Until relatively recently, William Wells Brown was remembered primarily for his role as the first published African American novelist, travel writer, and playwright. While this is certainly an astounding accomplishment, especially considering the fact that Brown spent the first twenty years of his life in slavery, he has become increasingly recognized as a remarkable literary figure for more than just his series of “firsts.” As John Ernest observes, “many readers are getting past the sometimes condescending celebration of the obvious and are beginning to discover the William Wells Brown who many had never thought to look for: a talented writer with a sophisticated understanding of the racial politics of literary representation” (xvii). In this edition of My Southern Home, Ernest has made a significant contribution to the ongoing reevaluation of Brown’s work by foregrounding certain problematic qualities within one of Brown’s most perplexing texts, paving the way for future scholarship.
Originally published in 1880, My Southern Home is Brown’s last book and one of several autobiographical works written over the course of his life. In the preface Brown portrays the book as part memoir, part travel narrative, stating, “The earlier incidents were written out from the author’s recollections. The later sketches here given, are the results of recent visits to the South, where the incidents were jotted down at the time of their occurrence, or as they fell from the lips of the narrators” (5). However, as Ernest makes clear in this edition, My Southern Home is a more complicated text than Brown’s preface would suggest.
Throughout his introduction, Ernest is particularly concerned with Brown’s absence from the text. Even in the early chapters, which are allegedly Brown’s recollections of his time spent in slavery, Brown’s involvement in the action of the text is at most peripheral, and he generally chooses to remain an observer rather than a participant. As a result, his racial status is left significantly ambiguous; Ernest notes that, in most of the early chapters, Brown almost never refers to himself, “and when he does, he sounds less like an autobiographical narrator than a sophisticated observer, very much like the many white Americans who journeyed through the South and then published their travel accounts and offered their opinions on ‘the race problem’” (xv). In other words, Brown makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is speaking from a great social distance, and at times he seems to emphasize this distance by identifying with the educated white population. This is perhaps most problematic when it manifests itself in the form of white supremacist rhetoric and racial stereotypes, which Brown often employs. For example, he asserts that “Slavery has had the effect of brightening the mental powers of the negro to a certain extent, especially those brought into close contact with the whites” (30). Elsewhere Brown writes, “History shows that of all races, the African was best adapted to be the ‘hewers [End Page 461] of wood, and drawers of water,” and he goes on to state that “the negro is better adapted to follow than to lead” (71).
Furthermore, although he is quick to emphasize the many shared qualities that existed between slaves and poor white Southerners, Brown’s portrayal of the slaves is often clearly informed by minstrel caricatures. For example, in one chapter Brown tells of a slave named Cato who worked as an assistant to a doctor. When the doctor leaves to attend some of his patients, Cato decides to impersonate a doctor, eventually removing a tooth from a slave suffering from a toothache. However, in what is clearly intended to be a comical moment, Cato removes the wrong tooth, leading to a brawl between the two slaves. This passage presents the slaves as not only ignorant and incompetent but also exceedingly vain. Throughout the exchange, Cato is preoccupied with the image of himself wearing the doctor’s coat, and he is, at multiple times, found staring at himself in the mirror. When he discovers...