto daughter who was sold into slavery. Powerfully reimagining this story, and weaving together a variety of contemporary source materials, Brown fills the novel with daring escapes and encounters, as well as searing depictions of the American slave trade. An innovative and challenging work of literary invention, Clotel is receiving much renewed attention today.
William Wells Brown, though born into slavery, escaped to become one of the most prominent reformers of the nineteenth century and one of the earliest historians of the black experience. This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition reproduces the first, 1853, edition of Clotel and includes, as did that edition, his autobiographical narrative, "The Life and Escape of William Wells Brown," plus newly written notes.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
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Read an Excerpt
The Negro Sale.
"Why stands she near the auction stand,
That girl so young and fair?
What brings her to this dismal place,
Why stands she weeping there?"
With the growing population of slaves in the Southern States of America,
there is a fearful increase of half whites, most of whose fathers are slaveowners, and their mothers slaves. Society does not frown upon the man who sits with his mulatto child upon his knee, whilst its mother stands a slave behind his chair. The late Henry Clay, some years since, predicted that the abolition of Negro slavery would be brought about by the amalgamation of the races. John Randolph, a distinguished slaveholder of
Virginia, and a prominent statesman, said in a speech in the legislature of his native state, that "the blood of the first American statesmen coursed through the veins of the slave of the South." In all the cities and towns of the slave states, the real Negro, or clear black, does not amount to more than one in every four of the slave population. This fact is, of itself, the best evidence of the degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America.
In all the slave states, the law says:?"Slaves shall be deemed, sold
[held], taken, reputed, and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever. A
slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs. The master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labour. He can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master. The slave is entirely subject to the will of his master, who may correct and chastise him, though not with unusual rigour, or so as to maim and mutilate him, or expose him to the danger of loss of life, or to cause his death. The slave, to remain a slave, must be sensible that there is no appeal from his master." Where the slave is placed by law entirely under the control of the man who claims him, body and soul, as property,
what else could be expected than the most depraved social condition? The marriage relation, the oldest and most sacred institution given to man by his Creator, is unknown and unrecognised in the slave laws of the United
States. Would that we could say, that the moral and religious teaching in the slave states were better than the laws; but, alas! we cannot. A few years since, some slaveholders became a little uneasy in their minds about the rightfulness of permitting slaves to take to themselves husbands and wives, while they still had others living, and applied to their religious teachers for advice; and the following will show how this grave and important subject was treated:?
"Is a servant, whose husband or wife has been sold by his or her master into a distant country, to be permitted to marry again?"
The query was referred to a committee, who made the following report;
which, after discussion, was adopted:?
"That, in view of the circumstances in which servants in this country are placed, the committee are unanimous in the opinion, that it is better to permit servants thus circumstanced to take another husband or wife."
Meet the Author
William Wells Brown (1814–1884) was born a slave, escaped to the North and then to England, and became one of the most prominent abolitionists of his time. During his prolific literary career, Brown was a pioneer in several different genres, including travel writing, fiction, and drama.
M. Giulia Fabi is the author of Passing and the Rise of the African American Novel. She teaches American literature at the University of Ferrara, Italy.
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This book is mostly a political thesis with no backup. It is presented in a disjointed story form seemingly only to make it okay to present information without backing it up.