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.
- Penguin Publishing Group
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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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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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.