While I love cookbooks, I also enjoy other types of books and want to highlight them on the blog. In fact, I was a Comparative Literature major in undergrad and have been trying to get back into reading for pleasure. Early last year, I created a personal syllabus of books by African-American authors that I wanted to read. The list began with novels written prior to the Civil War, and continued on to the present day. I thought it would be great way to educate myself and immerse myself in Black literature. So let’s get started with three wonderful antebellum novels by Black authors!
- Clotel; Or, The President’s Daughter (1853) // William Wells Brown
“But, sad to say, Jefferson is not the only American statesman who has spoken high-sounding words in favour of freedom, and then left his own children to die slaves.”
Considered the first novel published by an African-American author, Clotel follows the story of two fictional enslaved daughters of President Thomas Jefferson. William Wells Brown, an author and playwright, published the tale in London after fleeing U.S. slavery. He wanted to explore reports that Jefferson had fathered children by Sally Hemings, a woman that he “owned.”
The paradox of owning your own offspring is nearly unthinkable, and yet it occurred regularly within institutionalized slavery. Clotel examines the contradictory and dehumanizing nature of such relationships, and the impact it had on African-Americans, whites, and the resulting mixed raced population. This issue hit close to home for Brown, himself the child of an enslaved woman and a white planter.
2. The Curse of Cast or the Slave Bride (1855) // Julia C. Collins
Considered the first fictional novel published by an African-American woman, The Curse of Caste follows the trials and tribulations of a mixed race mother and daughter in antebellum America. Unfortunately, Julia C. Collins, a school teacher and writer, passed away of tuberculosis before she could complete the work. The published text consists of two alternative endings, one hopeful and the other tragic, composed by the editors.
The book was originally published in installments in an African-American newspaper, The Christian Recorder. Similar to other nineteenth century novels, themes of racial identity, passing, interracial relations, motherless children, and womanhood are explored.
In following the lives of the protagonists, one point is clear: the racist roots of the one drop rule are palpable. Having just a sliver of Black heritage could ultimately be one’s undoing in the Antebellum Era. As if it was an unredeemable stain.
3. The Garies and Their Friends (1857) // Frank J. Webb
The Garies and Their Friends tells the story of two Philadelphia families: the Garies, an interracial couple, and the Ellises, a free Black couple. While the Garies’ mixed-race children decide whether to pass for white, the Ellises’ progeny face blatant anti-Black discrimination. In an increasingly contentious city, a race riot erupts and changes the characters’ lives.
The novel’s focus on free Black communities and Northern racism is particularly noteworthy, especially since Frank J. Webb was a native Philadelphian.
Webb’s mother, Louisa Charlotte Burr, was the illegitimate daughter of Vice President Aaron Burr. His parents participated in the Haitian emigration experiment of 1824, in which free Black people chose to migrate to the First Black Republic. Their hope was to escape endemic American racism, but the movement was ultimately unsuccessful. Webb’s parents returned to the U.S. in 1826, two years before he was born.
I hope you enjoyed this list of antebellum novels by Black authors! Have you read any of these books? Do you have any favorite books from the mid-nineteenth century?