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Where in the World Is William Wells Brown?
Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and the DNA of African-American Literary History
Afro-Americans, having survived by word of mouth--and made of that process a high art--remain at the mercy of literature and writing; often these have betrayed us. I loved history as a child, until some clear-eyed young Negro pointed out, quite rightly, that there was no place in the American past I could go and be free.
Sherely Anne Williams, Dessa Rose
In 1853 runaway slave William Wells Brown published what is generally held to be the first complete novel by an African American, Clotel; or, the President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States. The novel was published in London, where Brown, technically a fugitive slave, had been effectively trapped by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Dedicated to the cause of abolition, Brown's historical novel posits Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the US, as the father of a beautiful 16-year-old quadroon slave named Clotel, who, along with her 14-year-old sister Althesa, is sold on the auction block for $1,500.
Brown's daring play with American history follows Clotel's fate after she is purchased by Horatio Green, a young white man of means who makes her his concubine and with whom she has a child, a daughter they name Mary. Green's subsequent marriage of convenience to the only daughter of a "popular and [End Page 443] wealthy man" on whom his "political success depended" ultimately results in Clotel's being sold down the river into the deep South, while her daughter is kept behind to wait on the spiteful, wronged wife as her personal slave (85).
After the fashion of Ellen and William Craft, Clotel and a male accomplice, an intelligent, industrious dark-skinned slave named William, escape to the free state of Ohio by posing as a white gentleman and "his" servant. William continues north to Canada, but Clotel heads southeast to Virginia, intent on rescuing her daughter regardless of the personal jeopardy she faces as a runaway slave with a large bounty on her head. Still dressed as a man, she makes it to Richmond but is eventually captured, taken to Washington, D.C., and imprisoned in one of the district's "Negro pens," from which she again escapes, darting past her keeper and running for her life. When slave catchers, aided by unsympathetic onlookers, corner her on Long Bridge, she throws herself into the Potomac, preferring a watery grave to slavery.1 "Thus died Clotel," Brown writes, "the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, a president of the United States; a man distinguished as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the first statesmen of that country" (219-20).2
After Clotel's death, the novel turns its attention to her daughter Mary, who grows up a servant in her father's house. When the man she loves, a light-skinned slave named George Green, is sentenced to death for participating in the Nat Turner slave rebellion, Mary saves his life by changing clothes with him and taking his place in prison. George gets away clean, making it to Canada where he labors day and night to earn the money to buy Mary's freedom, only to learn that for the selflessly heroic act of aiding his escape, Mary was sold to a slave trader like her mother before her.
In keeping with the form and formula of the sentimental novel, Brown ultimately gives Mary a happier fate than her mother. He allows her to be rescued from slavery by a smitten Frenchman, who spirits her away to Europe and marries her, then conveniently dies, leaving the well-fixed widow free to wed George Green, her long-ago love, when they meet again by chance in Dunkirk 10 years later. The novel...